The only hope for Iraq is Iraq itself
Charting a truly new course forward in 2007
By AcademicElephant Posted in Foreign Affairs — Comments (6) / Email this page » / Leave a comment »
(I know, I know--I already Red-Hotted this, but I think it deserves more thorough treatment)
Under the radar, momentous political events are taking place in Iraq that may have profound ramifications for the future of the country. It seems that a powerful Shiite-Sunni coalition with ties to Kurdish leaders that does not include radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is preparing to oust current prime minister Nouri al-Maliki and install a new government. They can do this legally under the Iraqi constitution with a simple confidence vote, and they say they have the backers to win. The emerging leaders appear to have the support of Washington, notably the kingpin, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, who visited the White House last week. The Washington press corps heaved a collective yawn of boredom at his arrival, for they had far more pressing work to do covering the unveiling of the Iraq Study Group report. But they may have missed something major. This eminent Shiite cleric is no stranger to Iraq's troubles; he lost six brothers to Saddam Hussein, and one to an assassin in Najaf last year. Even so he has not lost hope, and is looking to broker a new way forward for his country. Is he the "Iraqi George Washington" that everyone's been looking for? I don't want to go all Pollyanna-ish on you, and I know it's hadly au currant to see positive developments in Iraq, but the man and the moment may be coming together here. After meeting with President Bush on December 4th, Mr. al-Hakim proclaimed:
The Iraqi situation has been subjected to a great deal of defamation, and the true picture is not being presented in order to show a dark side of what's happening in Iraq. We see the attempts to defame and distort the situation in Iraq not taking into consideration the democratic steps that that country has taken, writing the constitution and establishing a state that depends heavily on the constitution, that it is unified and that it is strong. There are attempts to show the sectarian strife in an attempt to weaken the position in Iraq.
The U.S. interests, the Iraqi interests, the regional interests, they are all linked. Therefore, it is very important when we deal with this issue, we look at the interests of the Iraqi people. If we don't, this whole issue could backfire and could harm the interests of the region, the United States, and Iraq, as well.
Therefore, we believe that the Iraqi issue should be solved by the Iraqis with the help of friends everywhere. But we reject any attempts to have a regional or international role in solving the Iraqi issue. We cannot bypass the political process. Iraq should be in a position to solve Iraqi problems. We welcome any effort that could enhance the democratic reality in Iraq and protect the constitutional role of that state.
We have gone a long way to establish a democratic and pluralistic society in Iraq. We have given a great deal of sacrifice to achieving the objective. We cherish all the sacrifices that took place for the liberation and the freedom of Iraq, sacrifices by the Iraqi people, as well as friendly nations, and on top of that list, sacrifices by the Americans. We have now an elected government in Iraq, a government that is so determined to combat both violence and terror, a government that it is -- strongly believes in the unity of that government and of that country and the society, a government that deals and will deal with all the sources of terrorism regardless where they come from.
Mr. al-Hakim also gave a speech at Catholic University while he was in Washington titled "Freedom and Tolerance in Shi'a Islam and the Future of Iraq." The event received no media coverage, but you can watch it here.
A second critical player in the proposed new administration would be the powerful Sunni politician and current vice president Tariq al-Hashemi. Mr. al-Hashemi is in Washington this week where he, too, will meet with President Bush and presumably update him on the progress the coalition is making. Like Mr. al-Hakim, Mr. al-Hashemi has lost close family members to insurgent violence, a shared experience that may give them a sense of personal urgency as they try to bridge the Sunni-Shiite divide. Indeed, Mr. al-Hashemi's aides have said as much, noting that they have been "forced" into this political action by the failure of the current government to control the violence in Baghdad. It may be that these two Iraqis who were unwilling to compromise last spring have looked into the terrible abyss of civil war, and decided to step back, regroup and take matters into their own hands. Mr. al-Hashemi's trip to America was originally scheduled for early January, but has been moved up--possibly because an alternative prime minister has been agreed upon by the coalition. As a cleric, Mr. al-Hakim is not eligible for such office, and the most likely candidate is his close associate Adil Abdul-Mahdi, who is currently the other vice-president of Iraq.
