Talisman Gate

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

'Abu Omar' vs. the Shias

April 12, 2006 Edition > Section: Opinion >

'Abu Omar' vs. the Shias

April 12, 2006
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/30860

The American government, acting upon the advice of its ambassador in Baghdad, has unwisely maneuvered itself into the anti-Shia camp, which is a problematic development since the Shias are more than 60% of Iraq's population and have been consistent in their support for the democratic process. By picking sides as to who gets to become prime minister for the next four years, and in contravention of the voting tallies, America is making an unstable situation far more volatile.

America is not actually out to harm the Shias as a sect, but perceptions are important. Shia resentment is so acute that the American ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, is referred to as "Abu Omar" in Iraqi political circles - meaning "father of Omar," with Omar being a quintessentially Sunni name as far as Shias are concerned. It doesn't help that the Afghan-American ambassador is in fact a Sunni by birth. He had been riding high on the coattails of good press lately, all stressing how his religious and cultural background were useful assets in going about the business of coaxing Iraqi leaders in national bargains. Much was made of his brief stint as a student in Beirut, and his supposed mastery of Arabic, a language he never employs in communicating with Iraqis, which suggests that perhaps his language skills have been exaggerated.

Most reporters also skim over his earlier experience as the representative of the American government to the Iraqi opposition prior to the liberation of Iraq. A key opposition conference in London almost went up in smoke because Mr. Khalilzad foolishly affronted Abdel-Aziz Al-Hakim, who has since become one of Iraq's primary power brokers. Mr. Khalilzad is a bureaucrat who, according to many who have worked closely with him, has the careful, almost obsequious demeanor of a careerist when answering to higher-ups, but takes on the airs of a haughty colonial sahib when dealing with the "natives." The task of fixing Iraq has been relegated to this man - probably the wrong thing to do.

The election results presented a dilemma to the Bush administration: a Shia victory at the polls can never be allowed to turn into a victory for Iran's widening interests in the Middle East. The other goal was to prevent the Sadrists - enemies of America who have done battle twice against the democratic Iraqi state - from becoming de facto kingmakers due to their large showing in parliament. This was the right strategy, but somewhere down the line, America lost sight of its objectives and got lost in a silly game of pride and personalized politics. The electoral victors were all long time assets of the Iranians regime, and at their head was Mr. Hakim, a man Mr. Khalilzad communicates with in Farsi, the language of Iran and its derivative form that of Afghanistan.

American diplomats and spies on the ground in Baghdad had been keeping their fingers crossed for the return of Ayad Allawi, the ex-prime minister appointed by the Americans when sovereignty was handed back to the Iraqis. However, Mr. Allawi failed to deliver at the polls, and the first instinct was to contravene the numbers and bring him back to the top. To do that, Mr. Khalilzad put forward a plan to split the winning Shia block by promising American support to several hopefuls for the prime minister's job. The natural contender was Ibrahim Jaafari, the current prime minister who hoped to continue his mandate into a four year term. Another was American favorite and acolyte of Mr. Hakim's, Adel Abdel-Mahdi, and a third was the chairman of the Fadhila party, Nadim Al-Jabiri. Mr. Jabiri was the most ambitious and least talented of the lot, and thus, the easiest to dupe.

On January 20, a meeting was set up between Khalilzad, Allawi and Jabiri. According to sources privy to the discussions, Mr. Jabiri was promised the prime minister's slot if he could tear away his Fadhila Party faction and join the Kurds, the Sunnis, and Mr. Allawi's block. Mr. Allawi would later tell his lieutenants that the plan involved breaking off Fadhila and then forcing Mr. Jabiri - freshly out of friends - to deliver his votes to Mr. Allawi's bid for the top job.

This was a fine intrigue had it been employed anywhere else, but events are unfolding in Iraq that no amount of planning can keep up with: American meddling is no longer understood as a justifiable strategic move to ward off the Iranians, rather it is seen as a move to weaken the Shias at a historical juncture when the denominational components Iraqi nation must decide on toughing it out or parting ways. This is the wrong time to play political games and further complicate a difficult situation.

And it was made more difficult when Mr. Jaafari actually secured enough votes within the Shia block for a second term, narrowly defeating Mr. Abdel-Mahdi. Now Mr. Jaafari can claim to have been the democratic choice of the Iraqi people, even though his administrative track record was abysmal. But that did not hold people back from voting for the list he was associated with, or with its members choosing him to continue in his post.

The Americans should have considered this the point at which their undermining of Mr. Jaafari was to be formally over and a period of mending bridges with him should have commenced. But Mr. Khalilzad was miffed that his plan was not going as planned, and he convinced Washington that Mr. Jaafari could still be defeated, and Mr. Abdel-Mahdi would take his place, or even better, Mr. Allawi would re-enter the picture. This was two months ago, and since then, stalemate.

Having been exposed as a dupe, Mr. Jabiri was sidelined by the spiritual head of the Fadhila party, effectively turning Mr. Khalilzad's plan inside out. In fact, what has become clear is that America may have paralyzed Mr. Jaafari's bid for the top job, but it won't be getting either Mr. Allawi or Mr. Abdel-Mahdi in his stead. The next two names on the roster involve one gentleman who is yet still cozier to Iran's mullahs, and another who is close to the Syrian intelligence service.

Iraq could not afford these two months of political wrangling while events further lacerated the Shia. One of their holiest shrines, in Samarra, was blown up in late February, while in late March, an Iraqi "death squad" entered a Shia house of worship and killed two dozen civilians. Some shadowy Sadrist elements operated from that mosque, but it was also a place frequented by worshipers. The military objective, the capture of a Sadrist ringleader, was thoroughly botched; the wanted man managed to hide in one of the mosque's classrooms, climb over a wall and escape. This was followed by last week's triple suicide bombing of the Baratha Mosque in Baghdad, another symbolic emblem of Iraqi Shiism.

The good behavior of the Shias has gone unappreciated in light of these massive provocations. Having Mr. Khalilzad come in and disrupt their political ranks by undermining their democratic choice at this time is asking too much patience of them. If the violence in Baghdad subsides, there is yet a chance that the Shias would remain committed to a unified Iraq. Otherwise, with America seemingly turning against them, they may see no way out but to blow Iraq apart. The last ingredient to the much-debated civil war in Iraq is unrestrained Shia wrath. Mr. Khalilzad, after breaking too many eggs, should get on with the business of making an omelet; it is time for him to start working with Mr. Jaafari.

Mr. Kazimi is an Iraqi writer living in Washington, D.C. He can be contacted at nibraska@yahoo.com

April 12, 2006 Edition > Section: Opinion >