Tuesday, April 17

Mookie-Maliki tiff: Don't be fooled by appearances warns a Syrian analyst

Sami Moubayed's analysis for the Asia Times is very interesting on many levels. It also gives Pundita hope that Iyad Allawi's political star is rising. I've never made a secret of my preference for Allawi as Iraqi PM.
Muqtada and Maliki as united as ever by Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - The relationship between Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki appeared to have taken a major downturn on Monday when Muqtada withdrew his six ministers from the cabinet. Appearances, though, especially in Byzantine Iraqi politics, can be deceptive,

In pulling out his ministers, Muqtada stressed his demand for a timetable for a US troop withdrawal from Iraq. Last December he "froze" his participation in the Maliki cabinet, to protest a meeting between the Iraqi prime minister and President George W Bush in

Jordan, only to return after Shi'ite ranks needed unification following the hanging of Saddam Hussein.

Monday's announcement was read by a seemingly confident Nasser al-Rubai of the Sadrist bloc. "The main reasons [for the Sadrist walkout] are the prime minister's lack of response to the demands of nearly 1 million people in Najaf asking for the withdrawal of US forces and the deterioration in security and services." On April 9, about a million Shi'ites, on Muqtada's call, marched in protest on the anniversary of the US invasion four years ago.

As long as Maliki fails to push hard for the Americans to leave, Muqtada said, there will not be any cooperation between the Sadrists and Maliki.

Significantly, though, Muqtada did not withdraw his 30 deputies from the 275-seat Parliament. Had he done that, it would automatically have brought down not only the Maliki cabinet but the entire Iran-backed United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) that heads Parliament and in which the Sadrists are a leading group.

Muqtada and Maliki apparently want the world to believe that they are no longer friends. They have not become enemies, however; at least not yet.

One of Maliki's advisors downplayed Muqtada's decision, saying that Muqtada was only practicing his "democratic right". She added, in what might explain why this break is not permanent, "Despite the difference in our views [with the Sadrists], our national vision is the same - only the methods of achieving it are different. We need to have real opposition from outside the government. This is a great beginning. The prime minister needs real opposition that can act as a watchdog inside Parliament."

Friends or foes?
Maliki's job is very much on the line. Apparently the decision-makers in Washington have decided to get rid of him if he does not bring stability and security to Iraq by June. That, anyway, is what officials at the US Embassy in Iraq told him in March.

Maliki therefore wants to create a bogyman in the form of Muqtada whom, he will tell the Americans, only he can tame. In short, Maliki wants to extract more aid and support from the US by playing up the "specter" of a "radicalized" Muqtada.

Muqtada gave an interesting interview to La Republica in January, explaining his relationship with Maliki - or at least how he wanted the world to see this relationship. He said: "Between myself and Abu Israa [an alternate name for Maliki] there has never been much feeling. I have always suspected that he was being maneuvered, and I have never trusted him. We have met only on a couple of occasions. At our last meeting he first told me: 'You are the country's backbone,' and then he confessed that he was 'obliged' to combat us. Obliged, you hear me?"

There is much to prove that he was bluffing. If Muqtada suspected that Maliki was "maneuvering" and there was "never much feeling" between the cleric and the prime minister, why did he join the cabinet in the first place in May 2006? Muqtada is ostensibly opposed to the entire political process, which he claims was imposed on Iraq after the downfall of Saddam in 2003. Yet having six ministers in the US-backed cabinet only legitimized the political process, as did having 30 deputies in Parliament.

The fact is Muqtada had much to gain from joining the political process, which he has now partially left. First, it gave him an official platform to recruit members and preach his ideology. He used organs of government, from the Ministry of Health and Education, which he controlled, to empower the Mehdi Army in a manner similar to how the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq used - or some would say abused - the Ministry of Interior. The militias infiltrated the ministries and used them to settle scores with the Sunni community, and each other.

Maliki had much to gain from an alliance with Muqtada. It legitimized him in the eyes of ordinary Shi'ites. What better public relations could a US-appointed prime minister want than the blessing of a firebrand nationalist like Muqtada, who has launched two uprisings against the Americans since they invaded Iraq. It made Maliki look important in the Shi'ite community. Before becoming prime minister, he was a colorless and relatively unimportant member of the Da'awa Party and the UIA.

He had neither the intellect of former premier Ibrahim Jaafari, the religious legitimacy of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani or the nationalist credentials of Muqtada. An alliance with Muqtada gave him a little of everything that he lacked. It was a double-edged sword, however. It embarrassed him within Arab circles, which are controlled by Sunni states like Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, all of which see Muqtada as a young, inexperienced adventurer with a permanent grudge against Sunnis.

The behavior of the Sadrists at the execution of Saddam, and the fact that members of the Mehdi Army were allowed to attend the hanging, further damaged Maliki's standing in the predominantly Sunni Arab world. It ruined him forever in the eyes of Iraqi Sunnis, who were enraged at the killing of their former president.

That is why Maliki started to slowly detach himself from Muqtada - at least in public - to regain some credibility as a prime minister for all of Iraq, not only the Shi'ite community. This explains why shortly after Maliki announced his Baghdad security plan in February, Muqtada went into hiding, ostensibly fearing the prime minister's dragnet.

Both Muqtada and Maliki will want to maximize gains from the Sadrist walkout from the cabinet. Maliki will use it to polish his image both in Washington and in Arab capitals. Muqtada will use it to facelift his own image, because many have started to accuse him of being more interested in gains from the political process than in getting the Americans out of Iraq.

True he has lost some of his government platform, but he continues to have his powerful Mehdi Army, which, since coming to power in May 2006, Maliki has refused to disband, disarm or even weaken significantly. This despite cosmetic "raids" that are periodically launched against it by the Iraqi police. The stated reasons for Muqtada's walkout will give him a boost: he left in protest against the Americans in Iraq. That can do wonders to the career of any Arab politician.

Bush, who is due to receive congressional leaders from both parties at the White House this week, has nevertheless repeated that he does not plan to set a timetable for Iraq and will veto any legislation to that effect imposed on him by the Democrats.

Speaking on Muqtada's walkout, White House spokeswomen Dana Perino said, "If the Sadrists were to leave government, obviously they've said they would before and I understand that they have done that this morning - that does not mean that Maliki loses his majority. I think that's an important thing to remember."

So even the White House does not make too much of Muqtada's walkout. So Maliki, to use Muqtada's words in his January interview, is "maneuvering". But for what? Time? Legitimacy? For a new round of friendship with Muqtada when all else fails?

Ultimately, what unites Muqtada and Maliki is much more than what divides them. Both want a theocracy in Iraq. Both want the Americans to leave - although with different degrees of urgency. And both would dread a post-Maliki regime because most probably it would mean the return of former premier Iyad Allawi, who has promised to launch a deadly war against sectarianism, militias and Muqtada.

His record speaks for itself; he launched a bloody war against the Sadrists when he serving as prime minister in 2004. Sectarian politicians like Muqtada and Maliki dread the coming of the secular Allawi, who has frantically been trying to put together a coalition and convince both Arab regimes and the US administration to give him another go.

Muqtada, who has referred to Allawi as "the unbeliever who will soon succeed Maliki", sees Allawi as waiting for an opportune moment to strike at him and Maliki. He said, "We represent the majority of the country that does not want Iraq turned into a secular state and a slave of the Western powers, as Allawi dreams to the contrary."

As far as Muqtada and Maliki are concerned, they are willing to work with the devil - or each other - to defeat Allawi.

No comments: