President Obama is welcoming the new Iraqi government and praising its supposedly all-inclusive nature. Writing in the Washington Post, David Ignatius notes that the deal that ratified the new Iraqi balance of power was sealed in a meeting involving the US ambassador and the three main Iraqi players. And even neoconservatives, such as Max Boot in Commentary, are chortling that Iraq is stable. During a phone briefing yesterday, on background, US government officials portrayed the accord in Baghdad as a triumph of American diplomacy and post-occupation interventionism. “We tried to be as helpful as we could,” one official said. “We’ve had conversations, many of us, exploring all options.” And the resulting accord, fragil;e and volatile, “was one of them.”
Don’t believe it for a second.
Seven and a half years after the US invasion of Iraq toppled its legitimate government and destroyed the Iraqi state, American influence in Iraq is dropping like a stone. The resulting mix of Iraqi politics might fairly be characterized as 40 percent Iraqi nationalism, 40 percent Iranian influence, and 20 percent American influence. The latter component, American influence, will continue to fall as US forces leave Iraq next year.
Nothing reveals the impotence of American influence in Iraq more than the fact the both President Obama and Vice President Biden personally called Kurdish leaders, including Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, asking if Talabani would relinquish the presidency of Iraq in favor of Iyad Allawi. (Talabani, leader of a minority Kurdish party that is very close to Iran, is a sickly and aging politician allied to Barzani’s larger Kurdish bloc. Allawi, a secular Shiite, has strong support among Iraqi Sunnis, nationalists, former and current Baathists, and ex-military men.) Both Barzani and Talabani flatly rejected Obama’s and Biden’s pleas, and Talabani’s son, Qubad, who represents the Kurds in Washington, told the Washington Times: “The Americans have come to us and have asked us to step aside and to relinquish the post of president to [Allawi’s] Iraqiya, specifically to Iyad Allawi, which we find disappointing.” Talabani added that the United States was “not respectful of Iraq’s parliamentary system” and he expressed concern “that the United States will once again betray us.”
The government that may or may not emerge once the dust settles will restore Prime Minister Maliki, an Iran-influenced strongman from the secretive, Islamic fundamentalist Dawa party, to his job for four more years. It will install Talabani as president once again, though he may not last four years because of ill health. And it will put an Iraqiya member, Osama Nujaifi, in the post of parliamentary speaker, a consolation prize that rankles many Sunnis and ex-Baathists. In the last Iraqi government, too, the speaker’s post was reserved for a Sunni, but Maliki and his Shiite allies were so high-handed in the way they dealt with parliament that Sunni speakers were wont to quit and walk out. In effect, the new government is an exact copy of the last one. And that upsets millions of Iraqis who voted for Allawi’s Iraqiya, which won the most votes in the March 7 election.
That’s why yesterday’s walkout by Iraqiya is important. Because Allawi was not named prime minister or president, there is trouble in the ranks of Iraqiya, which has to explain to its angry constituents why they caved in and accepted a tertiary role in the Maliki-Talabani government. When parliament reneged on a promise to clip the wings of the Ahmad Chalabi-run “Justice and Accountability Commission,” the Iranian-influenced body that banned hundreds of ex-Baathists and nationalists from running for election last March, Iraqiya stormed out. There were other issues, too, and it’s iffy at best whether Iraqiya can stay inside the government under conditions where its core interests are flouted—and, if it does, it’s possible that Iraqiya will simply fall apart, with at least one wing flirting with the possibility of a renewed insurgency.
As US influence wanes, Iran’s will grow. Commenting on the new coalition, Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group said, “This is mostly in favor of Iran.” Indeed, Iran played a key role behind the scenes, especially at the key moment. With everything stalemated, Iran persuaded Muqtada al-Sadr and his 40-strong parliamentary bloc to join Maliki’s 89 delegates, giving Maliki a powerful bloc of votes that allowed him to elbow Allawi out of the picture. It’s likely, too, that Iran weighed in to persuade the Kurds, especially Talabani, not to allow Allawi to get the presidency. And with Sadr now a part of the Maliki coalition, it’s unlikely that Iraq will accede to the US military’s fondest wish, namely, to ask the United States to extend its military role in Iraq beyond 2011. (That may suit Obama fine, who seems to want to “turn the page” on Iraq, but others in the US national security establishment, including Secretary of Defense Gates and former US ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, want to stay.
Allawi will get the post, it seems as head of a new body called the National Council for Strategic Policies. So far it doesn’t exist. If it does come into existence, it’s likely to be a meaningless and powerless body. Reportedly, it will have five members, including Maliki and Talabani, and it will need a unanimous vote to set policies, so Allawi will have no power at all.