Monday, April 03, 2006

Score One For Condi - Pending Review From The Booth

Last week I wrote about the apparent futility of US attempts to alter the UIA's choice for prime minister, Ibrahim Jaafari:

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.

No doubt Condoleezza Rice (an avid reader of American Footprints) and British foreign minister Jack Straw took this to heart and proceeded to separate SCIRI from the trinity of major power bases within the UIA (though Dawa is a serious player as well). The New York Times reports today:

The fracturing of the Shiites became clear late Sunday afternoon, as a senior official in the leading Shiite party [SCIRI], Sheik Jalaladeen al-Sagheir, said in a telephone interview that his party was putting forward another candidate to replace Mr. Jaafari. "I've asked Jaafari to resign from his job," said Sheik Sagheir, a deputy to the Shiite bloc's leader, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim. "The prime minister should have national consensus inside the Parliament, and he should have the support of the international body."

Despite this success (Jaafari was definitely a less than desirable candidate - to put it mildly), much will depend on the person chosen to succeed Jaafari - assuming SCIRI's withdrawal of support proves the death knell for Jaafari's bid. Even if the successor isn't much better than Jaafari in many respects, as long as the candidate comes from SCIRI (Abdel Mahdi perhaps?) then a party other than SCIRI would likely take over Interior. This could be a positive development in terms of militia infiltration - and that would be no small victory. Maybe not though. The militia epidemic is an entrenched one, and the trends aren't all that encouraging.

There is also the issue of oil industry development - with reports alleging that Mahdi would be much more amenable to foreign investment than the socialist-leaning Jaafari. But above all, the US will have succeeded in marginalizing Moqtada al-Sadr to a certain extent - and this appears to be the overarching goal.

Regarding Sadr, I asked the wrong question at the end of that previous post about the potential for Sistani to be enticed by the opportunity to reduce the potency of the clerical upstart. I asked:

...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?

At the end of the day, it appears as if it was SCIRI, not Sistani (unless he gave his blessing too?), that chose to engage the Americans and take a swing at Sadr, the would-be kingmaker. This makes sense, as Sadr and SCIRI have been in more direct and violent competition for some time. Which means, though, that the potential for that internecine bloodshed mentioned above remains high. We have yet to see how Sadr will react to this provocative maneuvering on the part of his putative UIA "allies." The Times article alludes to the dangers.

Any dispute between the Shiite bloc's two biggest factions — Mr. Hakim's party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and the party led by Mr. Sadr — carries with it the possibility of armed violence. The factions are longtime rivals, have backing from Iran and operate militias with members in the Iraqi security forces. Their militias fought street battles last August throughout Baghdad and the south, even hijacking double-decker buses to storm office buildings.

This reminds me of the troubling admonition Anthony Shadid gave some time back while putting in a stint at the TPM Cafe (discussed here). Said Shadid [my emphasis]:

This question of civil war is really pressing, and I think it is actually important to say whether one is under way or not. I believe it is, but maybe not in the way we've fashioned it in the past: Sunni, Shiite and Kurd. When I think of the civil war in Iraq, I'm struck by the fault lines that are getting less attention. There is the sometimes explosive rivalry between Hakim's Badr militia and the Sadr forces. We've seen time and again the flaring of differences in western Iraq between insurgent groups. (As far back as last year, I heard an Iraqi guerrilla from Fallujah, of the nationalist variety, vowing to shoot any Arab expat trying to give him orders.) We should be careful in not minimizing differences between the two Kurdish parties. Understandably our attention is focused on Zarqawi's threats to wage an unrelenting campaign against Shiites. But in the long run, it's the intra-communal battles that I think are more decisive and worrisome.

The story of the successful(?) outflanking of Jaafari contains a kernel of what is so deeply frustrating about the situation in Iraq. What looks like a promising development could end up proving ephemeral to say the least if the end result is a splintering of the civil wars rather than a splintering of the insurgencies. While the latter is a worthy goal, the former would be a nightmare scenario.

Nevertheless, I'll call this story a cause for some cautious optimism - a familiar holding pattern for concerned onlookers no doubt.

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