When President George W. Bush launched his so-called "surge" policy in Iraq last year he based it on a key assumption: The US would improve the security situation in Baghdad and its environs while the Iraqi leadership takes the steps to translate military gains into political progress.
With the "surge" in its third months of full gear, even the most critical observers agree that while violence is still raging on a daily basis, the security situation in Baghdad and the two most turbulent provinces of Diyala and Anbar has improved.
There has, however, been no corresponding progress as far as the Iraqi political scene is concerned. Although the National Assembly (Parliament) has dealt with no more than a quarter of the legislative agenda it had set for itself, its members have voted themselves a lengthy holiday.
Worse still, those politicians still in Baghdad have resumed their favorite game of plotting against one another.
Former Prime Minister Ibrahim Al-Jaafari is offering lavish dinner parties, in which Fesenjoun, a Persian meal of duck cooked in pomegranate juice and ground walnuts is the favorite. Jaafari claims that since the Americans are bound to run away once Bush is out of office, the Iraqi Shiite leadership had better restore its damaged ties with the Islamic Republic of Iran. To do that, Jaafari claims, the Iraqis should replace Prime Minister Nouri Jawad Al-Maliki, whom the Iranians dislike, with someone acceptable to them. One need not probe too deep to find out that by "someone" Jaafari means himself.
Jaafari belongs to the Islamist Al-Da'awah (The Call Party) which only last month elected Maliki as its overall leader.
Jaafari has approached Moqtada Sadr, the firebrand mullah with ties to Tehran, offering an alliance. Sadr, however, has his own plans. He is lying low until the Americans crush the Sunni insurgents and Al-Qaeda and, once there is a Democrat at the White House, pack and leave. At that time, Sadr could re-emerge, revive his Mahdi Army as the largest militia in the country, and bid for power with the help of Tehran and the Lebanese branch of Hezbollah.
Jaafari and Sadr are encouraged by the fact that Abdul-Aziz Al-Hakim, their principal rival within the Shiite camp is in Iran, suffering from possibly terminal cancer. Ammar, Hakim's son and putative heir as leader of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) is too young to claim a senior position immediately.
The cast of characters includes Ahmad Chalabi, arguably the wiliest of new Iraqi politicians. Chalabi failed to win a seat in the Parliament but has remained influential as "adviser" to the prime minister.
Once a favorite of Washington to rule post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, Chalabi says he has learned not to trust the Americans who are incapable of knowing friend from foe. (L. Paul Bremer, the US proconsul in Baghdad gave Chalabi a hard time by accusing him of espionage for Tehran.)
Not only pro-Tehran groups threaten Maliki's fragile coalition. The pro-Arab Shiite groups are also working to unseat the prime minister with the argument that he has failed to reassert Iraq's "Arab identity". Leading the pro-Arab onslaught on Maliki is Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite who served as interim prime minister in the first post-Saddam Iraqi administration. Some key Arab players, as far as Iraq is concerned, may back Allawi. Syria, however, is suspicious of Allawi and uneasy about his anti-Iranian stance. The Iranians would regard a new administration headed by Allawi as a provocation. Forced to tolerate Maliki, the mullahs would find it impossible to put up with Allawi.
Meanwhile, the largest bloc of Arab Sunni politicians has suspended its participation in Maliki's coalition and is shopping around for allies that offer it the most concessions. However, smaller Arab Sunni parties that believe Maliki offers the best option for the time being or, going to the other extreme, seek a restoration of their community's domination of Iraq, oppose the bloc.
Watching all the maneuvers is Grand Ayatollah Ali-Muhammad Sistani, the primus inter pares of Shiite clerical hierarchy. In the communications that we get from the grand ayatollah, one question is asked persistently: Will the Americans leave after Bush ends his term?
So far, Sistani has refrained from endorsing any group in the current power struggle within the Shiite community. His argument is that the clergy should not have a direct political role. Sistani hopes that the US-led coalition will remain in Iraq at least until after the next Iraqi general election in 2009. However, he cannot publicly defend that position because, if the Americans do run away, he would end up as a naïve man.
There is also the fact that, as more and more Iraqis learn the political game and start getting organized within their various parties, they are less and less inclined to seek political guidance from the ayatollah.
While Arab Sunni and Shiite communities have always been split, the ethnic Kurdish community, accounting for some 20 percent of Iraq's population, had hitherto managed to remain united. However, that unity is also threatened.
A group of younger Kurdish politicians are campaigning for what they call "a generational turnover." In practical terms, this means that Jalal Talabani, the veteran Kurdish leader who serves as president of Iraq, should retire, allowing a younger man to move up the ladder. The candidate of the "new generation" for the presidency is Barham Saleh, now a deputy prime minister and one of new Iraq's most successful politicians.
Both Talabani and Saleh belong to the same group, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The other major Kurdish group, Massoud Barzani's Democratic Party of Kurdistan of Iraq (KDPI) is trying to keep its involvement in the broader Iraqi politics to a minimum. Barzani has a long story of closeness with Tehran and may back a pro-Iranian horse in exchange for a promise that the Kurds gain control of the northern city of Kirkuk at the expense of Arab Sunnis.
Tell the Iraqis that their political games may help the enemy, and they will tell you that they are practicing nothing but democracy.
As always, the situation in Iraq can be saved only if two conditions are met.
First, a bipartisan accord in Washington not to board that last helicopter from Baghdad. Secondly, a genuine accord among Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish parties and groups not to interpret military success against the insurgents as a signal for internecine feuds motivated by sectarian prejudices and a thirst for power.
Rather than organizing fruitless talks with the Islamic republic, the Bush administration should bring the Iraqi leaders together, including those sunbathing on the French Riviera, to patch up differences and create a strong administration capable of building on the successes achieved by the "surge". And, if the Iraqis do their part, it would be easier to work for the real big thing: A bipartisan American policy on a war that can and must be won.