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Monday, October 20, 2008

Is This a 'Victory'?

The surge was intended to buy time for political reconciliation. In January, Iraq's parliament revised the country's de-Baathification law, thus meeting a long-standing US demand. While the new law restored the rights of some former Baathists, however, it imposed an entirely new set of exclusions on Baathists in so-called sensitive ministries. Iraq's Sunni parliamentarians mostly opposed the law, which was supposed to help them. The Sunnis had demanded early provincial elections since they had boycotted the previous local elections in 2005 and were largely unrepresented on the provincial councils, even in Sunni areas. The Shiite-dominated parliament inserted a poison pill into the election law, a provision that would invalidate the "one man, one vote" principle in the Kirkuk Governorate—the administrative unit that includes the major city of Kirkuk on the Kurdistan border—in favor of a system of equal representation for each of Kirkuk's three communities: Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmen. Naturally, the Kurds, who are a majority both in the Governorate and on the Governorate Council, opposed a system that would give their foes two thirds of council seats.

Talabani vetoed the entire bill and as a result the Kurds were blamed for blocking national elections that the Shiites and some Sunnis also did not want to hold. (The SIIC was afraid it might lose some Governorates it now controls, including Baghdad, to Moqtada al-Sadr, while some Sunni parliamentarians feared the Awakening's electoral strength would underscore the fact that they do not represent the Sunni community.) Recently, the parliament passed a law to allow elections in 2009 in Sunni and Shiite Iraq, but not in Kirkuk or Kurdistan. The maneuverings left the Kurds politically isolated while, as a bonus to the Shiite ruling parties, providing more time for them to deal with al-Sadr. The Shiites are also pursuing changes in Iraq's constitution that would strengthen the central government at the expense of Kurdistan, knowing full well that these changes will be rejected by the Kurds.

Al-Maliki's agenda is transparent. The Kurds and Sunnis are obstacles to the ruling coalition's ambitions for a Shiite Islamic state. Al-Maliki wants to eliminate the Sunni militia and contain the Kurds politically and geographically. America's interest in defeating al-Qaeda is far less important to him than the Shiite interest in not having a powerful Sunni military that could overthrow Iraq's new Shiite order. The Kurds are too secular, too Western, and too pro-American for the Shiites to share power comfortably with them.

This should not be a surprise. Iran, not the US, is the most important ally of Iraq's ruling Shiite political parties. The largest party in al-Maliki's coalition is the SIIC, which was founded by the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran in 1982. By all accounts, Iran wields enormous influence within Iraq's ruling Shiite coalition and has an effective veto over Iraqi security policies. In 2005, Iran intervened in Iraq's constitutional deliberations to undo a Shiite–Kurdish agreement on Kurdistan's powers, only to relent after Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani made clear that there would be no constitution without the deal; many Iraqis have told me that one reason that the US and Iraq have been unable to agree on a new security arrangement is that Iran opposes anything of the kind.

Nor is al-Maliki a Western-style democrat, in spite of President Bush's attempts to portray him as just that. Rather, he is a Shiite militant from the hard-line Dawa Party. Before returning to Iraq in 2003, he had spent more than twenty years in exile in Iran and Syria. As late as 2002, State Department officials sought to exclude Dawa from a US-sponsored Iraqi opposition conference because of Dawa's historical links to terrorism, including a 1983 suicide bomb attack on the US embassy in Kuwait. (There is no basis for linking al-Maliki or other mainstream Dawa leaders to that attack.)

Al-Maliki is an accidental prime minister, having secured the job only after internecine Shiite rivalries (and Kurdish opposition) derailed more prominent candidates. The Bush administration knew so little about him that it initially had his first name wrong. He had never been considered important enough to meet the many senior US officials traipsing to Baghdad. But President Bush has embraced him as the embodiment of American values and goals in Iraq.

John McCain says that partly because of his persistent support of the surge, we are now winning the Iraq war. He defines victory as an Iraq that is a democratic ally. Yet he advocates continued US military support to an Iraqi government led by Shiite religious parties committed to the establishment of an Islamic republic. He takes a harder line on Iran than President Bush, but supports Iraqi factions that are Iran's closest allies in the Middle East. He praises the Awakening and but seems not to have realized that the Iraqi government is intent on crushing it. He has denounced the Obama-Biden plan for a decentralized state but has said nothing about how he would protect Iraq's Kurds, the only committed American allies in the country.

George W. Bush has put the United States on the side of undemocratic Iraqis who are Iran's allies. John McCain would continue the same approach. It is hard to understand how this can be called a success—or a path to victory.

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