The American capital is going to witness intensified Iraqi presence and political activity in the coming few weeks.
First there are Sunni leaders who have been invited by members of Congress. The Sunni leaders are likely to make this visit coincide with former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi expected visit to Washington since the Sunni alliance with the Shia Allawi became more evident recently, especially after the latter confirmed that he had meetings with former leaders in the Baath Party to persuade them to join the political process.
A Sunni delegation at the level being reported wouldn’t go without a countermeasure from the current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who represents the Shia-Kurdish coalition of four. In order to avoid any threat for this ruling coalition, the government announced that Maliki is going to head a big delegation to Washington later this month as well. I am certain that it will include important leaders that have good relations and contacts in Washington, such as Mowafak Rubaie and Hoshyar Zebari.
The Sunni-Allawi visit seems to be an effort to give more momentum to the emerging Sunni-American friendliness following the progress that has been made on the ground in several Sunni-dominated regions, and the dramatic change in attitude among the Sunni who turned from fighting the American presence to fighting al-Qaeda.
Add to this mix the dialogue between Allawi and former Baathist leaders, which actually diluted the enmity that some Sunni groups had towards America and made them think deeply about the end result should they keep up the fight against America and the Iraqi government. This proximity was crowned by Bush’s visit to Anbar and the praise he gave to its people.
Returning the visit aims to take advantage of what we just mentioned: it would serve the case of the opposition represented by the Sunni and Allawi, and to convince the American administration that it should cut the support for Maliki whom they’re going to undermine by describing him as a sectarian leader who puts Iran’s interests above anything else.
Tracking the statements coming from Sunni leaders we find a huge difference in the tone between the past and nowadays.
Until recently, most of the Sunni leaders used to say that the only solution for the situation in Iraq lied in the immediate —whether complete or gradual— withdrawal of “occupying” forces. Today, we see a firebrand leader like Salih Mutlaq say that he returned to the parliament because “we’re getting hints from America about an imminent change in the government.”
Yes, that Mutlaq: the politician famous for his firebrand statements is now ending his bloc’s boycott of the parliament because of “hints” from America!
On the other hand, the coalition of four realizes the threat posed by the initiatives of the opposition and so it will try hard to remind Washington of the old Shia-Kurdish-American alliance. Yet this attempt will probably have limited chances for success given the failure to bring about national reconciliation among rival parties, the disappointing performance of the government and the obvious tendency to side with Iran.
The last factor is very clear — not a single time al-Maliki did find the courage to criticize Iran; not even when Ahmedinejad made his extremely dangerous statement and offered to “fill the vacuum in Iraq”.
A few days ago one of the members of parliament asked al-Maliki what he thought about Ahmedinajad’s description of the opposition to the coalition of four in Iraq as “corruptors”. Maliki’s response was “and are they all good people?”
This kind of answers reflects the deeply rooted fear inside al-Maliki and his awareness about Iran’s reach. It obviously makes him afraid of responding to what the leaders in Iran say; even when he knows he’d be right in what he’s say.
Al-Maliki’s job will be very difficult this time, and it won’t be easy for him to convince his hosts. That’s why I think he will rely on his two right hand men, Rubaie and Zebari, who are still well-received in the American administration, to plead for more support and a second chance for his limping cabinet.
In my opinion the most exciting part of this is that the Sunni, Shia and Kurds all have come to realize and accept that America is the main player in Iraq.
On the one hand the Sunnis now understand that listening to those who pushed them to resist the political process made them lose so much. On the other hand al-Maliki, who just a few weeks ago responded to criticism from President Bush by saying that “Iraq could find friends elsewhere,” now clearly sees that those friends are not serious enough about their support when he is in the crosshairs. So now al-Maliki thinks, with advice from the Kurds, that the visit of the opposition poses serious threats to his position and that seeking help from Syria and/or Iran one more time wouldn’t be the right countermeasure.
I believe this will be a good opportunity for Washington as well. As long as everyone in Baghdad fears that the US would support one party and not the other, and as long as they know the consequences of this and that the solution is in rushing to Washington before the others, then Washington can apply more pressure on all three parties to put some serious effort into building true political reconciliation and rise above sectarian and ethnic considerations.
Washington can also say “Hey! We’re not here just to listen to you whining and complaining from each other. It’s time you listen to us and act as serious partners.”
So I believe this would be a good opportunity for the administration to convince the Sunni, Shia and Kurds that it’s time to accept one another and that there’s no other choice but to learn to coexist and work together. And, most importantly, to tell them that America doesn’t want to meet Sunni, Shia or Kurdish leaders defined as such; that it’s more interested in speaking to leaders who identify themselves as Iraqis first and foremost.
If those leaders continue to put their sectarian and nationalistic feelings first then they are bound to failure sooner or later: they will be rejected not only by Washington but most importantly by Iraqis themselves.