A silver bullet aimed at Iraq's head
An important aspect of the United States' quest for government stability and for resolving the ever-escalating sectarian violence in Iraq is the campaign to have Ibrahim al-Jaafari dumped. The incumbent premier was chosen by the dominant Shi'ite bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), after January's elections to continue for another term.
The Sunnis, the Kurds and secular Shi'ites now fully support the US in wanting to fire the silver bullet that would get Jaafari out, but the overarching question ought to be whether his replacement will result in the emergence of a national-unity government - something that Jaafari has been unable to facilitate.
On Sunday, the Shi'ite faction in the UIA led by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim and his Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) said it would put forward the name of another candidate to replace Jaafari, who in February narrowly won the Shi'ite vote after receiving support from influential cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
This split in the UIA was made public after US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Jack Straw, the British foreign secretary, paid an unexpected visit to Iraq to press for the political deadlock to be broken.
Replacing Jaafari, though, is no guarantee that anything will change, or that it will not worsen, but the officials visiting Iraq will not want to hear that. Worse, the Shi'ite split opens the possibility of clashes among rival factions, which both have effective militias.
In the post-Saddam Hussein era, the most comforting aspect of political developments from the vantage point of the Shi'ites was that they perceived the US forces and their act of toppling the dictator as necessary evils, and a precondition for establishing Shi'ite rule through the introduction of democracy.
In essence they were right in that calculation. Now a number of developments are turning that dream into a pipe dream, even a nightmare, for the Shi'ites. The foremost of these developments is the emergence of Shi'ite militias. The best known (or the ones with the bloodiest image) are the Badr Organization of Hakim and the Mehdi Army of Muqtada.
Of these, the administration of US President George W Bush is threatened most by the Mehdi Army. Muqtada has always been perceived by the Americans as a loose cannon and a Trojan horse for Iranian influence, even though he is at times critical of that country.
The US has been fully aware of the damage caused by the Shi'ite militias in relation to Sunnis. However, it did not follow a resolute policy of dissolving or eradicating them. It was only after the bloodletting that followed the February bombing of the revered Shi'ite Golden Dome in Samarra that the US occupation authorities came to a conclusion that, to win Sunni support for a unity government, they must contain, if not dissolve outright, the militias.
And to the not-too-effective strategy of fighting the Sunni-supported insurgency, another layer - that of winning the hearts and minds of the Sunnis - was added.
A starting point of this resolve was to initiate a campaign to dump Jaafari, since he is aligned with the Muqtada faction, favors virtually independent Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish areas, and wants Islamic rule. Discontent over Jaafari has now served to split the UIA, which must have been the US intention all along, placing Jaafari's Da'wa Party and Muqtada at odds with Hakim's SCIRI.
What is also working in favor of the Bush administration in its drive against Jaafari is that, since the January elections, there has been a new realignment among the Sunnis, the Kurds (led by President Jalal Talabani) and secular Shi'ites, focused very much against the candidacy of Jaafari.
Sunnis and Kurds do not like his Islamist credentials, for different reasons. Kurds don't like them because of their secularist predilections, while Sunni groups don't like them because they clash with their own theological perspectives of an Islamist democracy.
This is providing the Americans a golden opportunity to deprive the Islamists - at least the pro-Iran faction - from capturing the government.
The Americans believe that by so visibly favoring the Kurdish-Sunni-secular-Shi'ite alliance they will achieve the following. First, they will win goodwill from the Sunnis, which could translate into a reduction of their active support for the insurgency. This is what is popularly called the campaign to win the hearts and minds of the Sunnis.
Second, the US is hoping that once Jaafari is dumped, his replacement will be Adel Abdel Mahdi, or, better yet, former premier Iyad Allawi. Even though Allawi's chances are slim, US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad will certainly push for him behind the scenes. The US thinking appears to be: when your adversaries get wobbly knees, push even harder for their fall.
The most unknown - but an extremely important variable - is whether the dumping of Jaafari will bring an end to sectarian strife. The best guess is that it is likely to have very little - to no - effect, for the following reasons.
First, the disgruntled Muqtada faction is not likely to sit still. It could follow the example of the Sunnis by creating its own version of insurgency. Second, even though the Americans are counting on the ability of Abdel Mahdi to become a coalition-builder, that capability is still very much of an unknown variable. Third, the Kurds, in general, have shown little tolerance for acceding to major concessions demanded by competing factions, if such measures are perceived as jeopardizing their cherished autonomy.
About the only reason the Kurds have aligned themselves with Sunni Arabs and secular Shi'ites now is to oust Jaafari. In Iraq - as in the Middle East as a whole - the principle of my enemy's enemy is my friend has very limited and ephemeral effectiveness. Once Jaafari goes, there is a high chance that the Kurds will return to their previous tactics of coming up with "non-negotiable" demands regarding the resettlement of Kurds in Kirkuk, and other related aims.
The greatest unknown variable related to all these developments is the role of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the senior spiritual leader among Shi'ites. He recently manifested his displeasure toward the US administration's growing meddlesome attitude over political maneuvering among Iraqi groups by reportedly not even reading a letter that was sent to him by President Bush. According to some reports, the letter was not even translated for the ayatollah's reading, a measure that carries quite a bit of political and symbolic significance among Shi'ites. However, political observers claim that Sistani will opt for a unity government and will not object if (to be precise, when) the UIA finally dumps Jaafari.
Should Jaafari go, there is little doubt that the US capability to remain a kingmaker will have been re-established. Not that it will necessarily make any difference.
Ehsan Ahrari is the CEO of Strategic Paradigms, an Alexandria, Virginia-based defense consultancy. He can be reached at [email protected] or [email protected]. His columns appear regularly in Asia Times Online. His website: www.ehsanahrari.com.
Dr. Ehsan Ahrari is member of the WSN International Advisory Board.