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IRAQ: THE POLITICIAN'S PROGRESS
PRIME MINISTER OUTFLANKS THE REBELS
by Amir Taheri
New York Post
July 12, 2006

July 12, 2006 -- WITH the media focused on the continuing terrorist campaign in Iraq, a number of political developments that affect the big picture in that country have gone largely unreported. These developments started with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's decision to think the unthinkable and come out with a national reconciliation plan.

Regarded as anathema by those nostalgic of the former regime, the concept of reconciliation also sounded alarm bells among Kurdish and Shiite communities that had suffered under the Ba'ath. According to sources within the new Iraqi government, sections of the coalition that supports Maliki in the National Assembly (parliament) were also opposed to reconciliation in any form. At one point last May, two key groups within the coalition even threatened to walk out if Maliki insisted on the plan.

But Maliki managed to isolate the critics within his coalition, with the discreet but decisive support from Grand Ayatollah Ali-Muhammad Sistani, the primus inter pares of Shi'ite theologians in Najaf. By last week, the only Shiite group still opposed to the reconciliation plan was the entourage of Muqtada al-Sadr, the young firebrand mullah with a base in the slums of northeast Baghdad.

Winning Kurdish and Shiite support for the plan, however, was just the first step. Far more difficult was to persuade the Arab Sunni minority, some 15 percent of the population, to come on board.

This is because, contrary to common perceptions, the Arab Sunni community is divided into dozens of groups, often based on tribal loyalties, with no overall leadership. One result of that division is that each group, anxious to appear more hard-line than the others, contributes to what amounts to an auction on radicalism. It tooks weeks of negotiation, often conducted through tribal intermediaries inside Iraq and in neighboring Jordan, to achieve a breakthrough.

By last week, 22 Arab Sunni armed groups had agreed to join the process initiated by Maliki. According to Akram al-Hakim, the minister in charge of national dialogue, the groups that have come on board account for a majority of those who have been fighting in the four Sunni provinces since the autumn of 2003. At the same time, a group of 18 senior officers of the former regime's army have met with President Jalal Talabani to seek ways of bringing hundreds of Arab Sunni cashiered officers and NCOs into the new Iraqi army and police.

Excluded from the process are the Salafi armed groups, mostly led by non-Iraqi Arabs, who treat Iraq as nothing but a battleground in which to wage war against both Shi'ites and "Crusader-Zionists" led by the United States. The Maliki government has decided that the only way to deal with such groups is to crush them.

It is too early to tell whether the process of national reconciliation has become irreversible. The bitterness felt by some Iraqi Arab Sunnis at the loss of their monopoly on political power could take years to dissipate.

There is also little doubt that any sign that the new regime may be weakening or that its foreign allies may cut and run could encourage the Arab Sunnis to return to their guns. The process will succeed only if they realize, as they are beginning to, that they have no prospect of winning.

One way to persuade them of that is to withdraw the massive media, and in some cases political and financial, support that the insurgents have received from several Arab countries. This was the message that Maliki took to the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait during a whirlwind tour of the region last week.

The visit was significant because this was the first time since the creation of Iraq as a state in 1932 that an Iraqi head of government paid state visits to the three neighboring nations.

Oman, Bahrain and Qatar were excluded from the trip for different reasons. Oman has supported the liberation of Iraq and the creation of a new regime in Baghdad, but prefers to maintain a low profile on the issue. Bahrain, facing tension with its Shiite majority, wasn't prepared to unroll the red carpet for a leader who symbolizes the restoration of Shiite rights in Iraq. And Qatar, the host to the largest U.S. military base in the region, is trying to balance that fact by conducting a satellite-TV campaign against the new Iraq.

Maliki hopes to visit other Arab countries soon to signal the return of Iraq to regional politics. Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco have signaled their readiness to welcome the new Iraqi leaders. Syria, Jordan and Egypt, however, are still sulking at the demise of the Saddamite regime, and show their unhappiness by shunning Iraq's new leaders.

In fact, Maliki was scheduled to visit Jordan on Monday, but decided at the last minute not to go. The reason was Jordan's surprise decision to reject the Iraqi government's request for extradition of a number of close relatives of Saddam Hussein, including his first wife and his two eldest daughters. The Iraqis were especially angry because the Jordanian statement asserted that the alleged criminals were "guests of Jordan's royal family."

The expectation in Baghdad is that the Bush administration will pressure its Jordanian and Egyptian allies to signal a change of attitude by ending their media campaign against the new Iraq and unrolling the red carpet for Maliki.

Realizing that their rejectionist stance won't prevent the consolidation of the new Iraqi regime, a number of international organizations are also returning to Iraq. Last week, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), a grouping of 57 Muslim-majority countries, ended its Iraq boycott by reopening its offices in Baghdad. The OIC has also announced the creation of a committee of the foreign ministers of seven member states to produce a plan for helping new Iraq, and agreed to co-sponsor a "national dialogue" on Iraq in Cairo next month.

One idea under study is the creation of an "Iraq Assistant Force" by Muslim countries wishing to help Iraq build a new army and police force. Such a force could fill part of the gap left by the withdrawal of U.S.-led coalition troops, expected to begin when their U.N. mandate ends in December.

One slogan of the insurgents and their terrorist allies, and those Arab regimes that didn't like the liberation of Iraq, was based on the hope that the coming of democracy to Iraq would be a temporary nightmare. The slogan was: "They will run away, when the Americans run away."

Maliki's message to the Arabs last week was simple: Our allies are not running away, and we are here to stay.

There are signs that this message is beginning to be heard across the Arab region.

Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.

 

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