In a move apparently intended to pre-empt Sadrist criticism, State of Law today officially declared it is against any prolongation of the US presence in Iraq after 2011.
State of Law is the Shii party that Iraqi PM Nuri al-Maliki leads, and is the single largest party in the Iraqi parliament. And the Sadrists, of course, have made it abundantly clear that they're opposed to any extension of the US military prresence.
Obviously, this will not sit well with the Pentagon, especially with departing SecDef Robert Gates or his successor, Leon Panetta, who testified before Congress only days ago that he was confident that the Iraqi government was going to ask the US to stay on.
This also may not sit well with Maliki's allies among the Kurds' leadership, who have been the strongest supporters of both the US invasion in 2003 and the continuation of the US presence. And this at a time when the Kurds are on the brink of enjoying an oil boom.
Meanwhile, another insurgent attack today in Diyala province (at Baquba) killed several Iraqis - and the US announced the deaths of 2 more US soldiers in Iraq (and this on the heels of the attack - now claimed by a Shii militia - that killed 5 US troops in Baghdad several days ago).
And as all of this plays out, remember that Syria, next door, is being rocked by violence that may be devolving into a sectarian war pitting Syria's Sunni Arab majority (with Sunni Arabs making up the bulk of the army's rank and file) against minorities, the Alawi especially. The al-Asad ruling family are Alawi, as are some of the army's elite units (one of which is led by President Bashar al-Asad's brother Maher). Many see the Alawi as offshoots of the Shii branch of Islam, and strictly religious Sunni tend to view the Alawi - and the Shia - as heretics. If the violence in Syria (which is starting to take on the character of a civil war) worsens and spreads (as seems to be happening even today) and takes on the character of a Sunni vs. Shia (and other minorities, including Christians) war, one wonders if Iraq's Sunni might be drawn in - or if Iraqi Sunni Arab refugees (who are aplenty in Damascus) might play a role. Indeed, Anthony Shadid's latest for the NYT reports Syria forces moving east toward the Iraqi border:
Meanwhile, as many as 7000 refugees from Syria have fled into Turkey, whose newly re-elected leader, Recep Erdogan, has become very critical of how Bashar al-Asad's government has been dealing with the volatile situation in Syria. And, notably, the most recent crackdowns by the Syrian military have come in Syria's northern border area with Turkey. At some point, Erdogan will need to call in the Turkish military simply as crowd control for the refugees, who are getting some help from the Turkish authorities but are nonetheless living in horrible conditions.
Activists and residents said tanks and soldiers were also moving east toward Deir al-Zour and Albu Kamal, a region near the Iraqi border dominated by extended clans. Televised footage showed a handful of tanks on a main highway leading to the city, but some activists said the numbers of armored vehicles were larger, perhaps in the dozens.
Protesters have gathered almost daily in Deir al-Zour, and clashes have erupted in Albu Kamal, a town inhabited by families that span the border with Iraq and Syria. One 27-year-old protester who gave his name as Abdullah said demonstrators hurled epithets as the tanks approached Albu Kamal, asking why the Syrian military was fighting its own people and not Israel, which seized the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 war.
This is a situation that promises only to worsen. And the impact could easily spread across the region.