Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Drab Four

There is so much wrong with the first paragraph from this article that it would be better if you inverted the key facts asserted:

The Iraqi prime minister and president announced a new alliance of moderate Shiites and Kurds in a push to save the crumbing government Thursday, saying a key Sunni bloc refused to join but the door remained open to them.

This paragraph isn't much better:

The political agreement reached by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was the first step to unblock political stagnation that has gripped his Shiite-led government since it first took power in May 2006. But the announcement after three days of intense negotiations was disappointing because it did not include Iraq's Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi and his moderate Iraqi Islamic Party. Al-Maliki has been criticized for having a Shiite bias and failing to stop Iraq's sectarian violence, which persists despite the presence of tens of thousands of extra U.S. troops.

First of all this "new" alliance (comprised of Maliki's Dawa, ISCI and the two main Kurdish parties) is a lot like the old governing coalition - minus the Sadrists and the Sunni bloc that had been participating. So it's not necessarily a new alliance, just the remnants of the old alliance with a generous application of glitzy lipstick. It won't do anything to alleviate concerns that the Iraqi government is a partisan actor given how limited its representative scope. Quite the opposite.

That is, if this new pact is indeed able to continue as presented: On more than one occasion, a new alliance has been formed only to soon dissolve with much less fanfare than the unveiling (more on this, and Sistani's role, below).

The Kurdish parties, for their part, have always had a cozy relationship with ISCI and Dawa - recognizing early on where the power base of Shiite politics was, and finding the right leverage to insure that the Kurds' forge and maintain and integral role in the new Shiite dominate government (thus securing the key aspects of their agenda). In once again solidifying this position (even strengthening it considering how little slack ISCI and Dawa now have), the Kurds have shown themselves to be amongst the shrewder horsetraders in the game.

Second, there is little justification to label ISCI and Dawa (and even the Kurds who haven't been shy about using dubious means to push ahead with their territorial designs in the area of Kirkuk and elsewhere) as "moderates" as opposed to the "extremist" Sadrists. This is propaganda, pure and simple, and the main determinant in deciding who gets the preferred label is their amenability to the occupation.

As mentioned above, because this new coalition is actually a pared down version of theold "unity" government, these developments do little to actually alleviate the political "deadlock" that has been wrongly identified as the problem. While the pact does provide for a bare parliamentary majority, that plurality is only useful to the extent that the parties can agree on the issues to be presented and voted on. Reaching such an accord has been the problem, not conceiving of alliances that - when so joined - constitute a parliamentary majority. Even this like-minded four-pack won't be able to agree on all such matters.

More important to the big picture, though: the problem is not the actual inability to pass legislation qua legislation, it is the inability to pass legislation that reflects and reinforces some agreed upon and acceptable modus vivendi between all of the major factions. It remains to be seen what type of agenda emerges from this four party pact, but it is unlikely to appeal to a broad base of Iraqis since representation is limited. Thus, where this new pact does facilitate political action, it might exacerbate the intra- and inter- ethnic/sectarian civil wars.

Recall, the political process is viewed as essential in unwinding the various conflicts in so much as it can assuage each parties' concerns and show that the political system would be a suitable way to pursue their respective interests. This new alliance, however, sheds all remnants of "unity" - gone are the Sunnis, as well as the Sadrists, who represented the dissenting voices on issues like partition and centralized control of oil revenues.

So to the extent that this new Shiite/Kurdish alliance does actually pass more legislation, it is likely that the legislation will serve to further alienate the Sunnis and other Shiite groups, rather than create the sense of inclusion necessary to tamp the fighting. It is hard to imagine how such a narrow governing bloc could be considered a vehicle for "political reconciliation" despite the laudatory headlines and ledes.

Then again, with the Bush administration downplaying political deterioration while touting military progress as an indicator of The Surge's success (when the whole point of The Surge was to foster political reconciliation), I fully expect this further balkanization of the political process to be described as a major breakthrough.

Relatedly, this new political arrangement comes at a time of increased pressure on the Sadrist current - with airstrikes and raids on Sadr City, and a wave of arrests of top Sadrist officials. The give and take, push and pull game that the US and its primary Shiite proxies (SIIC and Dawa) have been playing vis-a-vis Sadr has always been a dangerous one (and one that Maliki has not always seemed eager to play). If this new political alliance - to the extent that it lasts - is a manifestation of some underlying decision to put the full court press on Sadr, the levels of violence and conflict in Iraq will spiral ever upward.

Speaking of which, whither that certain Grand Ayatollah Sistani and his famous reluctance to abide by any political proposals that would result in dividing the UIA coalition? In the past, he has emerged from his secluded redoubt in Najaf to scuttle similar attempts to parse the UIA and exclude certain irritants. I wouldn't be surprised if he has a little meeting with officials from Dawa and ISCI in the coming days. At which point, much of this post would be rendered moot - a fate suffered by a long list of former political "breakthroughs" in Iraq.

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