Patrick Cockburn: The US can quit Iraq, or it can stay. But it can't do both

If it ever comes to court it should be one of the more interesting libel cases of the decade. The Iraqi National Intelligence Service is threatening to sue Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi politician, for asking who pays for it.

"It is somewhat curious," says Mr Chalabi, "that the intelligence service of a country which is sovereign – that no one really knows who is funding it."

In fact there are very few Iraqis who do not believe they have a very clear idea of who funds Iraq's secret police. Its director is General Mohammed Abdullah Shahwani, who once led a failed coup against Saddam Hussein, and was handpicked by the CIA to run the new security organisation soon after the invasion of 2003. He is believed to have been answering to them ever since.

The history of the Iraqi intelligence service is important because it shows the real distribution of power in Iraq rather than the spurious picture presented by President Bush. It explains why so many Iraqis are suspicious of the security accord, or Status of Forces Agreement, that the White House has been pushing the Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Malki to sign. It reveals the real political landscape where President-elect Barack Obama will soon have to find his bearings.