Saturday, June 7, 2008

Iraq's Ever More Complex Politics

I've appended below some excellent analysis and commentary from an astute long-time observer, Helena Cobban; and be sure to check out the links to the pieces by Juan Cole, David Ignatius, and Spencer Ackerman. Cobban makes an excellent point here, along with Reidar Visser (who has been arguing for months that most Iraqis do not want the kind of partitioning of their country that so many US pundits have been advocating), that some important players in Iraqi politics are trying to pull together a movement across sectarian divides, but the Bush people keep playing to the ISCI-Hakim-Maliki axis and to the Kurds. Each of those groups wants de facto soft partition, with a Shiite super-region in the south and a mostly autonomous Kurdish region in the north. In effect, this allows Bush to keep Iraq divided but under the fiction of a central government that, in reality, cannot exist without US support and military muscle. Among the upsides: the Kurds are chomping at the bit to make deals with any and all to pump their oil. The US companies are chomping at the bit to get at those riches. What's standing in the way? Among other things, nationalist groups in the Iraqi parliament who want to see Iraq's oil resources under the control of a real, empowered (vs. lackey to the US) Iraqi central government.

Iraq roundup: SOFA, Maliki in Iran, etc

Posted by Helena Cobban at June 7, 2008 11:40 AM

So Maliki's party has now split. (Also, see here.) One delicious aspect of this development-- from the anti-occupation point of view-- is that it's former US puppet-in-chief Ibrahim Jaafari who has led the split, taking about 10 members out of the present PM's party and into the new "Da'wa National Reform" trend, which has allied itself with the new Iraq-nationalist (i.e. anti-SOFA, anti-US-occupation and also somewhat anti-Iranian) bloc that has been put together by the Sadrists and others.

Does this mean it is definitely curtains for the Bushists' attempts to force a longterm SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) on the Maliki government before they leave office? Probably.

Juan Cole writes today about the split in Maliki's party,

    It is really quite remarkable that a sitting prime minister should preside over a schism in his own party, despite his control of billions of dollars in patronage.

    Apparently, al-Maliki has been maneuvered by the Bush administration into a position where he has virtually no popular or party support, and is left with Washington has his only anchor.

But wait. Washington, it turns out, is not Maliki's only anchor! Because guess where-- in this moment of extreme political threat for his premiership-- he is headed today!

You likely already guessed: Iran.

Maliki's decision to rush off there at a time of such great political tension at home hilariously demonstrates two things:

    (a) the degree to which the Bushists have been losing control of the situation in the Iran-Iraq theater; and

    (b) the degree to which there is now an increasingly strong convergence of interests between Iran and Washington inside Iraq, as both sides face the increasing strength of the Iraqi-nationalist trend.

Okay, regarding the convergence, see this piece that the ever-well-informed David Ignatius will be publishing in tomorrow's WaPo.

In it, David is trying to plumb the thinking and intentions of Brig. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's Qods (Jerusalem) Force.

David writes, somewhat grandiloquently, that

    it is the soft-spoken Soleimani, not Iran's bombastic president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who plays a decisive role in his nation's confrontation with the United States.
Grandiloquent, because while Soleimani might be more powerful in Tehran than Ahmadinejad, both of them are clearly outranked both on paper and in terms of actual decisionmaking by "Supreme Guide" Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i.

Still, Soleimani is not inconsequential.

So here's David's methodology. He relies almost wholly on the hearsay accounts of someone he identifies only as "an Arab official who met recently with [Soleimani]." For what it's worth, my money for the source is on the ever-agile Ahmad Chalabi, who I believe has some kind of a job-title that could enable one to describe him as an "official."

(Chalabi snake-oil again, she groans, clutching her brow in disbelief? This can surely lead nowhere good... )

Well anyway, David does nothing whatsoever to reassure us that Chalabi is not the source...

So here, for what it's worth, is what David's un-named Arab tells us about Soleimani's current thinking:

    Soleimani is confident about Iran's rising power in the region... He sees an America that is weakened by the war in Iraq but still potent. He has told visitors that U.S. and Iranian goals in Iraq are similar, despite the rhetoric of confrontation. But he has expressed no interest in direct, high-level talks. The Quds Force commander prefers to run out the clock on the Bush administration, hoping that the next administration will be more favorable to Iran's interests.

    "The level of confidence of these [Quds Force] guys is that they are it, and everything else is marginal," says the Arab who meets regularly with Soleimani.

