Saving Iraq: Mission Impossible
Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite hard-liner distrusted by his foes,
will almost certainly be unable to stop Iraq's slide to chaos.
By Juan Cole
-- -- The man who would be Iraq's prime
minister announced Tuesday that "90 percent" of the work in
forming a new government was done. You would never know, from
the petty squabbling in the U.S.-protected Green Zone over who
gets what ministry, that beyond its concrete barriers a brutal
"war of the corpses" rages each night in the nightmarish streets
of Baghdad, and that the rest of Iraq continues to spiral out of
control. Guerrillas killed 20 and injured 70 with a truck
bombing in the far northern city of Tal Afar (reduced by the
U.S. last August, and extolled by Bush as "a free city that
gives reason for hope for a free Iraq"). The shooting down of a
British military helicopter in Basra on Saturday, and the
anti-Western riot that followed, signaled that even the
relatively quiet Shiite south is seething with a thousand
Iraq stands on the brink of all-out civil war. Is Prime
Minister-designate Nouri al-Maliki the man to forestall it?
Hopes for a breakthrough hinge on the assumption that al-Maliki
will be able to act more decisively than his failed predecessor,
Ibrahim Jaffari, in crucial areas: putting together a government
acceptable to all the parties, restoring a state monopoly on the
use of force (i.e., disbanding militias), preventing sectarian
killings, restoring basic services, and resolving the explosive
question of federalism. Al-Maliki seems more aware than Jaffari
of the urgency of these problems. But the painful fact is that
they are almost certainly beyond his ability to solve.
Despite the hype that will attend the formation of a new
government, whenever it finally comes about, there is little
prospect that it will make a decisive difference. Al-Maliki
seems doomed to preside over a lot of violence and chaos, and
can only hope to make a difference at the margins. And the
increasing hostility of the Shiites in the south to the
Anglo-American troop presence will put the question of when they
are leaving on the new parliament's docket.
In the fractured, mistrustful world of Iraqi politics, it is
unclear whether any figure could serve as a uniter. But al-Maliki
carries far too much baggage. His years of activism on behalf of
a movement for a Shiite, Islamic state -- and his support for
policies that explicitly targeted Sunnis -- will leave the
secular-leaning Kurds and the fundamentalist Sunni Arabs, who
form the other major blocs in parliament, permanently
mistrustful of him. Nor does he have the political clout to
impose his will. Al-Maliki's United Iraqi Alliance, grouping
Shiite religious parties, has only 46 percent of the seats in
parliament, and no prospect of gaining a reliable ally on the
whole range of issues facing it among other parties. Even if al-Maliki
can form a government, it will be weak and vulnerable to a vote
of no confidence.
The same schisms and group loyalties that have ripped Iraq apart
have plagued the attempt to form a government. Shiite Vice
President Adil Abdul Mahdi complained on Sunday about the vying
for cabinet posts among the largely faith-based or ethnic
parties, saying that cabinet posts should "go to upstanding
persons of experience and competency." Former interim Prime
Minister Iyad Allawi sounded the same theme, warning of the
"danger that some parties and blocs are dealing with the
ministry portfolios as though they are spoils."
Al-Maliki attempted to quiet some of those fears this week,
saying that an agreement had been reached among the parties that
the sensitive ministries of Defense and Interior would go to
technocrats with no ties to ethnic militias. Al-Maliki admitted,
however, that no actual candidate had been agreed upon for
either of these key cabinet posts or for oil, trade and
transport. Several names are still in contention for each, and
some party has strong objections to each of the candidates.
The petroleum portfolio is especially crucial, since the ability
to pump oil and receive the proceeds is one key to strengthening
the nascent Iraqi government. Petroleum production is lower than
it has been for decades: Iraq pumped only 1.1 million barrels a
day in January, down from 2.8 million before the 2003 invasion.
Foreign oil analysts are on tenterhooks about the outcome of
these negotiations. The cabinet negotiation process seems likely
to drag on for days or weeks. There is still no new government
five months after the Dec. 15 elections.