So what would such a new government under Mr. Abdul-Mahdi promise? The bad news is that in the short term, it probably would mean escalated violence. A change of government in and of itself will not be an instant silver bullet and fix all Iraq's problems. Al-Sadr will not go quietly. The Iranian and the Syrians are not going to like this. There may be a last-ditch effort to keep Mr. al-Maliki in power through military means. But Mr. Abdul-Mahdi's government would not be beholden on al-Sadr's miltia--or any other militia for that matter--to maintain power, and so would not turn a blind eyes to bad behavior. On the contrary, the new authority would have a vested interest in engaging the militias and cleaning out the festering slum that is Sadr City. With US support, this could be a bloody and violent but decisive action that would result in a dramatic increase in security in Baghdad. Furthermore, as a trained economist, Mr. Abdul-Mahdi can help stimulate a free market system the likes of which Iraq has never known. Another piece of under-reported news this week that promises positive developments on this front is progress towards an agreement to distribute Iraq's oil revenue throughout the country. Once this contentious issue is resolved, Iraq can start to harvest its substantial resources to the benefit of all its citizens--a development that will be facilitated by the existence of a strong and stabilizing central government.
Was Mr. Bush disingenuous to meet with Mr. al-Maliki in Jordan on November 30th and declare his support for the Iraqi prime minister? Perhaps. But the hard cold reality is that even with this new coalition beginning to form, we need a viable government in place until it can take power. Mr. al-Maliki is what we have for the moment--and I expect it was probably best to give him this shot in the arm and so to blind al-Sadr to his peril. Furthermore, Mr. al-Maliki may emerge in historical hindsight as a crucial interim figure. Last spring, the desperate need was to get a government seated. It seems that insurgent factions were eager to bypass the election results and establish an alternative government during this period, a development that would have struck a deadly blow to democracy in Iraq. Mr. al-Maliki filled that need, and established an administration that has begun to function. A peaceful transition to more effective leadership now would serve to further legitimize the institutions of the new Iraqi government, and demonstrate to the population that political change can occur in an orderly fashion under the rules of the consitution.
How ironic it will be if Mr. Bush's new course for Iraq that he has promised to unveil before Christmas is not based on the proposals of the Iraq Study Group, or even on the reviews prepared by his own Defense and State Departments, but on a plan developed by the Iraqis themselves. Imagine that. This would not be an American solution. It would be an Iraqi solution--perhaps facilitated by the US, but conceived and implemented by the Iraqis. And it might not be exactly and precisely what we would choose for them, but it's the only solution with a prayer of succeeding. Yes, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim is a Shiite cleric, a status that may touch off concerns in many Americans that he plans to institute a repressive theocracy in Iraq. He sought political asylum in Iran in the 1980s after being imprisoned by Saddam, which may lead some to fear increased Iranian influence in any government he forms. But Mr. al-Hakim is not talking such talk. Muqtada al-Sadr is. Mr. al-Hakim proposes to marginalize and isolate him, and rejects calls for "regional" participation in Iraq's security. From where I sit, Mr. al-Hakim makes practical and ideological sense, and I believe he can help Iraq build towards a free and prosperous future. If he succeeds, we finally will be in a position to take on an increasingly consultative role and draw down combat troops as we begin to enjoy having an increasingly independent ally in this region.
The time may be precisely right for such a change in Iraq. It looks as if things may start to move pretty quickly, and the Iraqis have a vested interest in getting this new government seated as quickly as possible because their training wheels are coming off. As much as it pains me to see them leave this stage (and hopefully they won't go very far), the departure of Donald Rumsfeld, George Casey and Zalmay Khalilzad could prove beneficial to this process. They perforce have been the glue that has kept Iraq together through this tumultuous period of sectarian violence, and we could hold in Iraq indefinitely on our current course. But for the country to move forward the Iraqis must "pull up their socks" and get down to it themselves without the safety net provided by these powerful individuals. Now the proposed coalition offers the promise of such real progress politically, economically and militarily. I just hope we've still got it in us to support the Iraqis during what no doubt will be a rough transition. We need to understand that remaining engaged in Iraq would not mean simply maintaining the status quo under this new government. It would mean helping them rid their country of al-Sadr rather than accomodating him. It would mean defining Iraq's regional role, not inviting malfeasant neighbors to participate in its government. The Iraqis still need us, but if we have the short-term will to help them through this period, they will be able to develop the long-term ability to help themselves.