Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Iraqi Leaders Closely Watching US Elections

I mentioned this past summer that pressing priorities in Iraq made Iraqis show little if any interest in the upcoming U.S. election. That was the case when November seemed too far to worry about. We’re almost in October now and things are changing.

Comments made by MP Sami al-Askari are evidence of such a trend. As an adviser to Prime Minister Maliki and member of his Da’wa Party, al-Askari’s comments are definitely indicative of what’s being discussed in that small circle and probably reflect Maliki’s own viewpoints.
As recent as June, al-Askari’s position echoed Maliki’s approval of a 16-month timetable for withdrawal. But three months can indeed make a difference, “Iraqis are better off with Republicans.” al-Askari said in an email to Kathleen Parker at NRO last week.

What I understood from the MP’s statement is that the Da’wa Party now thinks it would be better off with Republicans. As for ordinary Iraqis, they have always been in favor of determined allies who want to correct the mistakes of the past and help Iraq pass the bottleneck — quitters have never been popular.
The difference in the tempo of developments that I pointed out above is not the only reason behind such shifts in the Maliki team’s rhetoric with respect to the U.S. presence and future relations with the next U.S. administration.

Two other important factors can be identified. First of all, when Maliki flirted with Obama’s plans for withdrawal from Iraq, the latter was celebrating a significant lead in polls and an ultimate landslide win didn’t seem improbable. Again, this is not the case now as McCain’s position has significantly improved in recent weeks. Maliki may have realized that he threw his lot in with the Democratic candidate too soon and now wants to change course.

Second, there’s the ever-changing domestic political dynamics in Iraq. Maliki has two distinct sources of power. On one side of the scale he has support from the U.S. for his government as well as support from the public in Iraq, which he gained from the undeniable improvement in security. On the other side of the scale there’s his alliance with the powerful SIIC and the clergy in Najaf. I still think that Maliki remains undecided as to which source of power he could rely more on — attempting to secure perpetual support from both sources is extremely difficult.
Relations between the Da’wa Party and the SIIC have gone through turbulent paths in the last few months — major disagreements have arisen.

Primarily there’s the issue of “Support Councils.” These are local paramilitary units made up of tribal fighters similar to the “Awakening Councils” or “Sons of Iraq” that were formed of Sunni tribal fighters in Anbar and Baghdad. Here Maliki and the Da’wa Party are in favor of having the government sponsor these units in Shiite-dominated provinces. This is a classic case of a security dilemma. The Da’wa Party does not have any significant armed wing.

In contrast, their allies in the SIIC have one of the most organized and efficient militias in Iraq, the Badr Brigade. Now apparently Maliki is developing plans to buy tribes’ allegiance with state money. The SIIC stands strongly against this plan and has recently accused Maliki and his party — on the SIIC’s semi-official news website — of abusing the powers vested in the prime minister’s office for partisan purposes. Early signs of a rift between the two parties are already visible in Babil province, where the Da’wa Party is working with tribes to form a “battalion” of 1,400 tribal fighters.

The Da’wa Party used to rely on Sadr’s militias in the past when they were allies. This is no longer the case as Sadr’s Mahdi Army has been largely decimated. The SIIC and Maliki worked together to get rid of their former strong ally. Now that provincial elections are coming, Maliki has every reason to worry about the survivability of his Da’wa Party vis-à-vis the powerful SIIC during the coming election. The SIIC, as naturally expected, opposed Maliki’s plans to sponsor “Support Councils.” This opposition feeds back to make Maliki and his party even more wary of the SIIC’s intentions.

With uncertainty growing between the two suspicious Shiite allies, Maliki may have decided to once again seek American protection for the fledgling democracy in general and for his political future in particular. As for ordinary Iraqis and Iraq as a state, not much has changed. U.S. presence for a few more years and U.S. friendship in the long run remain essential to guarantee the realization of the Iraqi dream.