Al-Maliki had announced his intention to appoint "independents"
to Defense and Interior soon after his nomination in April. The
appointee, he said, might be a member of parliament elected on
one of the major Shiite, Sunni Arab or Kurdish lists, but would
have to be unaffiliated with a specific party or militia, and
must "not be sectarian in character or stand accused of any sort
of involvement in the phenomenon of the use of force."
The new man at the helm charged that his predecessor, Ibrahim
Jaafari, suffered from having "a discordant cabinet and from
ministers who were sometimes accused of making their ministries
not national cabinet posts but ... rather the property of the
perspective or the party to which they themselves belonged, or
the ethnic or religious group that they represented." He branded
such sectional loyalties a dire menace to the unity of the Iraqi
state, and a threat to each Iraqi's right to be served by each
Al-Maliki has pledged to do something about the spoils system
that has grown up in the ministries, whereby the party leaders
who control them hand out cushy bureaucratic jobs to party
operatives. He minced no words in a nationally broadcast
interview as he began to put his government together: "I say
with complete frankness that if I discover that any of the
ministers, whoever it might be, has begun to pack his ministry
with employees from his party, whatever that party might be, or
from his ethnicity or sect or religion, I will not put up with
it. I will take the matter to the parliament to have it make the
appropriate decision about him."
In short, al-Maliki seems to recognize what the problem is, and
is saying all the right things about fixing it. But he will find
it much easier to describe the problem than to implement
solutions -- not least because of his own political and
Al-Maliki is from the revolutionary Islamic Dawa Party, founded
in the late 1950s to establish an Islamic state in Iraq. His
B.A. is from the Usul al-Din College in Baghdad, a seminary
founded in 1964 by clerical Dawa leader Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir
al-Sadr. (He also holds a master's degree in Arabic literature.)
Al-Maliki spent two decades in exile, at first in Iran but then
mainly in Baathist Syria. The 1980s were times of severe
conflict between the Iraqi Dawa and the United States. Dawa
operatives in Lebanon helped to form the radical Hezbollah in
Lebanon in 1984. But if Washington seems willing to forgive
Maliki for whatever he did in Damascus, Sunni Arab Iraqis may
not have such short memories.
Since his return to Iraq in 2003, Al-Maliki has emerged as one
of the few publicly identifiable faces of the secretive Dawa
Party, serving on its politburo and then as a member of
parliament since early 2005. He was deeply involved in the
Committee for Debaathification, which took a punitive stance
toward Sunni Arabs who had been members of the Baath Party,
regardless of whether they could be shown to have been guilty of
wrongdoing. Some 100,000 Sunni Iraqis are said to have lost
their jobs since the fall of the old regime, and each supported
a large number of family and clan members.
Al-Maliki is such a strong Shiite partisan that when he was
asked at the time of the January 2005 elections about the
strengths of the United Iraqi Alliance, he replied, "One other
strong point is the fact that this list has received the
endorsement of the religious authority." He was proud of the
intervention of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani to put the party in
power, a move deeply criticized by Sunni Arabs and secularists.
He helped to craft the constitution that forbade the parliament
from contravening Islamic canon law. In fall of 2005, he let it
be known that he was far more impatient with the continued
American occupation than are the Kurds. "At the end of the
remaining period of time, that is, at the end of the
constitutional process and elections and the advent of a new
government, we will come face to face with the pressing need of
telling the occupation and foreign forces that the process is
over. We have reached the shore of safety we sought to reach and
there must be withdrawal."
Al-Maliki has a lot of fences to mend with politicians of the
other ethnic and religious groups, and his Dawa Party does not
even see eye to eye on some pivotal issues with Shiite allies
such as the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).
But whether the new political class can overcome its grudges is
less important than the downward spiral in the security
situation and basic living conditions during the five months
since the election, as Iraq has remained rudderless.
Observers on the ground note a new ugliness to the attitudes of
many Shiite Iraqis to the continued U.S. troop presence in their
country. Shiites south of Baghdad for the most part enjoy fair
security, most of it apparently supplied by religious militias,
and therefore do not feel that they need foreign troops.
