Unconventional thinking about the Middle East.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Marked Decrease in Al-Qaeda Operations

Here’s a novel thread on jihadist discussion forums: Why has there been a marked decrease in operations conducted by Al-Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq?

The latest biweekly report from the ISI for the period of August 1 to August 15 about its operations throughout Iraq shows that their capacity for violence has been degraded significantly, leading some ‘concerned’ jihadist voices to ask, “Why?”

The Al-Hesbah site is down, but I got my copy from Al-Ekhlaas.

It should be noted that such tallies put out by Al-Qaeda tend to be accurate: it is very important for their own self-image to believe that they are telling the truth, rather than inflating alleged ‘victories’ as was, and is, the nature of the Arabic Nationalism—an ideology they abhor.

So why is the ISI faltering? Well, you’d need to sift through the archives of this blog starting October 2006 to get a detailed and nuanced answer; it’s been 313 days since the Islamic State of Iraq was declared. And yes, I’m pretty smug about myself for predicting these trends.

Two months ago, the ISI could claim over 900 operations in its biweekly reports, and now they're down to under 200. If that isn’t a measure of progress in Iraq—one that the enemy itself is acknowledging—then what is?

These downward trends are reflected across all insurgent groups operating in Iraq, and it should be noted that a couple of months ago 70 percent of the total violence done in Iraq was credited to Al-Qaeda.

This is all very relevant in light of the predictably bleak NIE report leaked yesterday; US intelligence services are still throwing up their arms in despair.

Remember the Marine Intelligence report for Ramadi leaked through the Washington Post on November 28, 2006? It concluded that “the U.S. military is no longer able to defeat a bloody insurgency in western Iraq or counter al-Qaeda’s rising popularity there.” Today, Ramadi is safer than Basra, which is saying much.

Wouldn’t it be nice if major news bureaus would take another look at these trends ahead of the Petraeus report? Maybe then some members of Congress, ‘experts’ and presidential candidates wouldn’t sound so misinformed…

Thursday, August 23, 2007

TIME's Candidates

TIME Magazine has an interesting article about who'd be the next Iraqi Prime Minister, After Maliki, Few Good Options:

The Usual Suspects: Adel Abdel-Mahdi and Ayad Allawi

The Wild Cards: Ammar Hakim, Mithal Alusi, Barham Salih, a random officer, Muqtada Sadr and Ahmad Chalabi.

I found the article interesting because it acknowledges Mithal Alusi's popularity in Iraq; this blog has not hidden the sentiment that Alusi is my preferred Iraqi politician. But still, it's too far-fetched. However, Maliki may draft Alusi into a cabinet or security position to shore up his own popularity.

The Webs They Weave

This is a follow-up to my post on Ayad Allawi’s lobbyists, Barbour, Griffith & Rogers:

Guess who is the President of Barbour, Griffith & Rogers International? Why, it’s our old friend, Robert The Flasher’ Blackwill, the Bush administration’s former political envoy to Baghdad, a job currently filled by Blackwill’s protégé, Meghan O’Sullivan, who’s allegedly trying to re-instate Ayad Allawi as Prime Minister (see my post here).

Wait a minute? Wasn’t this self-same Blackwill the one who instated Allawi as Prime Minister in the first place when the CPA was terminated in mid-2004?

Why! Yes it is!

So Blackwill is now being paid by Ayad Allawi. It’s not a pretty picture, is it? Is Blackwill being paid for his services on Allawi’s behalf the first time around, or is he being paid to try again? It's dizzying!

Blackwill was also U.S. ambassador to India, a good ambassador according to many. I guess he made many friends there, as one would, and it seems that within his Indian circle of friends is a corporation called Reliance Industries, Ltdhe’s now their lobbyist in DC through BGR.

Reliance Industries was heavily implicated in the UN’s Oil-for-Food scandal, yet they still managed to land the largest oil deal in post-Saddam Iraq, signed in the spring of 2006. Coincidence? No, since Blackwill’s BGR also represents Nechirvan Barzani’s Kurdistan Regional Government; Barzani signed the deal with Reliance.

Guess who else pops up as the Vice-President of BGR International? Senator Chuck Hagel’s former foreign policy advisor, Andrew Parasiliti, who spent a lot of effort in the 1990s disparaging the Iraqi opposition—well, that’s before kissing-up to the former oppositionists became so profitable. It seems he put together the Northern Iraq deal for Reliance.

So let me get this straight: the guy who first put Allawi in power is now doing the same thing, but he’s getting paid for it—by Allawi. When journalists need glowing quotes about Meghan O’Sullivan—the person who is allegedly trying to put Allawi back in power now in Baghdad—they call up Blackwill.

