After Black Wednesday, tensions between Iraq and Syria simmer

Leaders try to reconcile as Iraqi protestors claim Syrian complicity in attacks that left 60 dead

Published September 8, 2009 2:09PM (EDT)

Al-Zaman reports in Arabic that the Islamic Mission Party (Da'wa) headed by Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki is holding public demonstrations against Syria over its alleged role in harboring Baathist terrorists that hit Iraqi government buildings two Wednesdays ago. The demonstration in al-Hillah south of Baghdad on Monday did not strike me as that impressive, consisting of only 200 persons, including high officials. Another set of demonstrations is planned for September 24 ahead of the UN Security Council's consideration of Iraq's request that an international tribunal be established to look into Syria's behavior. Al-Maliki maintains that the Syrian Baath Party, which rules that country, is giving safe harbor to Iraqi Baathists who fled the 2003 U.S. invasion of that country, and who planned out the Black Wednesday operation that left 60 dead and decimated Iraq's diplomatic corps at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. President Jalal Talabani will make another effort at reconciliation during his forthcoming visit to Ankara, where he will meet Syrian president Bashar al-Asad. Turkey has been attempting to mediate the conflict, so far to no avail. Al-Maliki has sent thousands of Iraqi police north to patrol the long Syria-Iraq border, in an attempt to stop further infiltration of Sunni Arab Iraqi anti-regime activists from Damascus.

Al-Zaman also says that Iraqi Vice President Adil Abdul Mahdi (of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI)) opposes al-Maliki's hard line tactics and public reprimands of Syria and thinks a more collegial approach would yield more results. The issue of positioning Syria is clearly becoming part of the electoral contest between the ISCI-led Iraqi National Alliance coalition and the rival Islamic Mission Party among Iraqi Shiites. Al-Maliki clearly suspects the Iraqi ex-Baathists in Syria of plotting to unseat him in the forthcoming elections by creating instability in the capital through bombings; al-Maliki had expected to be able to campaign as a law and order candidate, but black Wednesday damaged his credentials in that respect. Abdul Mahdi, a contender himself for prime minister in January, also joined President Talabani and VP Tariq al-Hashimi in challenging the legality of al-Maliki's dismissal of Ministry of the Interior spokesman Gen. Abdul Karim al-Khalaf, a step they maintained needed their approval.

Violence continued in Iraq on Monday, with a string of bombings killing 18 and wounding 40. Guerrillas targeted a checkpoint in the western Sunni center of Ramadi, a Shiite mosque in the northeastern city of Baqubah, and a minibus in the Shiite shrine city of Karbala to the south.

Al-Jazeera has video on the Iraq-Syria tensions:


Al-Maliki's government also is accused of launching a widespread campaign of mass arrests in Baghdad of suspected Baathists, which is souring further his relations with Sunni Arab parties. They accuse the security forces of indiscriminately sweeping up Sunnis who had been members before 2003 of the Baath Party or the old army. The Iraqi Islamic Party is among those groups protesting.

Liz Sly of the LA Times is among the first reporters to detail for us how different life is for US troops in Iraq since they ceased urban patrols on June 30. In her telling, U.S. officers have been surprised to find that the Iraqi military really does not want them in the cities, where their presence is considered a provocation. The decline by one third in the number of attacks in July, the first month of no urban U.S. patrols, suggests that their presence was provoking a certain number of attacks. The US troops can still carry out operations in the countryside, but there is not always much going on out there, and they end up doing Peace Corps kinds of projects to help the farmers. Sly's report says that men on some bases are leaving it only half as often now. This datum suggests to me that the U.S. withdrawal could be accelerated with no particular damage to urban security.

By Juan Cole

Juan Cole is collegiate professor of history at the University of Michigan. He runs a news and commentary webzine on U.S. foreign policy and progressive politics, Informed Comment. His new book, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires (Nation Books), has just been published.


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Iraq Iraq War Middle East Syria