The Sunnis Miscalculate
Note: There's a lot of inside-baseball in this quickly-written post, and as such it may not be interesting to a general reader.
In my most recent column for the Prospect Magazine (August issue), I argue that the hard-line Sunni leaders who got elected as their community’s clarions against Shiite hegemony are being replaced with new faces that have acquiesced to the new realities of Iraq and can work with the ascendant Shiites.
This is happening because the most valuable negotiating card that the Sunnis have, that being the murderous insurgency they have waged against the New Iraq, is now burning in their hands.
The writing on the wall, which both the Shiite and Sunni political classes can read, says that the insurgency is tanking and breaking down, something that is also registering with American military and policy planners in Iraq.
With the insurgency ceasing to be a threat to established political dynamics in Iraq, the Shiites are turning confident and resorting to political hardball: either the Sunnis kiss-up to them and accept the status of junior partners in running the country or they can be relegated to a noisy, but ultimately irrelevant, opposition in parliament.
The latest dramatic showdown was orchestrated by the Sunni leaders who have most to lose from these mellowing developments; it was the work of Adnan Duleimi, who got voted out of his role as head of the ‘Sunni’ Consensus (Tawafuq) parliamentary bloc of 44 seats, and Khalaf Alayan, who is one of the top three leaders of the bloc along with Duleimi and Tariq Hashemi of the Islamic Party. Alayan is accused of colluding with terrorism, a charge that was freshly made once again a few days ago by President Jalal Talabani.
The most likely Sunni candidate who would be willing to play along, and play nice, with the Shiites and Kurds is Tariq Hashemi, whose party was an early participant in the political process from the days of the CPA’s Governing Council. But Hashemi got dragged into this—unhappily according to my sources—because there was no other way to keep the Sunni bloc united. Understandably, Hashemi chose to keep his position as Vice-President, even though the six Sunni ministers that answer to the Consensus bloc resigned yesterday along with Deputy Prime Minister Salam Zobaee. The Minister of Defence, who was chosen by the Consensus, chose to stay on in his role; Consensus had been clamoring for his replacement for many months now as they realized that he's his own man.
The Sunnis need to elect a new Speaker of Parliament—the most influential governmental position allocated to the Sunnis as part of the power-sharing agreement that created the Nouri Maliki cabinet—to replace Mahmoud Mashhadani, the current Speaker who’s on terrible terms with the other component blocs in parliament. However, finding a replacement has put Sunni unity under tremendous pressure, since the Islamic Party wants it for one of its own, either Ayad Samarrae (Duleimi’s replacement as head of the bloc) or Usama Tikriti, while Duleimi wants it for himself and Alayan is arguing that since Mashhadani was one of his own, then the replacement must be someone he ends up picking. Problem is, many of Alayan’s guys, such as MP Abdel-Nasir Janabi, are accused of terrorism, and there will be no way in hell such a candidate will be voted in.
Not only that, but choosing ministerial replacements will put more stress on an already frayed bloc, and latest accusations of terrorism against the Sunni Minister of Culture, who was Hashemi’s pick, have enveloped these leaders in a poisonous cloud of internal recriminations.
This desperate move of leaving the Maliki government was precipitated on the notion that such an act would embarrass the Bush administration in front of its congressional critics and would compel Bush’s guys on the ground in Baghdad to arm-twist Maliki into making more concessions to the Sunnis, who is a show of futility, demanded a set of impossible requests from Maliki to show good faith to them and gave him a week to fulfill those demands while fully realizing that Maliki wouldn’t be able to deliver.
But three things foiled the Sunni plan: Maliki is growing more confident and responded in a stinging critique of his own that was read out by his spokesman, the White House dismissed the Sunni boycott as internal political machinations that have no bearing on what counts for progress in Iraq, and Consensus leaders such as Alayan began to say some very radical and self-incriminating statements such as they would resort to armed struggle against the government should these demands go unheeded.
The other over-arching development that the Sunnis did not bank on is the joyous goodwill unleashed by Iraq’s soccer victory last Sunday, which changed the popular tone from one of sectarian tension to a call for moderation, unity and putting an end to sectarian rhetoric—a call that was echoed loudly, as seen on TV, in all the Sunni areas of Iraq.
The timing was wrong and the political cache of the Sunnis had been depleted, leaving Maliki to paint the Sunni leaders are ‘black-mailers’.
But Maliki has many problems of his own: he must form a new cabinet and he must survive as the Prime Minister of this new cabinet, which is no easy task since he can’t absolutely count on his own Shiite coalition to deliver the votes in Parliament. For now, he is secure in knowing that his detractors cannot deliver the necessary numbers of MPs on a no-confidence vote, but he can’t be sure if his new cabinet, minus the Shiite components of the Sadrists and the Fadhila Party, as well as the independents, would have enough votes to pass the threshold of a simple majority.
