Thursday, May 10, 2007

If He Hollers, Let Him Go

David Ignatius interpreted the recent Cheney tour of the Gulf States (not including Iraq) in a similar fashion to my own read (as alluded to in this comment to the Armchair Generalist's post):

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice may make the headlines with her high-profile diplomatic missions to the Middle East. But for a glimpse at the hidden power plays, follow Vice President Cheney's trip this week to Saudi Arabia.

Saudi King Abdullah has emerged over the past nine months as the Bush administration's most important and strong-willed Arab ally. He launched an aggressive campaign last fall to contain Iranian influence in the Arab world and, in the process, buttress American interests in the region despite U.S. setbacks in Iraq....

The Cheney visit is aimed partly at mutual reassurance. Both sides want to reaffirm the alliance, despite disagreements over Iraq policy and the Palestinian issue. [...]

The heart of the U.S.-Saudi alliance is a new effort to combat Iran and its proxies in the Arab world. This began after last summer's war in Lebanon between Israel and the Iranian-backed Shiite militia, Hezbollah. Working closely with the United States, the Saudis began pumping money to Lebanese Sunni, Christian and Druze political groups that could counter Hezbollah's influence [ed note: and some have suggested that we are funding al-Qaeda type terrorists groups targeting Hez as well].

Later in the column, Ignatius gets at what, in the end, represents the fatal flaw in the blueprint to construct an effective anti-Iranian coalition of Sunni regimes: the Iran-friendly, Shiite-dominated Iraqi government that the US is busy protecting and sponsoring. There is no way to reconcile the Saudi position with that of the US on the future character of Iraq. For example:

Abdullah's criticism of the "illegitimate" American presence in Iraq reflects the Saudi leader's deep misgivings about U.S. strategy there. Saudi sources say the king has given up on the ability of Iraq's Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, to overcome sectarian divisions and unite the country. The Saudi leadership is also said to believe that the U.S. troop surge is likely to fail, deepening the danger of all-out civil war in Iraq.

The Saudis appear to favor replacing the Maliki government, which they see as dominated by Iranian-backed Shiite religious parties, and are quietly backing former interim prime minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite and ex-Baathist who has support among Iraqi Sunnis. Allawi's advisers say that his strategy is to exploit tensions within the Shiite religious alliance and form a new ruling coalition that would be made up of Sunnis, Kurds and secular Shiites. Allawi's camp believes he is close to having enough votes, thanks in part to Saudi political and financial support.

The Bush administration appears to have little enthusiasm for an Allawi putsch, despite its frustration with Maliki. U.S. officials fear that a change of government in Baghdad would only deepen the political disarray there and encourage new calls for the withdrawal of troops.

I'm not sure what Ignatius means by "little enthusiasm for an Allawi putsch." That enthusiasm likely exists in spades. The damper is the fact that there is little chance for an Allawi putsch to succeed absent an all-out coup, which would alienate the vast majority of Shiites rendering our presence untenable. It would do more than amplify "new calls for the withdrawal of troops" - we'd have a much larger insurgency than the Sunnis have thus far produced, and the already vulnerable Green Zone would collapse.

Which brings us to the second paragraph excerpted above, which mentions Allawi's political (non-coup based) "strategy" to peel away certain disaffected Shiite factions. He might have a chance with the aggrieved Fadhila Party - still smarting after it was deprived of the Oil Ministry, and further under siege from SCIRI and other more powerful Shiite factions in parts of the South. But I don't think Fadhila alone (itself not guaranteed) would get Allawi's group over the hump. For that, they'd need a major defection, like the Sadrists (as discussed in this post).

While there has been a lot of chatter lately of the "New Sadrists" - and how that current is breaking with the UIA and charting its own course which includes a major outreach effort to Sunni groups - it remains to be seen how this will play out. Despite this well-timed noise, it is highly unlikely that Sadr would sidle up to Allawi absent a major effort by his Shiite rivals, aided by US forces, to put the full court press on. There are deep social and economic factors that make such a union highly improbable (see here for a summary and some useful links), as well as a recent history of confrontation and heightened communal identification that makes such cooperation exceedingly difficult.

Speaking of an anti-Sadr "full court press," recall that Sadr has made noises about withdrawing from the UIA before (famously instituting a Sadrist boycott of Iraq's parliament back in November 2006). Sadr's motivations for the previous boycott, and current "distancing," are remarkably similar.

In each case, Sadr got to present himself as the anti-occupation, nationalist champion while creating space between himself and the unpopular government (recall: Sadr's November boycott was, ostensibly, premised on his objection to Maliki's meeting with Bush in Jordan and how this act showed the subservience of the Iraqi government to the Americans. The current resignation of six Sadrist ministers from Maliki's cabinet was, supposedly, based on Sadr's frustration at the Maliki government's failure to demand a timetable for the withdrawal of US forces).

More important than these popular public reasons for playing political "hardball," though, is that each such instance provides Sadr with a means of flexing his muscle, and reminding the various players involved of the formidable extent of his power and indispensability. Each came at a time when Sadr was under siege and in search of a reversal of trends.

While the public rationale for Sadr's previous boycott was his indignation at the occupier/occupied dynamic manifested in the Bush/Maliki meeting, the real reason was likely the flurry of anti-Sadr political activity that was being orchestrated by the US at the time, and the potential implications that Bush's meeting with Maliki might have had along those lines. So Sadr made a bold display of his importance, and he got the desired result as the anti-Sadr alliance dissolved.

Meanwhile, under the current predicament, US forces have been doggedly pursuing Mahdi Army members with at least the tacit approval of the Maliki government (though, apparently, the fighting against the Mahdi Army has been the sole purview of US forces, with Iraqi government forces exclusively engaged in other operations). In addition, SCIRI and other Shiite factions have been looking to consolidate positions in the South at the expense of Sadr and his allies. The violent clashes attendant to this jockeying have been heating up.

So the situation is primed for Sadr to remind his Shiite rivals that he is not a minor player that can be sacrificed or rolled over, and that there are limits to the heat he's willing to take. If I had to bet, I'd say Sadr will get the reprieve he's looking for - and won't end up completely abandoning the UIA or joining an Allawi-led coalition government. Sistani will likely intervene (again as he did with Sadr's previous boycott) in order to forestall a deeper splintering in the Shiite ranks.

So, whither the Saudis? How will they react to the fact that political leaders in the US are courting withdrawal, while the Bush administration has thus far proven impotent in establishing a less Iran-friendly leadership in Iraq?

The answer is that they'll likely keep doing what they've been doing all along: either actively or tacitly supporting insurgent elements in Iraq in order to maintain a foothold, and stymie the progress and long term designs of the Iran-friendly, Shiite powers in Iraq. It is frightening to consider that certain segments of the Bush administration, like the Cheney wing, may have in the past (and still) viewed those disruptive Saudi influences as a useful card to use as leverage against a potentially uncooperative Shiite ruling bloc.

It will be very hard to keep the conflict in Iraq from going regional - to the extent that it hasn't already. And we might have encouraged that trajectory in more ways than one.

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