February 1, 2012

The Calm Before Iraq’s Next Storm

After boycotting Nouri al-Maliki’s government for the last six weeks, Iraq’s Sunni-aligned Iraqiya List returned on Tuesday to participate in Baghdad’s parliamentary session. Immediately billed as a confidence-building measure that could “ease” Iraq’s political crisis, both Iraqiya and U.S. officials say the decision paves the ground for Baghdad’s looming “national conference.” Except a major caveat obstructs Washington’s efforts to spin progress out of a crisis that it helped generate.

As his organization announced its future political plans, Ayad Allawai cautioned, “if there had been an active Parliament and Government, and a real partnership, there would have been no reason for the holding of the National Conference.”

Iraqiya’s formal re-engagement merits an uptick in optimism, but not for the reasons cited by Washington. The administration's defense has remained unchanged since President Barack Obama welcomed al-Maliki to the White House, a controversial move that added fuel to Baghdad’s meltdown. U.S. officials argue that, by not resorting to violence, Iraqis are building their democracy through the political process. This reasoning, while true in a vacuum, inadvertently dehumanizes Iraqis by assuming them to be violent; most stand ready to rebuild their country through non-violent means. Some were unforgivably suppressed during the Arab Spring’s initial stage.

By turning the present crisis into an “opportunity,” the Obama administration has steadfastly ignored al-Maliki’s centrality to Iraq’s discord. The answer to every Iraqiya plea is “dialogue.”

U.S. policy might end up on its feet once Baghdad’s national conference, an event pushed hard by Washington, finally convenes. Weakening the divisive al-Maliki through Iraq’s political system offers a means to improving America’s strategic relationship inside (with Sunnis, Kurds and Shia) and outside (against Iran) of the country. Yet the breakdown between March 2010 and January 2012 suggests the opposite scenario: Washington is reacting to the consequences of favoritism towards al-Maliki. Consumed by Afghanistan’s surge, Iraqi officials accused the administration of checking out during the country’s parliamentary election. U.S. officials such as Vice President Joe Biden eventually increased their involvement over the summer by throwing their weight behind al-Maliki’s coalition, going so far as to accept his Iranian ties and Muqtada al-Sadr’s 30 seats.

Allawi was offered a national security post that he never received, and the Sunni-Shia chasm failed to dispel while transitioning to Iraq’s political battlefield. Prolonged friction has resulted in security lapses, inefficiency and a general lack of confidence in the new government.

The Obama administration now hopes that President Jalal Talabani can patch al-Maliki’s government into a more stable form. Biden would again phone al-Maliki, Allawi and Talabani over the weekend to stress “the importance of resolving outstanding issues through the political process.” Iraqiya possesses limited motivation to withdraw from al-Maliki’s coalition, as some officials of the bloc have threatened, due to the loss of power. A new election would be necessary, scaring away most representatives, and Iraqiya must hold onto this option as a last resort. Thus Iraqiya is coming to battle al-Maliki at Baghdad’s “national conference,” not reconcile with him. Allawi sees nothing to reconcile - Iraq’s Prime Minister must cede the powers (including the Interior Ministry) that he agreed upon in November 2010.

Iraqiya spokeswoman Maysoon al-Damluji listed several other priorities, starting with a resolution to Vice President Tariq Hashimi’s case. Currently awaiting his future in Kurdish territory, Hashimi has been accused of running a Sunni death squad that targets Shia politicians. Iraqiya plans to block Maliki’s request to dismiss Vice Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, who responded to Obama’s praise of al-Maliki by calling him a dictator; al-Maliki subsequently threatened a no-confidence motion. Iraqiya also wanted to convene over the nation’s budget and amnesty program. The bloc has yet end its boycott of al-Maliki’s cabinet sessions, and nine ministers failed to show on Tuesday. Ultimately, some Iraqiya members (including Allawi) view a national conference as the door to kick al-Maliki out of.

This situation doesn’t resemble the sunny glow of U.S. rhetoric: “we are encouraged by the decision of the Iraqiya bloc to end their boycott and to return to work at the Council of Representatives and also by the statements of other key blocs inside Iraq welcoming that decision.”

The Washington Post observed “it is unclear what Iraqiya has accomplished” through its boycott, but the results are beginning to add up. Iraq’s democratic obstacles would remain unaltered, with minimal pressure applied to al-Maliki as U.S. combat troops complete their withdrawal. Forcing the U.S. to respond at all, even in al-Maliki’s corner, is no small feat in itself. Had Iraqiya done nothing, al-Maliki would continue Iraq’s status quo indefinitely.

"What sort of Iraq we are talking about?" Hashimi wonders in response to Obama’s quasi-victory statements. "How the Americans will feel proud? How the American administration is going to justify to the taxpayer the billion of dollars that has been spent and at the end of the day the American saying, 'Sorry, we have no leverage even to put things in order in Iraq'?"

Separately, the State Department’s fleet of surveillance drones has produced another inadvertent error in the middle of a political crisis. These drones were downplayed as non-lethal by none other than Obama himself: “I think that there’s this perception that we’re just sending in a whole bunch of strikes willy nilly. It is important for everybody to understand that this is kept on a very tight leash.” Many Americans and Iraqis understand this distinction exactly. What Obama may not understand, judging from his rhetoric and potential use of private contractors, is the overwhelming power of perception.

Iraqis also value their sovereignty and privacy just like Americans.

Coupled with the Pentagon’s urgency to advance Iraq’s security relationship with al-Maliki, drones create the vivid impression that Washington remains primarily concerned with protecting its own interests, not Iraqis. This policy is not conducive to the country’s stability, but instead prolongs its politico-security vacuum. Now the White House must await Baghdad’s next storm with everyone else - and dividing Iraqiya or rescuing al-Maliki could shatter Iraq’s relative peace.

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