Anti-Americanism and anti-Western feeling has grown with the
revelations of American torture of Iraqis at Abu Ghraib and U.S.
bombardment of Shiite cities such as Kut and Najaf during the
uprisings of the Mahdi Army militia in 2004.
On Sunday, a bomb killed 15 and wounded many more in the Shiite
holy city of Karbala, the center of Shiite Islam's cult of
martyrs. Such atrocities raise for Shiites the question of what
the U.S. military is good for, if it cannot forestall them. The
previous day, Los Angeles Times correspondent Borzou Daragahi
had reported from Karbala the observations of one Jaffar
Mohammed Asadi about the mood in the shrine city. He quoted
Asadi as saying, "There is an anger ... You can hear it in the
slogans at Friday prayers: 'Death to America' ... They're
burning American flags. They're saying, 'The Americans won't
leave except by the funerals of their sons.' "
These chilling observations appeared in print the very day that
a new round of deadly Shiite militia and mob violence broke out
in the southern port of Basra, Iraq's second-largest city. An
unknown guerrilla group shot down a British military helicopter
and killing 5 British soldiers on Saturday.
A crowd of hundreds of Shiite youth gathered to celebrate and to
chant anti-British slogans. They probably belong to a splinter
group of the Sadr movement, led by dissident Sheikh Ahmad al-Fartusi,
who is even more militant than Muqtada al-Sadr. They chanted
that they were all soldiers of "the Sayyid," probably a
reference to Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, who was killed in
1999, probably by Saddam's secret police. Basra Sadrists tend to
reject the leadership of the ayatollah's young son, Muqtada, who
is popular in the slums of East Baghdad and southern cities such
When British search and rescue teams showed up, the mob attacked
them with stones and Molotov cocktails, and a paramilitary got
off some mortar rounds. Several British soldiers were wounded,
and their vehicles set afire. Either as a result of British fire
or because they were caught in the cross-fire with the militia,
five Iraqi civilians were left dead and 28 wounded. In the
aftermath, a group calling itself the National Front for the
Liberation of Iraq, implausibly led by a Sunni named Musa al-Hadithi,
distributed pamphlets throughout the city demanding an immediate
British departure, and warning of severe consequences otherwise.
Although a draconian curfew and the deployment of Basra security
forces dampened tensions, resentment of the foreign presence
will likely persist.
Actually, the British benefited from the rivalry among Shiite
militias, some of which are less militant than others. The
security forces have been infiltrated by the Badr Corps of the
Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which holds 20
of the 41 seats on the provincial council, and by militiamen
loyal to the Fadilah or Virtue Party, which reveres Ayatollah
Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr but rejects his son, Muqtada. Fadilah is
the most moderate of the Sadr movements, and deeply disapproves
of al-Fartusi's group and its violence.
Meanwhile, the daily horror show in Iraq continues. Mostly
fundamentalist political parties dither and jockey for position
behind their downtown barricades, while armed gangs kill with
impunity. On Sunday alone, 51 bodies showed up dead in the
streets of the capital. Baghdad police have regularized the
custom of the morning "corpse patrol," in the course of which
victims of the country's low-intensity sectarian civil war are
discovered, hands bound and a bullet behind the ear. The
reprisal killings by religious militias have forced some 100,000
Iraqis from their homes since the bombing in late February of
the sacred Askariyah Shrine of the Shiites in Samarra, according
to Iraqi government estimates.
The lack of security has kept the economy a basket case. A third
of Iraqi children are malnourished, according to UNICEF. The
guerrillas' successful siege of the capital has reduced
electricity availability to only three hours a day in the midst
of a scorching summer, causing food to spoil. Dan Murphy of the
Christian Science Monitor reported this week that services in
the capital are at an all-time low. The ethnic cleansing of
mixed Baghdad provinces is proceeding apace, with minority
Shiites or Sunnis being forced out.
That the new Iraq's seething religious and ethnic hatreds and
the increasing mobilization of neighborhood-based militias can
be fought by appointing a technocrat as minister of the
interior, or by installing new ministers of trade or transport,
beggars belief. The nightmare seems destined to continue.
Copyright ©2006 Salon Media Group, Inc
Click below to read or post comments on this article