June 4, 2012

Iraq's Time-bomb Keeps Ticking

How easily the suffering and hardship of millions is reduced to a fulfilled campaign promise. Speaking to audiences across America, President Barack Obama and his campaign staff have decided to compress his "successful" foreign policy into the smallest form possible. Sometimes Obama never steps foot on the international scene, but if he does have time to conjoin America's domestic and foreign agendas, the bottom of his stump speech will contain the following paragraph: "For the first time in nine years, there are no Americans fighting in Iraq. Osama bin Laden is no longer a threat to this country. Al Qaeda is on the path to defeat. And by 2014, the war in Afghanistan will be over." 

The reality that Afghanistan's war is unlikely to turn off after 2014 - the Obama administration is doggedly campaigning for a residual Special Forces contingent - blends perfectly with Iraq's current situation. 

Like most skilled politicians, Obama isn't lying when he reminds his audience of America's combat withdrawal in December 2011. He knows what the majority of voters want to hear - he simply obstructs their viewpoint of Iraq by ignoring its political sphere. Here Iraqis are enduring the asymmetric war (al-Qaeda in Iraq, Sunni and Shia cells) and political warfare that Americans left behind them. A vivid manifestation of stalemate, Iraq's political parts continue to move towards a resolution that remains obscured by distance. Nor would Obama ever tell his crowds that, because of the past and present flaws in U.S. policy, Iran may possess more control over Iraq's crisis than Washington. 

With rumors and reports of Iranian interference surfacing daily, Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr traveled to Tehran on Monday to discuss the fate of embattled Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Cited as a tangible factor in President Jalal Talabani's decision-making process, Iran has also applied external Shia pressure on al-Sadr in order to preserve al-Maliki's rule. After joining Sunni and Kurdish efforts to expel al-Maliki, the cleric received a letter from one of his mentors, Grand Ayatollah Kazim al-Haeri, urging him to support al-Maliki's government and resolve Baghdad's crisis through dialogue. Now al-Sadr is staring down a fatwa that forbids supporting secular politicians, a move that al-Maliki's inner circle believes to be "directed at al-Sadr." Hamid al-Mutlaq, a Sunni lawmaker from the Iraqiya bloc, delivered a colorful quote in response to Tehran's political motions: "The Iranian interference annoys us a lot." 

Whether al-Sadr caves to Iranian pressure is far from certain though. Intent on forging his own agenda and growing an independent political base, the cleric only relented to al-Maliki's second term after receiving "security guarantees" for his militia. He was clearly awaiting another opportunity to challenge al-Maliki and has played an active role throughout the present crisis. al-Sadr continues to sit on Baghdad's fence, watching Iraq's political wind blow and demanding al-Maliki's resignation without making his final move. On Sunday he again urged the premier to voluntarily resign and clear a path for his replacement. Having assured his supporters that "the withdrawal of confidence cannot lead to chaos," al-Sadr's trip to Tehran is presumably addressing the consequences of al-Maliki's fall. 

Although Iran cannot be easily persuaded by arguments of stability - Tehran fears the loss of influence above instability - al-Sadr appears equally unwilling to parrot the government's terms. 

Whatever Iranian influence exists over Talabani will encounter greater resistance as al-Maliki's opponents push their ultimatum towards his State of Law party: nominate an acceptable replacement or face a no-confidence motion. Talabani made headlines after last weekend's meeting in Irbil ended in non-decision, but this story has since been fleshed out by al-Mutlaq and other Iraqi parliamentarians. According to al-Mutlaq, Talabani asked Kurdish President Massoud Barzani to hold onto the collective's "withdrawal of confidence letter" until he obtained the 163 signatures needed to secure al-Maliki's resignation. al-Mutlaq said that Barzani handed over the letter and 176 signatures on Sunday, sending al-Sadr off to reassure Tehran. 

Another Iraqiya MP, Ahmad al-Masari, put the total number of signatures above 200 and claimed that "the confidence measures will proceed early next week." He also expects to break off a minority of al-Maliki's supporters if they can lock down a majority of the 325 votes. 

Given the static nature of Baghdad's crisis and the extended process of organizing a no-confidence vote, Iraq's political system may remain paralyzed despite the opposition's furious attempt to contain al-Maliki's authority. Both sides lack the decisive force necessary to eliminate the other, creating optimum conditions for a stalemate, and the fear of unknown chaos is limiting the desire for dramatic action. Iraqiya, Kurdish and al-Sadr officials all acknowledge the potential instability of a no-confidence vote, while one local poll found that 63% of respondents oppose the measure. Conversely, al-Maliki refuses to concede an inch to his political opponents even though his isolated coalition is being propped up by Washington and Iran. Unless he discovers a path to compromise, al-Maliki is equally powerless to stop his opponents from marshaling against him - and resistance only encourages them to act. 

al-Maliki has already rejected offers to convene a national dialogue on the opposition's terms, going so far as to scrub the contested Irbil Agreement from a potential agenda. Now he claims that Iraqiya, the Kurds and al-Sadr obtained some of their signatures illegally, adding more time to a protracted battle with no defined end in sight. He even announced that "those who have forged the signatures or threatened lawmakers" should be brought to justice, a response that mirrors his threat against parliamentary speaker Usama al-Nujayfi. al-Maliki's State of Law pledged to acquire their own signatures and remove the "incompetent" al-Nujayfi after local media reported Irbil's latest developments. 

The speaker's convoy was targeted by IED days after he coauthored a vicious New York Times' op-ed against al-Maliki. Although no evidence tied the government to the blast, al-Nujayfi voiced his suspicion of a cover up when provincial authorities denies that an attack had occurred. 

The final piece of Iraq's stalemate also remains mired in the status quo. Instead of objectively addressing the crisis, Washington's tandem support with Iran is deepening Baghdad's tensions by maneuvering rival forces against each other. Still firmly backed into al-Maliki's corner, the Obama administration unsuccessfully lobbied Barzani to oppose a no-confidence vote during his recent trip to Washington. Similar pressure has been directed at Talabani and Iraqiya, while U.S. Ambassador James Jeffrey is reportedly applying pressure on al-Sadr via Amar al-Hakim and his Iranian-influenced Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCR). These meager efforts to shrink the trust gap between Iraq's political forces - the Obama administration is trying to patch a ship's torn hull with glue - are doomed to fail. 

If, when and how al-Maliki does succumb to his amassing opponents is impossible to predict, but such unpredictability is all the more reason to prepare for this outcome. Neither Washington nor Tehran will be able to suppress Iraq's oppositional groundswell once its energy is fully released.

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