Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Fade to Lavender?

Consistent with my post yesterday that raised questions about the functional sovereignty of Iraq's elected government, and Heather Hurlburt's observation that some Shiites are starting to call the current US rapprochement with the Sunnis the "second betrayal" ("a reference to the US failure to intervene in Iraqi Shias' post-Gulf War uprising 15 years ago"), the New York Times reports today on the latest developments in connection with US efforts to rein in Shiite hegemony. Or at least the hegemony of certain elements of the Shiite ruling coalition.

The American ambassador has told Shiite officials that President Bush does not want the Iraqi prime minister to remain the country's leader in the next government, senior Shiite politicians said Tuesday.

It is the first time the Americans have directly expressed a preference in the furious debate over the country's top job, the politicians said, and it is inflaming tensions between the Americans and some Shiite leaders.

The ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, told the head of the main Shiite political bloc at a meeting on Saturday to pass on a "personal message from President Bush" to the interim prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, said Redha Jowad Taki, a Shiite member of Parliament who was at the meeting.

Mr. Khalilzad said Mr. Bush "doesn't want, doesn't support, doesn't accept" Mr. Jaafari as the next prime minister, according to Mr. Taki, a senior aide to Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the Shiite bloc. It was the first "clear and direct message" from the Americans on a specific candidate for prime minister, Mr. Taki said.
Given that the alternative to Jaafari (of the Dawa party) most commonly mentioned is Abdel Mahdi (SCIRI), I find it curious that the US would draw the line in the sand with Jaafari - unless they hope, in the end, to usurp Mahdi as well (Allawi anyone?). Some reasons why Mahdi would be an odd choice as replacement - at least if it were necessary to expend valuable negotiating capital to achieve such a result: (a) Mahdi's party, SCIRI, is likely closer to Iran than Dawa/Jaafari; (b) SCIRI's militia, the Badr Corps, were trained by Iran, with many members spending years in exile in Iran following the Shiite uprising circa Gulf War I; (c) Badr has been an active presence in the security forces and military (controversial Interior Minister Bayan Jabr is SCIRI), who are believed to be responsible for many of the atrocities uncovered in recent months - much of which has been blamed on Jaafari; and (d) SCIRI, unlike Jaafari, supports the establishment of semi-autonomous regions in the Shiite south - an issue likely to alienate and anger most Sunnis, though placate the Kurds (this is why Kurdish support for Mehdi is easier to grasp).

One thing Jaafari has against him, however, is the support he receives from Moqtada al-Sadr. Maybe it all comes down to that, and perhaps the raid on Sadr's men over the weekend was one more facet of the strategy to separate, isolate and marginalize Sadr. Not an easy task, to say the least, considering the extensive and committed support Sadr derives from his constituency.

Then again, maybe Zal and Company know something about Abdel Mahdi that the rest of us don't - that he's some potential unifying elder statesman who can transcend SCIRI's internal politics and right the ship at this late juncture. He did, after all, attend the same high school as Chalabi and Allawi. That has to count for something, right? But if Mehdi strays too far from SCIRI's power base, couldn't he be sacked internally?

Either way, I found this statement mildly humorous in that it contained a bit of unintentional honesty:

A spokeswoman for the American Embassy confirmed that Mr. Khalilzad met with Mr. Hakim on Saturday. But she declined to comment on what was said.

"The decisions about the choice of the prime minister are entirely up to the Iraqis," said the spokeswoman, Elizabeth Colton. "This will be an Iraqi decision."
Though Colton was likely trying to downplay evidence of US interference in the process, her semi-denial was actually more accurate than might have been intended. Ultimately, this will be an Iraqi decision - and that reality should have been apparent for some time now. If Sistani, SCIRI and Sadr line up behind the UIA's prior vote of support for Jaafari, I don't think there's much we can do about it. Despite Bush's personal preferences. On the other hand, might not Sistani see this as an opportunity to knock his rival, al-Sadr, down a peg or two? Or would such provocation lead to an ugly internecine Shiite slug-fest?

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