The Shiite Vice-President, Adel Abdel-Mahdi, is getting egged-on by Bush’s political envoy to Iraq Meghan O’Sullivan to declare himself a candidate for Maliki’s job, but he is widely reviled by many Shiite politicians as an unpredictable opportunist who’s only good at charming gullible American bureaucrats and journalists. Plus, the dying head of the party that Abdel-Mahdi belongs to, Abdel-Aziz Hakim, is putting matters in order so that his son Ammar would inherit the mantle of leadership, and Abdel-Mahdi’s rise to eminence at this point would put that succession in jeopardy.
Another candidate angling for Maliki’s job is the former Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari, who’s unlikely to succeed but may end up splintering the Da’awa Party into a dominant pro-Maliki wing and a renegade, but much weaker, pro-Jaafari faction; the end result being that Maliki wouldn’t be able to count on the full number of Da’awa votes in parliament.
Ayad Allawi’s candidacy is a non-starter for everyone involved, except for Ayad Allawi himself and a host of Gulf-based regional patrons and the media networks they control.
There’s also a host of other positions that need to be filled that Maliki can use to placate fence-sitters, but that will also create new enemies who had been promised a governmental role. The head of the Iraqi Intelligence Service is to be replaced, and a new person must be chosen as the head of the brand-new Counter-Terrorism Commission. This latest addition to a host of agencies that are supposed to make Iraq more secure, has a whopping 200 million dollar budget, as opposed to the 80 million dollars for the Intelligence Service, which got its first budgetary earmark this year when previously it was funded through CIA money.
In a telling lapse of misjudgment, or a devious ruse of fait accompli, Maliki suggested the current National Security Advisor, Mouwafeq Rubaei, as head of the new Commission, only to have the suggestion shot-down when presented to a cabinet vote a couple of days ago. Rubaei is widely detested among Shiite politicians as a self-aggrandizing no-talent who is propped-up by other no-talents in US and British intelligence circles, and Maliki may have known that his candidacy for the job would be rejected by the cabinet, thus allowing him to shrug his shoulders and tell Rubaei’s western patrons—who have a big say in who gets the role—that he did the best he could.
Further muddying the waters was the resignation of the Chief of Staff, Gen. Babekir Zebari, over a dispute with the Defense Minister. Zebari, survived the investigations into the massive corruption scandals that rocked the Defense Ministry under Allawi's tenure, and this probably happened through the political protection afforded by Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, who appointed Zebari to this position in the first case. No one believes that Zebari wasn't involved, and it's a good thing if he's finally gone, especially since he doesn't have any real stature as a leading officer.
Maliki may be secure for now in the fact that no one can agree on his replacement in such a confused, yet healthy, atmosphere of political jockeying. The sectarian-based coalitions that emerged from the last elections are breaking down as the threat of sectarian warfare diminishes further and further, and the Sunni insurgency grinds down to an allowable baseline of violence. But Maliki must act quickly and confidently to put his own stamp on a new cabinet of his own choosing, something that many doubt that he has the personal stamina and brain-power to do.
For now, it’s great for me to watch the Islamist parties fumble, with no dominant ‘leader’ emerging. Everyone is being forced to play politics within the rules of the game; no more military coups, no more ‘Great Leaders’. The Sadrists have shown themselves to be as inept and corrupt as all the rest, and the shrill Sunni voices are being supplanted by new political forces that can live with the huge cascade of change begun on April 9, 2003.
But Iraqis are still suffering from the ineptness of their public servants, and new and empowered managerial talent must be harnessed to improve basic services and revive the economy, and it's immoral to keep Iraqis waiting much longer.
The best case scenario would be early parliamentary elections in six months, with Maliki acting as a care-taker. But all the parties understand that this may greatly diminish their gains and will work to prevent it from happening; the Shiites will probably be unable to depend on a blessing from Grand Ayatollah Sistani this time around given their poor performance in power. An even-better scenario would be to turn parliamentary seats into district representations rather than slate-backed, but again, the current lack-lustre MPs would refuse that.
Congressional critics and the western media may want to play up this political confusion as a sign that Bush is not making progress in Iraq, and they predictably will. But a fairer analysis would conclude that these are all healthy signs of the re-introduction of politics into Iraqi life. It may not even be as pretty as sausage-making, yet it puts to rest the Middle Eastern instinctual impulse for a short-cut to power through violence and tyranny.