Friday, April 16, 2010

Government Formation--Nationalism vs. Regional Agendas

The dust from election day is beginning to settle down and now we can identify the main possible trajectories in which government-formation is going.

First of all, it is becoming clear that there are two very powerful regional influences that are pulling in different, but not exactly opposite, directions. On the one hand there’s Iran and on the other there’s Saudi Arabia, and I may say Turkey with it.Second, the US is not a direct player on the stage but is believed to be represented by the Saudis and Turks.

Iran is pushing for a government that resembles the one formed after the December 2005 election. That would be a government including Maliki's bloc, along with ISCI, the Sadrists, the Kurds and maybe the Sunni Accord. Iran however, does not want Maliki to be the next PM, and this is the reason why a deal between him, ISCI and the Sadrists isn’t in place yet.

Iran by the way wants neither Allawi nor Maliki to be the next PM. Iran essentially would like to see a weak central government in Baghdad. To achieve this end, Iran is pushing Shiite parties to pick a “compromise” PM figure and a strike deal that allows smaller (and more sectarian) parties to have a lot of influence at the expense of the larger bloc (Maliki's or Allawi's).

Iran's efforts in this direction and Maliki's refusal to negotiate with Allawi is making Allawi pursue a direction that is similar—in concept—to what Iran wants; a ruling coalition comprising his bloc, the Kurds, Sadrists and/or ISCI, and maybe the Sunni Accord.

Saudi Arabia is seen as Allawi’s main source of regional support. The kingdom is making a spectacular debut in Iraqi politics and is working energetically to counter Iran's role.

In just a few days Riyadh has received most Iraqi leaders; Hashimi, Hakim, Talabani and Barzani, all had meetings with King Abdullah himself. Maliki and the Sadrists, however, were shunned by the Saudis.

The Saudi king also made some interesting gestures such as awarding prestigious medallions to Iraqi Kurdish leaders Talabani and Barzani. This is a declaration of approval of the new order in Iraq. Approval of course requires cooperation in the form of leaving the Iranian bandwagon and taking the Saudi proposal instead.

The Saudi effort, from the way politicians are talking about it, is seen in Iraq to be coordinated with Turkey and the US. Perhaps this perception will serve to persuade the Kurds to listen to the Saudi proposal for two reasons. First, they care a lot about maintaining good relations with, and not upsetting, their northern neighbor. Second, a deal under the auspices of the US is likely to involve checks against extremist Arab nationalist agendas within Allawi's camp. Moreover, the Kurdish region looks forward to GCC investments, which the Saudis can help with. Overall, a deal with the Sunnis/Allawi is looking more lucrative, and not as dangerous as before.

It would be a bad idea for Allawi or Maliki to go in either direction preferred by Iran and Saudi Arabia. The key risk here is that a government formed with the exclusion of Allawi (and with him the vast majority of Sunnis) or with the exclusion of Maliki and the Sadrists (the vast majority of Shiites) will be very unlikely to enjoy stability. There will be millions of frustrated voters on either side—among whom there must be some former insurgents and militiamen—who will see the exclusion of their representatives as great injustice.

Additionally, there are great differences between the programs of Maliki and Allawi on the one hand and the programs of ISCI, Sadrists and Accord on the other hand. Joining these sectarian parties in a coalition would only lead to a highly unstable and inefficient government that will not be able to make critical decisions effectively. By contrast, a government that includes both Allawi’s and Maliki’s blocs would be more likely to rule effectively and avoid disintegration, again due to the similarities in their programs.

This idea of a nationalist Allaw-Maliki coalition is unfortunately not gaining enough momentum to compete with the Saudi and Iranian proposals.

The two leaders—pressed by political realities—are being diverted from the nationalist vision they both sought to represent and instead heeding what X or Y in the region thinks is acceptable. Iran and Saudi Arabia are both keen not to let Iraq become a satellite of the other but at the same time neither wants Iraq’s democracy to succeed because that is a threat to both of them.

Remember the Lebanese election? Despite Iran’s “loss” and Saudi Arabia’s “win”, Lebanon is still far from safe. The risk here is that Tehran and Riyadh may have decided to have a rematch in Iraq. With the accelerating US disengagement from Iraq, the shape of the next government may very well be shaped by the winner of this rematch.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Terrorist Plot to Attack Najaf Shrine With Hijacked Airliners?

Al-Sumaria News:
A government delegation arrived in Najaf Wednesday afternoon to discuss the closure of Najaf’s international airport. The delegation included the ministers of defense, transport and national security.

A source in Najaf’s province council told Al-Sumaria News that “the three ministers went immediately to a meeting with governor Adnan Zurfi to discuss the situation at the airport, which has been shut down for several days” adding that “they [the ministers] are currently at a meeting over the same issue with the members of the province council.”

Najaf’s province council chief Fayid Shemmeri announced Tuesday that a protest against the closure of the airport has been postponed after PM pledged to find a solution for the situation. Other sources stressed that the airport was shut down because of threats of an attack on the Imam Ali shrine using a civilian airliner.

Authorities had shut down Baghdad and Najaf airport last weeks for “technical reasons”. Baghdad’s airport was reopened hours later while Najaf’s remained closed.

A high-level source at the Counterterrorism Bureau revealed that “intelligence helped thwart a plot to attack the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf by an aircraft departing Najaf’s airport. As a result security authorities decided to shut down the airport immediately and cancel all flights until further notice.”

Another source from the Iraqi intelligence service speaking on condition of anonymity told an Iraqi newspaper Wednesday that “intelligence reports indicated that Al-Qaeda was very close to conducting a spectacular operation using new methods in Iraq…security forces tracked the clues to discover that Al-Qaeda is planning to blow up either the dome of Imam Ali’s shrine or the court between the two shrines of Karbala using civilian aircraft hijacked from Najaf’s airport.”

Update: AP confirms the reports:
"BAGHDAD – Iraqi and U.S. security officials say Iraqi forces have foiled an al-Qaida in Iraq plot for a 9/11-style attack to hijack airlines and fly them into Shiite holy shrines.

Two senior Iraqi officials told The Associated Press on Wednesday they have arrested two men allegedly linked to the plan, which shut down the airport in Najaf for days and Baghdad airport for hours last week.

Two senior U.S. intelligence officials in Washington confirmed the plot but said it's doubtful the alleged plotters were very far along in their planning — or even had the ability to carry it out.

The officials say the plan was aimed at re-igniting sectarian violence.

All spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing."

Update: US intelligence officials confirm the plot existed:
"Two U.S. intelligence officials in Washington confirmed the plot but said it did not appear to be fully planned out, nor was it clear that militants would be able to carry out any attacks.

Still, they said the threats were being taken seriously as "the intent seems real," according to one of the U.S. officials.

Meeting Wednesday afternoon with local lawmakers in Najaf, Iraqi Defense Minister Abdul-Qader al-Obeidi said the airport "will be reopened soon, after discussing the needed security measures." He said the intelligence about the attacks is unclear but "at the same time, we can't neglect them."

He did not confirm or comment on any of the specific allegations.

The Iraqi security officials said al-Qaida planned to hijack flights as they were leaving Iraqi airports. Authorities shut down airports in Najaf and Baghdad last week in response to the threat, the officials said. The Najaf airport has been closed since April 8 and Baghdad's International Airport shut down for a few hours on April 7 in what officials then blamed on radar problems.

One of the Iraqi security officials denied that Wednesday, saying it was closed because of the threatened plot.

The Iraqi officials said Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is aware of the plot and has ordered stepped-up screening measures at all airports."