Diary

By Oborne, Peter | The Spectator, January 3, 2009 | Go to article overview

Diary


Oborne, Peter, The Spectator


Baghdad

Time magazine has dutifully chosen Barack Obama as its Person of the Year. Fair enough -- but a much more interesting choice would have been Nouri Al-Maliki, prime minister of Iraq. When I was in Baghdad back at the start of 2008 it was universally held that Maliki was finished.

British politicians and officials told me of their profound frustration. Well-informed opinion held that he had no power base and was in any case too weak and irresolute to confront the warlords who then governed large tracts of Iraq. There were vigorous attempts to dislodge Maliki and engineer a more decisive successor. These all failed and Maliki has gone on to prove all his critics, and especially the British, hopelessly wrong. He's confronted Sunni militias. He's taken on and apparently defeated the private armies which governed Basra and Sadr City. Most stunning of all, Maliki has comprehensively outwitted the Americans.

I was in Baghdad for the final, frenzied negotiation at the Status of Forces agreement, which sets the terms for US withdrawal. The document that was eventually agreed by the Iraqi parliament bore no resemblance to the one put forward by US diplomats last spring. There is no talk of long-term bases on Iraqi soil, while Maliki now has operational oversight over American military operations.

The United States cannot attack any foreign country from Iraqi soil. US contractors, such as the loathsome Blackwater Corporation, must obey local law -- surely the reason Blackwater is now, mercifully, pulling out.

There is no longer talk of Maliki the pitifully weak prime minister. Instead senior Iraqis fret that he may use the increasingly well-equipped Iraqi army to impose himself as strong man.

You can see the effects of Maliki's new dispensation just by walking round Baghdad. It is a much safer and more cheerful place, all but unrecognisable from the town I last visited at the start of the year. Director and cameraman Jim Foster and I joined Captain Todd Looney and his 120-strong Charley company at a combat base just outside the massive Shia slum of Sadr City.

For the first half of last year Captain Looney and his men had fought a brutal battle against Mahdi army insurgents. Four of his Abrams tanks were destroyed, three of his men killed, and Charley company took approximately a dozen casualties. Now the insurgent leaders have fled the area -- local people say they have gone to Iran. There are still almost daily shootings and bombings, but they are low key and mainly ineffective.

One night we joined US troops on foot patrol. They ended up at a local bar, where locals were playing dominoes, drinking tea, and smoking hubble-bubbles. …

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