I wonder if there’s a job waiting for O’Sullivan at BGR after she leaves Baghdad…

Shouldn’t Carl Levin be worried about these tangled webs in the halls of Congress?

Is there a pro-Allawi cabal working both ends of the US government?

What if the CIA is still involved in peddling Allawi? Wouldn’t this be totally illegal?

Where is Allawi getting his money from? BGR representation doesn't come cheap, even if they're ethics are so.

Why aren’t journalists following up these stories? Oh, I forgot, because these Iraq stories don’t win certain parties any elections.

Thanks to the friend of Talisman Gate who tipped me off about all these links.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Even Der Spiegel Gets It!

Ullrich Fichtner has written an important and nuanced (…as well as long) report about progress in Iraq for Der Spiegel, which should be read in entirety.

Here are some excerpts:

The Iraqis in Ramadi, almost all Sunnis, had been worn down by chronic violence. Many had been victims of kidnappings or blackmail at the hands of mafia-like terrorist groups. They had finally come to the realization that, in the long run, the Americans were less of a threat and offered more hope than the fanatical holy warriors from Iraq and abroad.

Families began sending their sons to join the new Iraqi police force and military and fathers ran for municipal offices. They began cooperating with US military officials, turning in bombers and revealing their weapons caches, all while going about their daily lives, running their businesses, working as contractors, shipping agents and garbage collectors. Teachers returned to their classrooms, doctors began treating patients again and store owners restocked their shelves. Iraqis were now building the barbed wire barriers around the city, constructed to force travelers through checkpoints. Iraqis even manned the checkpoints as the Americans -- the Iraqis' former enemies -- retreated to the background, watching over as the city made a fresh start.

Since June, Ramadi residents have only known the war from televison. Indeed, US military officials at the Baghdad headquarters of Operation Iraqi Freedom often have trouble believing their eyes when they read the reports coming in from their units in Ramadi these days. Exploded car bombs: zero. Detonated roadside bombs: zero. Rocket fire: zero. Grenade fire: zero. Shots from rifles and pistols: zero. Weapons caches discovered: dozens. Terrorists arrested: many.

Ramadi is an irritating contradiction of almost everything the world thinks it knows about Iraq -- it is proof that the US military is more successful than the world wants to believe. Ramadi demonstrates that large parts of Iraq -- not just Anbar Province, but also many other rural areas along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers -- are essentially pacified today. This is news the world doesn't hear: Ramadi, long a hotbed of unrest, a city that once formed the southwestern tip of the notorious "Sunni Triangle," is now telling a different story, a story of Americans who came here as liberators, became hated occupiers and are now the protectors of Iraqi reconstruction.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Where is Levin going with this?

Carl Levin, the Senator from Michigan and the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, would probably like to see President George Bush impeached for whatever reason, but he can’t do so on Capitol Hill so he’s taking out his frustration by calling upon the Iraqi parliament in Baghdad to bring down Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki.

The Democrats are shifting the Iraq debate away from the parameters of military success against the insurgents towards the terrain of inter-sectarian political failure. This is no longer a question of how many terrorists are sniping at American soldiers but rather one of how many Sunni ministers get sworn into the new cabinet; keeping certain Iraqi political actors happy is their new measure of success.

This shift could cost the Democrats the 2008 Presidential Elections. Why? Because both the American and Iraqi publics will tune them out.

Here’s a current political fact: Iraq influences American politics far more than America influences Iraqi politics. The Democrats chose to make Iraq their principal issue against Bush and the Republicans, but for these talking points to find traction among easily-distracted news consumers, they’d need to deploy a macabre arsenal of scary catchphrases: “Iraq is lost”, “civil war”, “ethnic cleansing”, “this war cannot be won”, and “mounting casualties”.

But, it ain’t so: casualties, by every calculation, are falling off. Even more important that casualty tallies is the number of violent incidents, and those are really falling off. Hence, it is hard for most, including Senator Levin, not to acknowledge the positive developments of the surge.

So, on to Plan B: the labyrinth of Iraqi politics. Here’s where the Democrats lose their way and their audience: America’s attention span is not going to follow them into the machinations of the Consensus bloc and Ayad Allawi’s ambitions. They don’t care whether Sunnis join the Iraqi cabinet or flee on magic carpets to the mythical Waqwaq Island; and certainly all this stuff doesn’t matter if Bush climbs the podium and tells them that America is whipping Al-Qaeda’s ass, and has the numbers to prove it.

Then, candidates like McCain and Guiliani can come in and say, “Hey, we told you so: this war can be won; we just needed to be a little patient. Would you want a man or woman for president who’s willing to throw in the towel after the first punch?”

