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Speaking of President Obama’s withdrawal plan from Iraq, Paul Jay talks to Gareth Porter, investigative historian and journalist on Iran-Iraq relations. Porter says that in spite of the US efforts to create a US – friendly regime, “Iraq is going to be under a Shiite government which leans more towards Iran than towards the United States. That’s a geopolitical fact that all the US troops in the world are not going to change.”

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network and our series of interviews with Gareth Porter. He’s an investigative historian and journalist, and he’s in our Washington, DC, studio. And I’m Paul Jay, and I’m in a sort of makeshift studio in Maryland. Thank you for joining us again, Gareth.


JAY: You’ve been suggesting in the earlier parts of the interview that there are sections of the military who are for staying not just to 2011 but perhaps even further, and I’m wondering why they want to stay. There’s going to be enormous pressure on the military to move troops into Afghanistan, unless there’s a major shift in the Afghan policy and they decide not to go in a much bigger way. So what’s in it for the military to stay in Iraq any longer than they have to?

PORTER: It’s worthwhile to look at that question at two different levels. At the level of personally of the two field commanders in question, General Odierno and General Petraeus, you have to see that there is some difference between them. But General Odierno, first of all, has no interest in Afghanistan. That’s not his concern. So he wants to maximize troop strength in Iraq because that’s his overwatch and he wants to have troops there for as long as possible, because that’s a measure of his clout and his success. General Petraeus, on the other hand, is concerned about Afghanistan because he’s head of CENTCOM and that is within his responsibility. But on the other hand, you have to realize that the situation in Afghanistan is so bad that there is a very good chance that anything that would be done by the US military in Afghanistan would be unsuccessful. And therefore I think Petraeus has to regard Afghanistan as a very dodgy deal in terms of military intervention. And therefore he is also concerned about his legacy in Iraq. After all, he’s identified with the idea of the surge and the alleged success that he achieved in Iraq, and he wants to see that preserved, and he wants to have, therefore, the longest possible US military occupation of the country and the longest US combat role in that country as possible.

JAY: One of the factors for the stabilization or instability of Iraq, according to, certainly, Petraeus and others, is the role of Iran. They’ve tried to accuse Iran of deliberately destabilizing Iraq, although when Petraeus spoke before Congress, he actually said that there’s a lot of interest in Iran to a stable Iraq. And the whole issue of involving Iran in the Iraq strategy is also part of something Obama said in his speech, where he talked about the importance of regional politics. And here’s what he had to say.


BARACK OBAMA, US PRESIDENT: That leads me to the third part of our strategy: comprehensive American engagement across the region. The future of Iraq is inseparable from the future of the broader Middle East, so we must work with our friends and partners to establish a new framework that advances Iraq’s security and the region’s. It’s time for Iraq to be a full partner in regional dialog, and for Iraq’s neighbors to establish productive and normalized relations with Iraq. And going forward, the United States will pursue principled and sustained engagement with all of the nations in the region. And that, by the way, will include Iran and Syria.


JAY: So, Gareth, is this not a sensible thing on the part of President Obama, to try to have a regional solution to Iraq that involves Iran and Syria?

PORTER: Well, of course he has to have the cooperation of Iran and Syria. This is nothing new, of course. This has been done since at least 2006, with the Bush administration having a series of talks with Iran about Iraq. And, you know, the fact is that the Iranians have corroborated not with the United States so much but with the al-Maliki regime, which clearly is the Iranian main ally in Iraq and the main interest that Iran has in Iraq. And, therefore, there was never any question about Iran doing anything that would destabilize the al-Maliki regime or the Iraqi army and security services. What the Iranians did in 2007 and again in 2008 was to put pressure on the Shiite leadership, specifically on Muqtada al-Sadr, to declare a unilateral ceasefire in mid-2007, which applied both to the United States’ troops and to the troops of the Shiite militias who were ranged against Muqtada al-Sadr’s troops and the Iraqi government. And then, in 2008, when the Shiite militias, the Jaish al Mahdi, were again on the counteroffensive, against, this time, the Iraqi military, which had attacked in Basra, the Iranians intervened specifically to get a ceasefire and to get the Jaish al Mahdi to stand down in Basra. The same thing happened again in Baghdad later in the year.

JAY: Gareth, doesn’t what he’s suggesting here suggest that there might even be a regional conference called, where you would have Iran and Syria at the table, and that they’re looking for a kind of grand resolution, both with Iran and with the Iraq situation? And doesn’t that sound like a shift, certainly, from Bush policy?

PORTER: That’s an idea that would have been great in 2005. It would have been a really interesting and creative and innovative, perhaps successful idea in 2005. This is 2009, and I think, really, history has bypassed that idea because of the Iranian policy that’s already been carried out. I mean, the Iranians have already done what the United States wants them to do. And therefore it seems to me that this is really a bit extraneous to the real situation on the ground in Iraq. It strikes me now as something that is a flourish that has more to do with sort of declaratory policy and making it look like the United States is doing something diplomatically on Iraq than really affecting the situation on the ground. I mean, the fact is that the Sunnis are going to do what they’re going to do, regardless of what Iran or Syria decides. They have the support of the Saudis. They have the financial support of the Saudis. They’re well armed. They could carry out a war whenever they deem it desirable or necessary. And, as I say, that’s probably going to happen when the United States finally withdraws its troops in 2011, should it do so. So I’m not that convinced that a regional approach at this point on Iraq is really going to make that much difference in the situation on the ground.

JAY: But doesn’t this come down to that, one way or the other, the United States really can’t leave without leaving behind some kind of relatively stable political structure that’s favorable to US plans for the Middle East? They can’t leave behind an Iraq that’s going to become another anti-American state.

PORTER: But that’s not the issue, whether it becomes an anti-American state. I mean, the Sunnis cannot take power in Iraq. That is not going to happen. They are not powerful enough to take power. The last time that that had any credibility was in 2005. The Shia militias defeated the Sunnis in the battle of Baghdad, and ever since then the Sunnis have understood that they’re not going to be able to take power.

JAY: There are certainly Shias that would like to create a state that is not under the American suzerainty, under American control, whether it’s Sadr or others.

PORTER: Well, Iraq is not going to be under American suzerainty. It’s not today, and it’s not going to be in the future. Iraq is going to be under a Shiite government which leans more towards Iran than towards the United States. That’s a geopolitical fact that all the US troops in the world are not going to change. And therefore what I think is likely to happen is that Obama will carry out these diplomatic moves, perhaps have a conference and set up some sort of structure to make it look like he has accomplished something that he really hasn’t accomplished.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Gareth.

PORTER: Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Gareth Porter is a historian and investigative journalist on US foreign and military policy analyst. He writes regularly for Inter Press Service on US policy towards Iraq and Iran. Author of four books, the latest of which is Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam.