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.

Topics: Iraq, Middle East

Saving Iraq: Mission impossible

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 mutinies.

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 government department.

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 religious past.

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 as Amara.

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.

Salon contributor Juan Cole is a professor of modern Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan and the author of "Engaging the Muslim World."

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