The "good war" in Afghanistan isn’t going so well, but the Obama administration may soon learn that the "bad war" — that would be the one in Iraq — isn’t over yet.
Although President Obama has repeatedly promised to draw down US forces in Iraq to about 50,000 by August — and to remove those forces by the end of 2011 — it’s fair to wonder if that will happen. First of all, because Iraq’s upcoming parliamentary elections have been postponed from this month until March 7, and since US forces are expected to remain above 120,000 until the elections are over, the United States will have to complete a helter-skelter withdrawal, taking out 70,000 troops in just five short months, in order to meet the August deadline.
If that happens, it’s likely to occur against the backdrop of spreading political chaos in Iraq, new insurgent violence, the threat of renewed civil war, and the whispered possibility of a military coup d’etat.
Last week, Iraq’s Shiite-sectarian political establishment laid down a marker when a mid-level governent organ, the so-called Justice and Accountability Commission, banned more than a dozen political parties and leading political figures from the March election. The commission is heir to the old De-Baathification Commission, set up in 2003 by Paul Bremer, the US czar of Iraq, and led by Ahmed Chalabi and his cronies. Among those banned was one of Iraq’s most significant players, Saleh al-Mutlaq, a secular Sunni leader and an important member of parliament, whose National Dialogue Front is a popular vote-getter among Iraq’s disenfranchised Sunni populace. Mutlaq, a well-known politician, has drawn support from current and former Baathists, secular Sunnis opposed to the Shiite-sectarian rulers in Baghdad, and Iraqis concerned about the intrusive influence of Iran in Iraqi affairs.
Over the past several months, Mutlaq had helped to build a powerful opposition bloc set to challenge both Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who controls a faction of the secretive, sectarian Shiite Dawa party, and the broader Shiite alliance comprised of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, Muqtada al-Sadr’s forces, and Chalabi, the neoconservatives’ favorite wheeler-dealer. That alliance was formed with the strong support of Iran, whose authoritarian leaders and radical clerics helped assemble it. ISCI, which has a paramilitary arm, the Badr Brigade, was formed in 1982 as an arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and for many years it was actually under the command of Iranian military officers. Sadr, a mercurial Shiite nationalist, has fallen under Iran’s umbrella, too, and he has spent most of the past two years living in Qom, Iran’s religious capital. Chalabi, despite his neocon connections, has long been suspected of having covert ties to Iran’s intelligence service.
Since last year, Mutlaq has joined with other leading Iraqi politicians in a cross-sectarian, secular bloc that many Iraqis say is Iraq’s only hope to escape religious sectarianism. One of his key allies in Iyad Allawi, a former prime minister and a secular Shiite, who could become Iraq’s prime minister in a fair election. The Mutlaq-Allawi party, which also includes several top Sunni politicians, could form a coalition government with some of the rising new players in Iraqi politics, including the remnants of the Sunni Awakening movement and the winners of provincial elections in Nineweh, Salahuddin, Anbar, and other Iraqi provinces. According to Iraqi insiders, Allawi has been talking to the Kurds, including the powerful Barzani clan, about a possible post-election coalition. As a secular Shiite, Allawi might have some appeal in Iraq’s Shiite-dominated south, too, especially in Basra.