Toward the end of the column David concludes:
    The question for Soleimani-watchers is how he will play his hand in the growing confrontation over Iran's nuclear program. The Bush administration seems to have decided on a course of escalating pressure against Tehran during its remaining months in office. The Iranians, while maintaining a tough line on the nuclear issue, as well as in Iraq and Lebanon, appear wary of an all-out confrontation.

    So imagine that you are Qassem Soleimani, commander of a covert Iranian army deployed across the Middle East: You doubt the Bush administration would run the risk of a military strike against Iran, but you can't be sure. You think America can't afford to play chicken in an election year, but you can't be certain of that, either. You think Iran is on a roll, but you know how quickly that advantage can be squandered by unwise choices. You know that Arabs, even in Iraq, have become peeved at what they see as meddling and overreaching by Tehran.

    So you watch and wait. You give ground where necessary, but you prepare to strike back, as devastatingly as possible -- and on your own terms, not those of your adversary.

Sort of inconclusive as an ending, I feel. If David's source is Chalabi-- or actually, regardless of the identity of that near-native informant-- then one needs seriously to probe what his goal is in passing on this "information" to David. One also needs to probe David's goal in publishing this piece.

Regarding Chalabi, the best explanation for the invasion-inciting role he played so brilliantly in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq is that he was in good part on the Iranians' pay-roll in those years, when he was inveigling the Americans into toppling Tehran's old nemesis Saddam Hussein, and that he looked forward to being installed as the new leader in Iraq with the support of both Washington and Tehran.

First part worked. Second part didn't. Here he is again?

What is the current game-plan of this ever-shifty manipulator? Who knows?

Meanwhile, back to the Iraqi political system. I am very grateful to Reidar Visser for having added the following additional commentary to what I posted on JWN here yesterday, about the discussion with the two Iraqi parliamentarians:

    the list of signatories to the letter you linked to with Iraqi parliamentarians protesting is extremely interesting. It consists of the same parties that have been trying to put together a cross-sectarian alliance ever since 2006, despite the formidable disadvantage of having an opponent (the Maliki government) which receives all the backing of the Bush administration, while they themselves have almost zero support in the outside world.

    In October 2006 they tried to defeat the law for implementing federalism, but failed by a small margin. In January 2008, they produced a robust statement calling for a negotiated settlement of Kirkuk (instead of an early referendum) and criticised Kurdish attempts to circumvent Baghdad in oil contract dealings. The high point came in February 2008, when they managed to press through a demand for early provincial elections during the parliamentary debate of the non-federated governorates act, despite the determined opposition of the Maliki government.

    Today, they are trying to prevent attempts by Kurds and ISCI to manipulate the electoral process for the upcoming elections – attempts that include suggestions to create an electoral law that would prevent the use of “open” candidate lists (whereby voters can focus on individuals instead of parties).

Visser also asked this extremely important question:
    The big question is, when the Bush administration gives all its support to the opponents of this alliance – the Maliki government and the Kurdish–ISCI axis, why is it that the supposed creators of “alternative” US policies in Iraq, the Democrats, are focusing all their energies on outbidding Bush in this regard, by signalling even stronger support for the “soft partition” minority of Iraqis led by Barzani and Hakim?

    Would it not be more logical for them to reach out to this nationalist parliamentary bloc, which despite its difficult situation (its enemies are supported by both the US and Iran) could now be a real majority, and could certainly have a great potential if it just received a little help from the outside world? This is a fantastic initiative by the AFSC, but one wishes it had come from American politicians eager to craft an alternative Iraq policy instead…

Visser is absolutely correct to put the Democratic Party in the US on the line like this. I guess if pushed, many Democrats might give strong weight to Israel's longstanding preference for Iraq not to re-emerge as a strong and capable unitary state...

I guess what I'm hoping, though, is that the visit to Washington by MPs Ulayyan and Jaberi has succeeded at least in opening good channels of continuing communication between them and all the political forces here in DC.

By the way, here is another account of the parliamentarians' visit here, by the strongly leftist-leaning (except on Israel) reporter ,Spencer Ackerman. Ackerman met the MPs at two events different from the one I attended, and I believe he also reported on their appearance at the House Subcommittee on Wednesday.

Ackerman's account there has much of interest in it. It is fuller than the account I blogged yesterday, and is completely consonant with what I heard. That's good. It means the two MPs stayed consistently on-message during their time here.

Actually there is something of a gathering stream of Iraqi pols visiting DC these days. This is one of the collateral benefits of the administration here having undertaken its essentially colonialist project in Iraq in the name of "democratization": That makes it hard for them to suppress all these outreach efforts inside the US by a wide range of Iraqi voices.

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