November 12, 2010
White House Spin Machine Jams on Iraq
The White House tried not to panic on Friday - and ended up imitating a Chinese finger-trap. From Seoul, President Barack Obama celebrated Iraq’s new government as he phoned Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Iraqiya chief Ayad Allawi. Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser, then informed reporters that Obama made no mention of Iraqiya's walkout during Thursday’s opening parliament.
In obvious damage control, another US official downplayed the walkout as “political showmanship.” Sounds like Washington’s spin machine is broken.
Had the Sunnis received a relatively fair share of power and, in their own perceptive disagreement, grandstanded to secure additional demands, then it’s true that the walkout shouldn’t cause overreaction. Sunni voters needed to see resistance and the walkout gave them a semblance that Iraqiya will fight for their votes. Meanwhile Iraqiya could continue playing an active role in the government's formation.
But this scenario doesn’t match the current environment. Iraqiya believes it received no power relative to the amount of votes won and the Sunnis’ overall political position. After a breakdown in terms between State of Law and Iraqiya, numerous officials made statements to the effect that they had to settle for less or receive nothing at all. That the new government is the same as the old government. al-Maliki and Obama will try to buy off Allawi with a high level post, yet this could merely aggravate the imbalance of power.
US officials speak more accurately when placed in another context. Iraqiya’s actions, as the political manifestation of most Sunnis, plays a critical role in determining the reaction of its supporters. Its temperament influences the common Sunni, whether they retain faith in Iraq’s democratic system or succumb to disillusion. If Iraqiya doesn’t trust the government then its voters won’t. It’s also possible that elements within Iraqiya could activate Sunni militant cells if al-Maliki continues to hoard political power.
That doesn’t mean Iraqiya enjoys total control.
Understanding and predicting Iraq’s future course requires the factoring of all political groups, their demands, and current situation. For the Sunnis in particular, this means monitoring the symbiotic relationship between the people and their party. If Sunnis decide Iraqiya isn’t delivering, they could force more aggressive political action through civil demonstration, which degenerates to militancy in the event of failure. So it’s true that Iraqiya’s political maneuvering and “showmanship” represents only part of the equation.
What Sunnis on the streets and in mosques feel could ultimately overtake Iraqiya’s plans. And here Iraq’s stability and US policy isn’t looking good either.
In what will be the first of many interviews with Sunni figures, one tribesman from the Azamiyah council in Baghdad said they were being squeezed out by the Shiites and Iranian influence. Karim al-Obeidi told the Associated Press, "We support the withdrawal of the Iraqiya list members from the parliament session yesterday. We don't want to repeat what had happened before when the former government gave promises... but didn't fulfill its obligations."
Abdul-Satar Abdul-Jabar, the top cleric at Abu Hanifa in Baghdad, said the new government, “copies the old sectarian and ethnic distribution of power and this brings us to square one. We are expecting another four hard years.”
In a related development, Iraqi and US Special Forces raided a house in Fallajuh, killing one brother of a Sunni council member and capturing another. Hamad Rashid Dhaan and Bassim Rashid Dhaan are brothers of Mahmud Rashid Dhaan, who chairs the Anbar provincial council's justice committee. Repeats of this event are a likely fear within the Sunni community.
Obama claimed that “all indications” point to an inclusive government - the opposite of reality, at least for now. It’s still within the realm of possibility that al-Maliki, faced with potential pressure from Washington and Sunni anger in the streets, cuts Allawi an equal slice of power. But the odds are far from comforting. That Iran and America have chased the same outcome seems to speak louder than anything else at the moment.
In Tehran, Ahmad Jannati rejoiced with the same enthusiasm as Obama. The head of the Guardians Council, one of the country's most powerful bodies, told his Friday prayer session, "Under God's will, the Iraqi people showed their wisdom and vigilance.”
The Associated Press amusingly concluded, “Oddly enough, both the U.S. and Iran had been working toward the same goal: an al-Maliki to return to power. But they differed strongly on the degree to which the Sunnis would be involved in the new government, with Iran pushing for only token Sunni participation and the U.S. lobbying for a real partnership. As al-Maliki accepted Talabani's nomination for a second term after the Sunnis walked out, it appeared Iran had prevailed.”
However a “real partnership” was impossible from the start so long as Washington and Tehran stumped for al-Maliki over Allawi. The most convenient option for both, they’ve actively worked against a real partnership for eight months. Allawi himself warned that if his party was marginalized in a power-sharing agreement, "definitely things will go bad.”
With all parties - Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds - visibly nervous of Iraq’s future, Obama must be hoping that Allawi is wrong.