Friday, December 01, 2006

Bush's man in Iraq

Bush's man in Iraq

'HE'S THE right guy for Iraq," President Bush said of Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki after two hours of discussion with the Iraqi leader yesterday in Amman, Jordan. Notwithstanding this endorsement, the true import of the Amman encounter will become clear only in policies decided in Washington and unfolding facts on the ground in Iraq. And if Iraq's dire situation is not to be made even worse, a realistic acceptance of those facts will have to inform US policy decisions.

Events surrounding Bush's meeting with Maliki hardly inspire confidence that the president is ready to face nasty realities in Iraq. A leaked memo to Bush from National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said, "Maliki is either ignorant of what is going on, misrepresenting his intentions, or . . . his capabilities are not yet sufficient to turn his good intentions into action."

Behind this questioning of Maliki's performance is an obtuse assumption that he should be willing or able to move decisively against the anti-American Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Maliki was able to become prime minister only as a result of his political alliance with Sadr. If Sadr's followers in Parliament were to desert Maliki, his government would fall or he would have to form a coalition with the main Shi'ite rival to his own Dawa party, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq . Dawa, the Supreme Council, and the Sadrists are all anti secular and supported by the theocratic regime in Iran.

This reality of Iraqi politics is crucial. Much as Bush has trumpeted his goal of democratizing Iraq and the rest of the region, his problem with Maliki is rooted in Iraqi power relations that were produced by parliamentary elections and the political horse-trading needed to form a coalition government.

Hadley's memo bemoans Maliki's failure to provide basic services to Sunni areas of Iraq and his intervention to "stop military action against Shi'a targets and to encourage them against Sunni ones." Hadley also castigates Maliki for fostering Shi'a dominance in the ministries. But the memo's most unrealistic demand is that Maliki dissolve his alliance with Sadr and "bring to justice any" Mahdi army "actors that do not eschew violence."

Only by refusing to face reality could Bush believe that in the midst of Iraq's vicious sectarian vendetta he could convince Maliki to abandon Sadr and build "an alternative political base" for "a nonsectarian national movement," as Hadley's memo proposes. There are no serious possibilities at present for a non-sectarian government in Iraq.

Iraqis need security above all. They may need cooperation from neighbors and some continued training and military support from the United States, but ultimately, they will have to end their sectarian warfare their own way. Americans must now decide how slowly or quickly to reduce the role of foreign forces in that conflict.

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