You’d never know that the prime minister of a nation occupied by 130,000 US troops is in the United States, but he is. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is in Washington to meet President Obama and other US officials today and tomorrow, but the press coverage is weak. And in yesterday’s press briefing by Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman, the issue of Iraq didn’t come up at all. Not once.
But it’s a critical visit, and I’ll be updating this entry today and tomorrow as developments warrant. Obama and Maliki are scheduled to appear at a press conference on Wednesday afternoon at the White House, and I’ll comment on that. Tomorrow morning, I’ll be attending a speech by Maliki at the US Institute of Peace, and I’ll report back.
Sadly, the mainstream media seems to be buying into the idea that Maliki has suddenly transformed himself into an ardent Iraqi nationalist. Don’t be fooled. If anything, Maliki has conducted a power grab in Baghdad, arrogating to himself increasingly broad powers that have led many Iraqis to view him as a dictator-in-the-making. But he is still the head of the secretive Al Dawa party, an Islamist political formation that has long had ties to neighboring Iran. It’s true that Maliki has noticed that the political winds in Iraq have shifted from sectarianism and religious identity to a more nationalist orientation. As I reported extensively in The Nation, the January 2009 provincial elections gravely weakened the most extreme manifestations of the sectarian/religious movement in Iraq, including the Iran-backed Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and the fundamentalist Sunni, Muslim Brotherhood-led Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP). To accommodate that trend, Maliki has increasingly tried to portray himself as a nationalist, but there’s no evidence that he’s changed his sectarian spots.
Certainly, the turmoil in Iran has enormous and unpredictable implications for Iraq, where Iran has accumulated a lot of influence since 2003. Recently, Iran’s Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other Iranian officials have been pressing Maliki to reconstitute the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), the Shiite religious coalition that included Maliki’s Dawa, ISCI, the forces of Muqtada al-Sadr, and the Fadhila party of southern Iraq into a single unified electoral bloc. So far, Maliki hasn’t agreed — but he did make a pilgrimage to Tehran to meet with the hospitalized leader of ISCI, Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, who is Iran’s key ally in Iraq. Maliki himself has close ties to Iran, and it’s unlikely he’d do anything to jeopardize them.