Efforts by the United States to split the Shi’ite United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) and deny interim Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari his claim to head the next government could well prove counter-productive to long-term U.S. objectives in both Iraq and the larger region, according to some specialists here.
Not only has heavy-handed U.S. intervention in negotiations to create a new government deepened divisions among the various factions, they say, but efforts to marginalize Jaafari epitomized by secretary of state Condoleezza Rice’s snub during her trip with British Foreign Minister Jack Straw to Baghdad earlier this week risk empowering groups that are much more closely tied to neighboring Iran.
Those groups notably the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) are also the two that are most opposed to amending the constitution to accommodate the demands of the Sunni minority for a stronger federal government that would assure an equitable distribution of the country’s oil revenues.
Both groups favor a weak federal system in which the Kurdish north and the Shi’ite south, the two centres of Iraq’s oil wealth, would enjoy maximum autonomy.
If they come to dominate a new government, current trends moving the country toward outright civil war are likely to intensify, as could conflict among the Shi’ite militias themselves, according to these experts.
"If the Shi’ite center collapses, then massive internecine violence, Kurdish secessions, and a Shi’ite dictatorship seem likely," according to an article published in the Wall Street Journal Monday by Reuel Marc Gerecht, an Iraq specialist and former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI).
Indeed, a related Journal editorial, published Wednesday, noted that PUK leader and Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani, appears "to have struck a deal with SCIRI to acquiesce in a Kurdish takeover of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk" a move that Iraq experts have long warned would plunge the country into civil war.
Gerecht is not alone in warning against current U.S. efforts to sideline Jaafari, who narrowly defeated SCIRI’s Abdel Abdul Mehdi as the UIA’s candidate for prime minister in mid-February. The UIA, a coalition that includes SCIRI, Jaafari’s Da’wa party, followers of Moqtada al-Sadr, and several smaller Shi’ite factions, has by far the largest bloc in the new 275-seat national assembly that was elected last December.
Helena Cobban, an independent Middle East specialist and columnist for the Christian Science Monitor who, unlike Gerecht, strongly opposed the U.S. invasion and subsequent occupation, also believes that Washington’s eagerness to oust Jaafari by splitting the UIA undermines its professed interests in averting civil war, preserving Iraq’s unity, and, most of all, keeping Iran at bay.
"SCIRI and Talabani are both really tight with the mullahs in Tehran much more so than Jaafari and (his) Da’wa (party) and Moqtada," Cobban told IPS. "My view is that (U.S. ambassador Zalmay) Khalilzad has been spun for an absolute sucker by Talabani and the Iranians."
Moreover, she said, Washington also bears heavy responsibility for the ongoing impasse in forming the government, an impasse that has not only exacerbated sectarian conflict throughout the country, but one the administration has tried to blame on Jaafari, as a way of pressing him to step aside.
Its campaign against him began almost as soon as he won the UIA’s nomination and has intensified in recent weeks, culminating in Rice’s visit, according to Cobban.
But U.S. interference has largely backfired by delaying formation of the government, fueling the impression among Shi’ites, who constitute roughly 60 percent of Iraq’s population, that Washington is conspiring deprive them of their victory in the December elections, and strengthening Sadr, the most anti-American and nationalist of all the Shi’ite factions.
Washington opposes Jaafari less for his perceived ineffectiveness as interim prime minister than for his close ties with indeed, growing dependence on Sadr, whose 15,000-man Mahdi Army militia dominates Sadr City in Baghdad, battled U.S. troops in 2004, and was responsible for many of the attacks on Sunnis that followed the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra six weeks ago.
Sadr’s spokesman, Fatah al-Sheikh, told Newsweek that, in exchange for Sadr’s support within the UIA, Jaafari promised to demand a clear timetable for the withdrawal of all U.S. forces if he succeeded in becoming prime minister.
In order to prevent this from happening, Khalilzad has forged a de facto alliance with Talabani and SCIRI which, according to some experts, made clear to Khalilzad from the outset that, despite its commitment to UAI unity, it wanted the premiership for itself.
Their candidate is Mehdi, whose support for free-market economics and Western mien and education have made him a favorite in Washington for some time. But, as Gerecht noted this week, "Mehdi isn’t SCIRI."
In addition to their common views on federalism, both PUK and SCIRI have close long-standing ties with Tehran which provided them with shelter and material support during Saddam Hussein’s reign. Indeed, SCIRI’s militia, the Badr Brigades, were trained and equipped by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and are widely believed to be most responsive to Tehran’s wishes of all of the Shi’ite armed groups in Iraq.
Significantly, Tehran gave credit to SCIRI last month for its agreement to engage in direct talks with Washington about cooperation on stabilizing Iraq, a move that not only ended a three-year hiatus in direct contacts between the two countries, but that has also spurred fears among Sunni-led governments in the Gulf, as well as the Sunni community in Iraq, that Washington is preparing to strike a deal with Tehran at their expense.
"That the Bush administration would welcome SCIRI-backed Iranian-U.S. talks in Baghdad is bizarre," according Gerecht. "We should want to underscore and oppose all of SCIRI’s Iranian flirtations."
Ironically, the strongest bulwark against Iranian influence in the majority Shi’ite community, according to analysts here, is Sadr, whose Iraqi nationalism has appealed even to Sunnis with whom he has at times made common cause. Moreover, his opposition to the kind of weak federal structure favored by the Kurds and SCIRI also crosses sectarian lines. And, while U.S. officials have depicted him as a "divisive and sectarian presence in Iraqi politics," according to Cobban, "SCIRI is far, far more divisive, sectarian, and violent."
So far, however, Washington’s efforts to split the UIA and oust Jaafari as its candidate have failed, a fact that both Gerecht and Cobban credit to the still-dominant influence over the Shi’ite community of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani who reportedly ignored a U.S. appeal to weigh in against Jaafari and who has repeatedly called for the coalition to maintain its unity.
While Mehdi called for Jaafari to step aside earlier this week, SCIRI’s leader, Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, has remained silent lest he be seen as defying Sistani. "I think Sistani is sitting there in Najaf very quietly holding the reins," said Cobban.
(Inter Press Service)