But back to Senator Levin: does he know that the current cabinet crises began when Iraqi police carrying an arrest warrant for a Sunni minister who is accused of ordering the murder of another Sunni lawmaker’s children were barred from carrying out their duties by the American embassy?

The Sunnis interpreted this American gesture as a carte-blanche to throw a hissy fit, even though one of their own may be a murderer. It seemed to the Sunnis that the Americans would go to any length, evening to the point of harboring alleged terrorists, in order to keep them happy. That was one huge diplomatic boo-boo.

Would it be too much to expect of someone with Levin’s stature, who keeps close tabs on Iraq, to launch an investigation into this matter? Did U.S. diplomats aid and abet an Iraqi minister accused of terrorism? Does the Iraqi judiciary really have a case against this minister?

Shouldn’t Levin be interested in all these questions?

Here’s another interesting thing: Barbour, Griffith & Rogers LLC, the registered lobbyists working on behalf of Ayad Allawi, sent out Levin’s statements to their mailing list, from the account of DrAyadAllawi@allawi-for-iraq.com

I wonder if the lobbyists canvassed Levin before he made his remarks, thereby influencing his views.

Don’t reporters find this odd: Ayad Allawi has lobbyists running around DC peddling him as Maliki’s replacement, probably influencing Demoratic thinking on Iraq, and consequently shaping Democratic strategies for the upcoming US presidential elections…Doesn’t this count as news?

Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Sunnis Lose

As predicted two weeks ago here on Talisman Gate, the Sunnis have played themselves out of the Iraqi political game after staging a desperate gambit to gather more power and keep their own coalition from breaking-up.

The Shiites and the Kurds went ahead with forming a ‘coalition of moderates’ and intend to form a new cabinet based on their understanding, reached a couple of days ago. They had intended to win over the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party as window-dressing, but when the latter chose to shackle themselves to the ranks of Sunni radicals, the ‘coalition of moderates’—comprising PM Nouri Maliki (Da’awa Party), Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim (Supreme Council), President Jalal Talabani (PUK), and Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani (KDP)—simply went ahead without them, to the horror of American diplomats keen on showcasing ‘political progress’ to the US Congress in a report to be submitted in mid-September.

But all these developments are actually signs of healthy political progress: politics in Iraq have matured into the dynamics of parliamentary democracy, where coalitions are formed for the purpose of governing rather than for the purpose of maintaining a semblance of inter-sectarian and inter-ethnic consensual politics, but crippling the resolve of active governing and change in the meantime. Sunnis are now welcome as equal partners in running the country, but should they continue stonewalling the progress of a new Iraq (…and secretly supporting the insurgency) in the hope of renegotiating their political clout, then they will find themselves out of the picture—and that’s exactly what happened.

Problem is, many American diplomats, spies, journalists and academics who focus on the Middle East simply cannot understand the region without the notion of Sunni dominance. The supposedly marginal minorities, such as the Shiites and the Kurds, should always be subservient to the Sunnis, goes this line of thinking. It doesn’t matter if the Shiites and Kurds constitute over 80 percent of the Iraqi nation; “What will the Saudis say?” is the refrain of this crowd.

Well, what the Saudis have to say matters very little in Iraq, and once Iraq gets back on its legs and breathes petro-fire around the neighborhood, the Saudis will matter very little across the Middle East. A new paradigm is forming, and many traditional American centers of wisdom on the region are ill-equipped to understand it.

The Sunnis of Iraq believed that their talent and proclivity for violence would matter more than Shiite and Kurdish numbers; if only they could hurt America enough, then they’d get power that is disproportionate to their votes. America, in its electoral panic and misunderstanding of the new Iraq, went the extra mile for them and found itself as their unlikely attorney, bartering for a better deal. But the former and current victims, the Shiites and Kurds, dug in their negotiating heals and were unwilling to squander their historical opportunity at role reversal. Now that the insurgency has failed both militarily and politically, there is no more incentive to reach a hasty deal—and the Shiites and Kurds can afford to be magnanimous in victory, or not.

Thus, the Sunnis now fit the Arabic proverb that goes:

ضربني وبكى, سبقني واشتكى

(He hit me and cried, then was quick to complain)

The Sunni politicos of Iraq are behaving now as classic victims, rather than would-be rulers. They are divided, petty, vitriolic, uncompromising, and they seek sanctuary and strength from outside patrons. This is a community on the decline; it is being reduced to its logical size as a small minority.

Such is the new reality of Iraq, but it’s no wonder if Congress doesn’t get it: those who are supposed to explain this new reality to them—the diplomats, spooks, journos and academes—don’t get it either.

