Tuesday, April 17, 2007

al-Sadr Made Me Do It

Kawther Abdul-Ameer and Mussab Al-Khairalla of Reuters with some follow-up reporting on the "resignation" (scare quotes for Swopa) of the Sadrist ministers:

Maliki said the appointment of technocrats would help the government "escape from (sectarian) quotas and also helps in choosing ministers who are professionals and politicians."

Maliki's administration is dominated by sectarian parties drawn from the country's Shi'ite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish groups.

Iraqis have long complained that the sectarian makeup of the national unity government has hindered Maliki, forcing him to tread carefully to keep his various constituencies happy, and turned ministries into personal fiefdoms of political blocs. [...]

Speaking to reporters in the Jordanian capital Amman, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggested Maliki may now be able to bring in replacements who could improve relations between Iraq's deeply divided communities.

"The impact that ... these resignations have will depend in some measure on who is selected to replace these ministers and their capabilities and whether those vacancies are used in a way that perhaps can further advance the reconciliation process."

Washington constantly presses Iraq's leaders to speed up reconciliation between majority Shi'ites and minority Sunni Arabs who were dominant under Saddam Husseinand form the backbone of the insurgency against U.S. troops and Maliki's government.

Again, we see "happy talk" about limiting sectarian partisanship and embracing a reconciliation platform, but the shuffling of a few ministers is of nominal significance in terms of altering the trajectory of Iraq's internal divisions. In order to make a good faith attempt to broach the schism between the various sects/ethnicities, the Maliki government would have to implement legislative and structural changes such as softening de-Baathification, ensuring an equitable the split of oil revenues and amending the constitution (along those lines and others).

As previously mentioned, Maliki and the united Shiite front don't appear particularly motivated to engage such a program of concessions at this juncture. While it's convenient for Maliki to blame Sadr and the "sectarian makeup of the national unity government" (unintentional irony?) for his lack of progress on these fronts, it should be noted that Maliki himself is a sectarian partisan (Dawa Party). Nor does the removal of Sadr's ministers change the fundamental nature of the current government.

Maliki's disputes with Sadr's faction, to the extent they exist, stem more from intra-Shiite jockeying for power, influence and economic gain than from vastly differing views on the adoption of Sunni-friendly reforms, or even the continued presence of American forces in Iraq. For example, Maliki, like Sadr, reveres and respects the opinion and counsel of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Sistani has been consistently opposed to a continued presence of US forces in Iraq. In this, Sistani and Sadr are potent allies.

The question is, does Maliki (and/or SCIRI) really stand in opposition to this position on US troop presence? I have my doubts. Even if Maliki does oppose Sadr and Sistani on that issue, and even if Maliki truly does want to adopt a broad-based legislative platform of inclusion, would Maliki have the leeway to act against the wishes of Sistani and Sadr? Unlikely - even with the sacking of the Sadr-friendly ministers.

As mentioned previously, the recent political re-configuration - and Sadr's political presence more generally speaking - could actually provide some leverage for Maliki to press for the hastened withdrawal of US forces if that is the desired outcome:

Analysts had said they did not expect the walkout to affect the day-to-day performance of Maliki's government since the ministers did not hold any key portfolios, but it could increase pressure on him to draw up a troop withdrawal timetable, a demand of many Iraqis four years after the U.S.-led invasion. [emphasis added throughout]

In many ways, Sadr gets what he wants out of this entire affair as well. By basing the resignation of his ministers on frustration with the Iraqi government's continued acquiescence to US troop presence, Sadr fortifies his nationalist/anti-occupation street cred. This might also help him consolidate the ranks of his organization by bringing some of the splinter groups that doubted his commitment back into the fold. As an added bonus, he may also get a little reprieve from efforts to crackdown on his militia forces. Maliki can now make the case that they're pushing Sadr hard enough as is.

Why look, Sadr's ministers just resigned from the pressure!

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