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.
Although Iraq's government may decide to void the ban on Mutlaq, the decision has already sparked outrage across Iraq, and the political bloc associated with Mutlaq, Allawi, and Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni leader, is threatening a boycott of the March vote. Reports RFE/RL:
"A political group including leading members of Iraq's Sunni minority has threatened to boycott national polls in March after one of their leaders was targeted for alleged ties to Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath party.
"The 'Iraqi List,' headed by Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni Arab, former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shi'ite, and MP Salih al-Mutlaq, an influential secular Sunni politician, blasted the decision from an independent state committee to ban al-Mutlaq from the elections."
Many other Iraqis, too, have attacked the decision to ban Mutlaq, who was accused to being too close to the disbanded Baath party. Aiham Alsammarae, a former Iraqi minister of electricity, told The Nation that if the action against Mutlaq is allowed to stand, it could push many Iraqi opposition members to renewed violence, and he said that even a new round of civil war could erupt. Alsammarae, who initially considered running for parliament as part of the Allawi-Mutlaq coalition, has instead established an independent party, the National United Front, and he expects to win up to 10 seats in the next parliament, from his home province of Salahuddin and from Nineweh, Anbar, Diyala, and Baghdad.
But Alsammarae worries that the Iraqi military, many of whose generals are loyal to Prime Minister Maliki, won't accept a new government, if Maliki loses. "Maliki has put Dawa party guys everywhere," he says. "All of the generals in Baghdad are Shia, and many of them are new generals that Maliki promoted."
Raed Jarrar, an Iraqi-born political analyst in Washington and a senior fellow at Peace Action, told The Nation that the action to ban Mutlaq could have disastrous political consequences. "It will have catatrophic results, because it will push people to fight outside the system, rather than inside the system," he says. "The upcoming March election has the potential to ignite a new civil conflict." Contary to the beliefs of many in Washington, Iraq does not have anything like the kind of stable political and military institutions that can weather such a conflict, he says, adding that the Iraqi armed forces are bitterly divided and split by ethnic and sectarian loyalties. "One brigade may be loyal to Maliki, one brigade to the Kurds, and one to ISCI," he says. "The army and the police are not loyal to Iraq."
The British ambassador to Iraq, John Jenkins, asserted that even a military coup d'etat is not out of the question. According to The National, a newspaper in the United Arab Emirates:
"A warning by the British ambassador to Iraq that a military coup was still a 'real possibility' in Baghdad has set off swirling rumours of conspiracy, and been met with wildly divergent reactions, some accusing him of scaremongering, others hoping it is a prophecy that will come true.
"John Jenkins told the Chilcot inquiry in London on Friday that democracy was far from assured in Iraq and the military could still overthrow an elected government.
"Many in Iraq believe such a development may be welcomed.
"'If there is such a military coup that eliminates the current government and it ends the Iranian stranglehold over Iraq, then the tribes will support it,' Sheikh Mohammad al Hamadani, a leading member of the tribal council in Maysan province, in southern Iraq, said yesterday. 'There are too many people and parties in positions of power that are loyal to Tehran.'"'
The British ambassador's statement was seen in Iraq mostly as a warning that a coup d'etat in Baghdad, however unlikely, would be launched by former Baathist members of the Iraqi armed forces, since most of the veteran military officers in Iraq were appointed during the era of Saddam Hussein's pre-2003 government. And it's true that many Iraqi military officers, both Sunni and Shiite, were Baathists. But the military in Iraq today is also comprised of ethnic and sectarian commanders, mostly Shiites loyal to Maliki and to the Badr Brigade, and they too might opt for an attempted coup rather than allowing the opposition to take power in March. As occurred in Lebanon after 1975, during that country's civil war, the army could splinter along ethnic and sectarian lines, leading to a protracted Iraqi civil war, a Kurdish breakaway state, and worse. That, in turn could drag Iraq's neighbors into the fray, with Iran intervening in support of its Shiite allies, the Turkish army moving in to oppose the Kurds, and Saudi Arabia and Jordan backing the Sunnis.