Talisman Gate

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Dangerous Lineup

April 26, 2006 Edition > Section: Opinion >

Dangerous Lineup

April 26, 2006
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/31661

As recently as a year ago, laughter would have met anyone speculating that Nouri Al-Maliki would one day become a candidate for the prime minister's job. In fact, plenty of people in the Iraqi political class wondered whether I was joking or had flipped out when I began warning them two weeks ago that should Ibrahim Al-Jaafari relinquish his mandate to form a government, then Maliki would be the United Iraqi Alliance's choice.

It is gratifying that my speculation panned out, but this outcome is hardly reassuring. For there was a reason as to why no one took Maliki seriously - he is just not cut out for such a role in history.

Around this time last year, as Jaafari announced the nucleus of his transitional cabinet, windowpanes around Baghdad violently shuddered to the thumping of several explosions that I, in an early morning daze, presumed was a mortar attack far away enough to warrant staying in bed rather than taking cover. On Monday, Baghdad was yet again shaken by a very similar string of explosions, suggesting that, in the very least, things have not improved over the course of last year.

This slide is partly a reflection on Jaafari's lackluster tenure. For all his faults, though, he was a known quantity whose shortcomings were revealed and could have been mended by forceful American advice to help him perform better. The current line-up, with Maliki as prime minister, and Sunni politician Mahmoud Al-Mashhadani as speaker of parliament, opens Iraq up to many unknowns.

It was a bit of a shock at the time when Jaafari was picked as prime minister, for, like Maliki, he seemed to be an improbable figure for such a task. Many cautionary voices were raised, but the Americans in charge welcomed him and inaugurated a charm campaign on his behalf whereby the operative words to describe Jaafari were "popular" and "soft spoken" - the western press ate it all up. The American ambassador in Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, emerged a couple of days ago to describe the newly picked Maliki as "forceful" and "straightforward." I would rather go with the word "gruff."

Khalilzad, and the deputy national security adviser Meghan O'Sullivan, had previously prepared words like "amiable" and "experienced" to describe Adel Abdul-Mehdi, their favorite contender for the top executive slot in Iraq, but his candidacy could not get traction after being objected to by the anti-American Sadrist faction within the UIA parliamentary block. So they went down the list to the name of Ali Al-Adib, who like Jaafari is a long-time Da'awa Party apparatchik, but was a man that Washington knew hardly anything about. Yet that did not stop Khalilzad or O'Sullivan from sending out the word in the previous ten days that he was far more favorable than Jaafari.

At this time, a wild rumor circulated among the top echelons of the UIA block that had Khalilzad warning of an American-backed military coup should Jaafari not relinquish his candidacy. But this unfounded rumor had an effect, and the morale of the Jaafari camp was squashed, leading the top man to back down. The Americans were still doing due diligence on Al-Adib when it transpired that the UIA top brass had decided that he simply could not be the candidate - he was ethnically Persian and had only gotten his Iraqi citizenship papers done very recently. Picking Adib would have given credibility to accusations made by Arab leaders such as Egypt's Hosni Mubarak that the Shias owe allegiance to Iran, historically known as Persia.

Khalilzad and O'Sullivan kept their fingers crossed that other more palatable names would be put forth by the UIA, but they must have been surprised as much as anyone when the choice landed on Maliki. The key question that official Washington should be asking is this: did the Khalilzad-O'Sullivan duo advise President Bush that Washington's policy of hobbling Jaafari's candidacy would lead to the unfortunate situation of Maliki as prime minister?

Those American diplomats and strategic advisors can put a brave face on things and give Maliki the benefit of the doubt - as he is owed. However, there are many points against him from those in the know. He can be petty and quarrelsome, and forcefulness does not translate well into good managerial skills where the out-sized egos of Iraqi politicians are concerned: as deputy head of the De-Ba'athification Commission, Maliki initially expended his efforts to stymie the efforts of political foes such his party's rivals, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution, in divvying up the job positions, budget and office space assigned to the commission. It later fell to Maliki to hire a general director of the commission's legal department, and since he had not built up a dedicated staff of his own over the years - a situation that still stands today - he quickly picked a candidate who it later transpired had a criminal record for fraud. To compound matters, Maliki refused to fire him even when confronted with the legal evidence and kept him at the job.

More skeletons will emerge from the convoluted alleyways of the Shia-dominated Al-Amin quarter of Old Damascus, where Maliki lived for many years and worked as a Da'awa Party official. There will be persistent allegations about his mysterious relationship with Major-General Mohammad Nassif of Syrian intelligence, better known as "Abu Wael," who has been recently promoted to Syria's tight decision-making team, and who generally handles the files that have to do with Iraq's Shia, Iran, and Hezbollah.

It is surprising that Sunnis who, with Khalilzad's tacit encouragement, put up heated resistance to Jaafari's nomination seem to have acquiesced to Maliki, even though he is clearly more of a hard-liner on all the matters the Sunnis take issue with such as de-Ba'athification. But apparently their goal from the very start was to thwart Jaafari's prospects as an act of spite, and to show the Shias that they will not get their way.The Sunnis were out to show they are not mellowing out as they continue to chip away at Shia power. The Sunni block's choice of a parliamentary speaker is a harbinger of further recalcitrance: Mashhadani emerges from the hardliner Salafist block as an unrepentant supporter of those who kill American troops.

Furthermore, the Sunnis are certainly not showing gratitude in return for America's favoritism; the bombs continue to go off, and the Sunni "leaders" seem unwilling or incapable of toning down the insurgency.

Any well-calculated policy from Washington would never have entailed drafting men such as Maliki or Mashhadani to round out the team tasked with pulling Iraq back from the precipice of civil war. There is the slightest ray of hope that such men might mend their ways and respond to coaching. Let's hope that Khalilzad and O'Sullivan will be able to provide good advice to these incoming players - or at least better advice than what they have given to President Bush that led to this dangerous lineup in the first place.

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

April 26, 2006 Edition > Section: Opinion >