Juan Cole: The war against Iraq's prime minister

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Juan Cole teaches Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan. His most recent book Napoleon's Egypt: Invading the Middle East (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007) has just been published. He has appeared widely on television, radio and on op-ed pages as a commentator on Middle East affairs, and has a regular column at Salon.com. He has written, edited, or translated 14 books and has authored 60 journal articles. His weblog on the contemporary Middle East is Informed Comment]

... The American search for a scapegoat in Iraq is a bipartisan effort ... and Maliki seems to fit the bill, especially since his political support is collapsing at home. He was dealt a new blow Tuesday when clashes between Shiite militiamen, security forces and pilgrims left 26 dead in the sacred city of Karbala, forcing the evacuation of 1 million pilgrims and the cancellation of one of Shia Islam's holiest festivals. If a Shiite prime minister can't keep order in a Shiite city, what chance does he stand against his critics at home and abroad?

But the American politicians who are trying to hasten his demise often get their facts wrong, and may be undermining him for the wrong reasons. They could be preparing the way for a successor even less likely to cooperate with the Sunnis. They do not, in short, seem to understand how their "feudal estate" works.

Levin started the latest round of Maliki bashing a week ago Monday, saying, "I hope the parliament will vote the Maliki government out of office and will have the wisdom to replace it with a less sectarian and more unifying prime minister and government." Clinton piled on two days later, saying that the Maliki government "cannot produce a political settlement, because it is too beholden to religious and sectarian leaders." She added, "I share Senator Levin's hope that the Iraqi parliament will replace Prime Minister al-Maliki with a less divisive and more unifying figure when it returns in a few weeks."

By the time Clinton spoke, President Bush had worsened the situation with some injudicious, impromptu remarks, admitting, "I think there's a certain level of frustration with the leadership in general, inability to ... come together to get, for example, an oil revenue law passed or provincial elections." Journalists understandably thought he might be giving up on Maliki -- not at all his intended message, according to what I was told by someone with inside knowledge of the administration's Iraq policy. The president was constrained to clarify later that he thought Maliki a "good man" with "a difficult job" and said he supported him. He underscored his support with Tuesday's laudatory speech before the American Legion.

Some of the charges against the prime minister are true. Maliki had neglected to reach out to the Sunni Arabs in his national unity government. But Sunni demands, which included the rehabilitation of Baathists and the release of large numbers of detainees suspected of involvement in guerrilla actions, were often unpalatable to Maliki.

Some of the charges are based on a misreading of Iraq. Sen. Warner, for one, made several misstatements about Maliki during his appearance on "Meet the Press." "You've got to remember," he insisted, "that the Maliki government, Shia interests, are very closely aligned with Iran." He added that the Shiites, having gotten to the "top of the hill," are "[reluctant] to give up a fair share to the Sunnis, to the Kurds ... Unless you have a unity government between those three factions, Iraq will not become a strong sovereign nation."

Warner is wrong to imply that Maliki's Shiite government has bad relations with the Kurds. In fact, the Kurdistan Alliance is what keeps Maliki in power, given that two major Shiite factions have quit his governing coalition. Likewise, Warner doesn't grasp the role of Iran. Maliki is less close to Iran than his predecessor, Ibrahim Jaafari, was. Warner does not understand the Islamic Call Party or its history as an Iraqi nationalist organization with a Shiite emphasis.

And the pressure now coming from Congress to replace Maliki is also unlikely to produce positive change. Although any 55 parliamentarians may introduce a vote of no confidence, at this point it's hard to see how Maliki's Iraqi critics could overcome their own divisions to form the majority vote needed to unseat him. Nor is there an obvious, tested alternative who would have more chance of achieving Bush's benchmarks, which include provincial elections, changes in the harsh de-Baathification laws that have excluded many Sunni Arabs from public life, and a new law specifying equitable distribution of oil income. Former appointed interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi has hired a fancy Washington public relations firm and is among four politicians aiming to bring down Maliki and take his place. But Allawi, an ex-Baathist, Shiite secularist and old-time CIA asset, only has 25 seats in parliament and does not have the popularity to come to power by democratic means.

If parliament brought down Maliki, it would not choose his successor directly. By the constitution, President Jalal Talabani would have to go to the single largest bloc in parliament (still the Shiite fundamentalist United Iraqi Alliance) and ask it to choose a prime minister. The new choice would come either from Maliki's Islamic Call Party or from the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council of Shiite cleric Abdul Aziz al-Hakim. SIIC is much closer to the ayatollahs in Tehran than Maliki is, and much less likely to compromise with the Sunni Arabs....

Maliki's American critics may be right that he is not the man for the job of reconciliation. It is more likely that no Iraqi politician could accomplish much in today's Iraq, where the civilian government is largely irrelevant and the Iraqi army is still poorly trained and equipped and suffers from poor morale. Most of this dysfunctionality can be traced to American decisions and policies, which deprived Iraq of a functioning army and a professional bureaucracy. In any case, Maliki's fate depends not on the U.S. but on the Iraqi parliament, and intervening in their relationship is inevitably a form of imperialism. Playing musical chairs with the prime minister, an old colonial habit in the United States with regard to its overseas possessions, will simply undermine what little faith remains in democracy in Iraq.

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