Monday, April 30, 2007

Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places

More evidence of the debilitating political reality in Iraq - particularly, the sectarian agenda of the misnamed "unity government" headed by the Shiite coalition's own Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki (via Swopa):

A department of the Iraqi prime minister's office is playing a leading role in the arrest and removal of senior Iraqi army and national police officers, some of whom had apparently worked too aggressively to combat violent Shiite militias, according to U.S. military officials in Baghdad.

Since March 1, at least 16 army and national police commanders have been fired, detained or pressured to resign; at least nine of them are Sunnis, according to U.S. military documents shown to The Washington Post.

Although some of the officers appear to have been fired for legitimate reasons, such as poor performance or corruption, several were considered to be among the better Iraqi officers in the field. The dismissals have angered U.S. and Iraqi leaders who say the Shiite-led government is sabotaging the military to achieve sectarian goals.

"Their only crimes or offenses were they were successful" against the Mahdi Army, a powerful Shiite militia, said Brig. Gen. Dana J.H. Pittard, commanding general of the Iraq Assistance Group, which works with Iraqi security forces. "I'm tired of seeing good Iraqi officers having to look over their shoulders when they're trying to do the right thing."

The issue strikes at a central question about the fledgling government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki: whether it can put sectarian differences aside to deliver justice fairly. [...]

At the national level, some U.S. officials are increasingly concerned about the Office of the Commander in Chief, a behind-the-scenes department that works on military issues for the prime minister.

One adviser in the office, Bassima Luay Hasun al-Jaidri, has enough influence to remove and intimidate senior commanders, and her work has "stifled" many officers who are afraid of angering her, a senior U.S. military official said. U.S. commanders are considering installing a U.S. liaison officer in the department to better understand its influence.

"Her office harasses [Iraqi commanders] if they are nationalistic and fair," said the U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity out of concern over publicly criticizing the Iraqi government. "They need to get rid of her and her little group."

The last paragraph alludes to one of two memes that will be in heavy rotation over the coming months. The first, is that the "moderate" Maliki wants to usher in a program of national reconciliation but is being constantly thwarted by his more "extremist" and partisan coalition partners such as the nefarious Moqtada al-Sadr and the Iranian-linked SCIRI.

The second, and perhaps related in some sense, is that Maliki must be replaced by a leader capable of overcoming sectarian/ethnic interests in pursuit of a more enlightened, inclusive agenda.

Last week, I linked to stories by Amir Taheri and Peter Brookes that sought to cast Maliki in a favorable - if not heroic - light. This week, we catch die hard Surgent Frederick Kagan pushing the same dubious storyline (in the same paper that carried the story of Maliki's shielding of Shiite militias from government scrutiny/crackdowns - just one day apart):

...the Maliki government has been incredibly supportive of efforts to go after Shiite militiamen...

Define "incredibly supportive."

Kagan, Taheri and Brookes are dedicated, at least for the moment, to the depiction of Maliki as the brave leader, swimming against the tide in an effort to combat Iran and the Shiite militias through which Iran, supposedly, works. Going one step beyond, though, Brookes and Kagan put forth the tendentious claim that not only does Maliki mean well, but that he's actually succeeding! The laddies doth endorse too much.

The antithetical interpretation is that Maliki is a dedicated partisan who has been doing just enough in terms of militia crackdown/Sunni outreach to keep the Bush administration at bay, but has no real desire to curb any manifestation of Shiite power.

I tend to support the latter position with one wrinkle - Maliki has seemed willing to play ball on occasion, and within certain limitations, in order to help weaken Moqtada al-Sadr's position. But that has always appeared motivated more out of a narrow, self-serving intra-Shiite agenda (more for Maliki and Dawa, less for Sadr), then as a component of any broader move to put limitations on Shiite power writ large.

Here's the upshot though: regardless of Maliki's intentions, the results in terms of reconciliation have been the same. Little tangible progress has been made in either tamping down the sectarian violence initiated/exacerbated by Shiite militias or forging political compromises. Every time the US/Iraqi government forces push too far (even - or especially - vis-a-vis Sadr), Maliki puts on the brakes.

Which brings us to our second expected meme: the Maliki replacement watch. Unable - or unwilling - to grasp the reality of the ethnic/sectarian dynamic that renders the current political deadlock and cyclical violence almost inevitable, expect to hear many war supporters pinning the blame on Maliki and suggesting that a switch to Prime Minister Deus ex Machina would right the ship.

If you recall, we heard many of the same arguments the last time it was decided that the then-current head of the Iraqi government (Ibrahim Jaafari) was the source - and not the product of - the sectarian/ethnic dynamic. Regime Change 2.0 was based on the highly implausible premise that replacing Ibrahim Jaafari (the Dawa Party's #1 leader) with Nouri al-Maliki (the Dawa Party's #2 leader) would significantly alter the underlying political/security trajectory in Iraq.

As if Maliki embraced a vastly different world view than Jaafari.

With this semi-comical episode in mind, it could be argued that our mistake last time was in deciding on a leader from the same Party. So this time, let's go for something completely different. Here's the problem with that though: it's not our decision. The elected Iraqi officials must decide, and last time I checked, a majority of those officials are comprised of members of highly sectarian Shiite parties like SCIRI, Sadr's folks and the aforementioned Dawa.

The Shiite bloc (aided by a Kurdish faction that has shown, repeatedly, a willingness to horsetrade with the Shiites in order to attain its objectives [read: Kirkuk, autonomy, etc.]) will once again decide who the next leader will be. Our leverage is nominal at best. The end result will be a meaningless change of faces - as with the swap of Jaafari for Maliki.

The only other option would be to attempt to impose a leader via a coup. Again, though, we run into the familiar demographic reality that hinders our ability to exert influence in Iraq. If we topple the democratically elected, Shiite-led Iraqi government, we're going to enrage the 60% of the population that is ostensibly supporting us in our already stalemated efforts to vanquish a Sunni led insurgency which is represented by "only" 20% of the population. If we alienate the Shiite leadership and its sizable constituency, we might end up seeing an updated version of embassy rooftops and helicopters.

And even if we succeeded in instigating such a coup, who do you suppose we could find that would be able to bring Iraq together under one banner? The most commonly floated name is former US-imposed interim-Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. Correct me if I'm wrong, but last election his slate got roughly the same number of votes that I did. Color me uninspired.

Sistani is holding the cards and the chips - we're just chasing another pot. This is not our game to play, Maliki is not our champion, neither is Allawi and we don't have one in the bullpen that a majority of Iraqis would support.

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