The announcement on Tuesday that Prime Minister Maliki of Iraq has joined with the pro-Iranian coalition, the Iraqi National Alliance, to seek to form Iraq’s next government is the direct result of an intervention in Iraqi politics by Iran’s ambassador in Baghdad, Hassan Kazemi-Qomi. “The Iranian ambassador met with the Shiite parties a week ago, and he told them that Iran considers it a matter of its national security that the Shiites put aside their differences to form a government,” Aiham Alsammarae, a former Iraqi minister of electricity, told The Nation. “He told them, ‘Whatever you have to do, do it.’”
The Iran-backed agreement creates an enormous political problem for President Obama and his administration. Not only do the events in Iraq underscore the importance of getting talks with Iran back on track, but they raise the chances that civil war could once again break out in Iraq.
In the March 7 election, Maliki’s party finished second, with 89 seats, and the INA finished third, with 70 seats. The party that came in first, Iyad Allawi’s Iraqiyya bloc, won 91 seats, but it’s looking more and more like Allawi won’t get a chance to put together a coalition.
Maliki has manipulated the system since March 7, first winning a ruling that overturned the notion that the winner gets first crack at forming a government, then joining with the INA and the Ahmed Chalabi-led Justice and Accountability Commission to disqualify some of the winning candidates from Allawi’s bloc, and sending representatives to travel to Tehran, Iran’s capital, to negotiate an accord that would unite Maliki’s bloc with the Shiite religious parties. Until now, however, the various Shiite sectarian parties, including Maliki’s Islamic Dawa party were unable to unite, because Maliki insisted on continuing as prime minister. Now, apparently, after Iran’s direct intervention, and after a long meeting at the home of Ibrahim al-Jaafari, leader of another faction of Islamic Dawa, the parties have agreed on a deal. Reportedly, though it is not confirmed, Jaafari will once again become prime minister.
The announcement of the deal, which came even as the recount that Maliki insisted on was still taking place, is certain to anger Allawi’s bloc, including many secular politicians and Sunnis who’ve felt shut out of Iraqi politics since 2003. The Chalabi-led JAC, which purged more than five hundred candidates in advance of the election, targeted mostly candidates tied to Allawi and other secular, non-sectarian candidates from parties outside the emerging Maliki-INA alliance. It is widely known in Iraq that the JAC is closely tied to Iran.
According to Alsammarae, the creation of the Maliki-INA bloc is virtually certain to push some of Allawi’s supporters to take up arms again against the government in Baghdad. “This means we are going to war,” said Alsammarae. “If it means civil war, so be it.” Raed Jarrar, Iraq consultant to the American Friends Service Committee, told The Nation that Allawi, Saleh al-Mutlaq, and other members of the secular, non-sectarian parties who’ve been shut out by the Maliki-INA deal are likely to boycott Iraqi politics in protest. “I think they will boycott the political process, which will be a disaster,” says Jarrar, who adds that most of the supporters of Allawi don’t have paramilitary groups that they can call on. In contrast, the supporters of the INA can call on Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army on the potent Badr Brigade of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI). The Kurds, too, have tens of thousands of men under arms in their pesh merga militia.
Meanwhile, the Awakening – also known as the Sons of Iraq – the U.S.-backed militia that was mostly Sunni, and formed to combat Al Qaeda in Iraq, has fallen apart. This was chronicled in the New York Times earlier this week, which concluded:
“The ramifications could be stark. Most worrisome would be an increase in violence, should disenchanted Awakening fighters become insurgents again.”
Over the past several weeks, Sadr’s Mahdi Army has remobilized, following a series of Al Qaeda-style attacks against Shiite mosques and prayer centers linked to Sadr. The Washington Post reported on Tuesday:
"A once-feared Shiite militia that was crippled two years ago by defections and a U.S.-Iraqi crackdown has quietly started to regroup, adding street muscle to the Shiite party that emerged strongest from Iraq’s parliamentary elections."
Sadr, who has been living in Iran for the past three years, is the strongest force within the INA, and it’s possible he will emerge as kingmaker in the new government.
Since January, when the Iran-backed JAC launched its massive purge of candidates, the United States has by and large stood aside. Half-hearted efforts by Vice President Joe Biden and Ambassador Christopher Hill in Baghdad to persuade Maliki to overrule the JAC actions were slapped down by Maliki, Then, in the wake of the election, while the United States lobbied quietly, behind the scenes for a government of national unity that would include both Maliki and Allawi, the Iranians intervened much more forcefully.
“The United States did have leverage, and it could have tried to broker a deal, perhaps by supporting a meeting or conference that would have worked to help Iraqis create a government of national unity,” says Jarrar. But, he says, the United States was extremely careful not to be seen as interfering in Iraqi politics. “The United States has not played the game that way, and unfortunately Iran did.”
In an op-ed earlier this week in the Washington Post, Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute, who was perhaps the chief proponent of the 2007 surge ordered by President Bush, and Kim Kagan of the Institute for the Study of War called on the United States to intervene in favor of the anti-Maliki bloc, and they sharply criticized the JAC’s blatant interference in the electoral results by seeking to disqualify candidates. “Washington should strongly support Iraqi leaders such as Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi and Allawi,” they wrote. “Staying silent is not the same as remaining neutral. This does not mean that Washington should choose a party or prime minister, but the United States must protect the electoral process from politicians (and external actors) seeking to manipulate its outcome.”
Unfortunately, it’s probably too late for the United States to do anything about Iran’s growing might in Iraq. For nearly five years, in The Dreyfuss Report and in articles for The Nation and the American Prospect, I’ve been warning that the toppling of Saddam Hussein had opened the door for Iran to move into Iraq. Neoconservatives, including many American Enterprise Institute analysts, strongly supported the Shiite sectarian parties that seized power in Baghdad with American help after 2003. They foolishly embraced Ahmed Chalabi, who has long had close ties to Iran, and they insisted that the United States arm and train an Iraqi army that was heavily indebted to the pro-Iran Badr Brigade and commanded by sectarian Shiites with ties to Iran. So it’s no surprise now, seven years after the fall of Saddam, that Iran and its allies among the Shiite religious parties in Iraq have the upper hand.
Despite calls from neoconservatives and Republican hardliners for Obama to delay or cancel the drawdown of U.S. military forces in Iraq, it’s too late for that, too. The best hope for Obama is reopen talks about Iraq with Iran. Without doubt, Iran would like to use Iraq as a bargaining chip in the negotiations over its nuclear enrichment program, and it would make sense for the United States to broaden the talks with Iran to include Iraq, Afghanistan, and illegal drug smuggling. Feel-good stunts, such as walking out of the UN speech by President Ahmadinejad may look good on television, but they do nothing to deal with the reality, namely, that the United States is going to have to go back to the bargaining table with Iran and try to make a deal.