Friday, August 10, 2007

DC Rumor Mill: “Allawi Political Coup in Full Swing”

So the folks in Stephen Hadley’s NSC outfit are allegedly putting out the word that Meghan “Wanna-Be Ms. Bell” O’Sullivan, the White House’s political envoy to Baghdad, has lined up the necessary support to unseat current Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, who would ostensibly be replaced by the former PM Ayad Allawi.

Pie in the sky, says I.

These are the usual amateurish stunts that US diplomats and spooks resort to when trying to arm-twist a Middle Eastern ‘flunky’; Washington is panicked by the Sunni withdrawal from the government whilst their current policy can be summed up with “Give the Sunnis everything they want”—including arms and protection to former insurgents who’ve been killing Americans and Iraqis for the last five years. By spreading this rumor, the Americans would like to spook Maliki into giving the Sunnis all that they want too—their current demands being the Presidency, and the Oil, Defense and Finance ministries and the Intelligence Service, in addition to their current portfolios—and fall into line with policy.

Here’s a series of reality checks:

-No one can pull-off a military coup in Iraq.

-Parliament is out for another three weeks, so Maliki is not facing an immediate no-confidence vote.

-Adel Abdel-Mahdi, the current Vice-President, cannot deliver SCIRI’s parliamentary votes for the Allawi camp.

-The Sadrists won’t vote for Allawi.

-The Da’awa Party won’t follow former PM Ibrahim Jaafari if he moves against Maliki.

-Anyone seen as “Saudi Arabia’s guy”—as Allawi projects himself, although that may not really be the case as far as the Saudi leadership is concerned—is not likely to get Sistani & Co. to go along with this plan.

-The Iranians won’t let this happen, and they have far more political cards to play in Iraq than the Americans—and they can play those cards smarter than O’Sullivan.

-Why would the Kurds substitute their strong alliance with the Shiites, who are going to run the country for a very long time to come, in return for the fleeting favor of the defeated Sunnis (their rivals on Kirkuk) and a politician such as Allawi whose word really doesn’t go that far?

-Qasim Daoud, a favorite of the Emirati leadership and another PM candidate as far as the Americans are concerned, has too many corruption scandals hovering around his head.

-My sources tell me the following: one of the principal actors who was attempting to bring down Maliki has left Iraq for an extended vacation, telling anyone who’d listen that it can’t be done.

I’ll say it: the Americans are irrelevant to political events in Iraq. They may be arming the insurgents for the time being, but these murderers may have to be the ones who need to be airlifted out when the Americans eventually withdraw in order to dodge reprisals. It’s quite a prospect to consider: former insurgents being resettled in Minnesota.

The Americans may want to bend over backwards to appease the Sunni politicos, and the Saudi, Egyptian and Jordanian patrons who fund them, but that means very little in Baghdad’s intense political universe unless the Shiites play along, and why should they do so once everyone begins to realize that the Sunni insurgency is faltering?

In real terms, the power shift begun on April 9, 2003 has matured as the Shiite politicians began to mature; they’ve begun to play the game as it should be played by those who have the voters’ mandate to lead the political process.

Crocker and his crew may peddle the notion that Maliki is a lame duck, but all they’ll up with is lame government. A panicked gaggle of US diplomats is not a pretty sight either; they are becoming an added hindrance to forming a new, more agile cabinet. Spreading rumors at this junction, and threatening Maliki with something they can’t deliver, is an exercise in futility.

But they need not worry: the White House has consistently rewards congenital failures with promotions and Medals of Honor. Case in point: Ms. O’Sullivan, who has sold herself on the notion that she’s a latter-day Gertrude Bell. Ms. Bell was traversing the deserts alone, in 1904, to learn and report about the Middle East—a journey I’d think twice about nowadays even if I had GPS and a 4 x 4. O’Sullivan, who may be a sweetie for all I know, cannot claim such wisdom.

Leave politics to the Iraqis, and get on with the job of defeating terrorists. That is the fastest way to get the Sunnis to sober up and come to terms with their demographic numbers and their past and current shame as champions of a violent approach in dealing with their next-door neighbors. Consequent Sunni moderation will achieve two things: the Shiites will be less likely to seek Iran’s counsel and protection in preparation for the “worst case scenario” of a regional Sunni onslaught. The second consequence is an earlier, and more honorable, American withdrawal.

Doesn’t that sound better than these silly rumors being put out by the National Security Council?

And since we mentioned Allawi, one can’t ignore this snide story from IraqSlogger. Now just imagine many more poor parking wardens would get “swept along” if Allawi is back in power! Just for the record: Umm Hamza is considered a fine lady by many who know her, and I’m pretty sure she was just having a bad day.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

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.