While everyone’s looking at Iraq’s effect on American politics — and whether or not John McCain and Barack Obama are converging on a policy that combines a flexible timetable with a vague, and long-lasting, residual force — let’s take a look instead at Iraqi politics. The picture isn’t pretty.
Despite the optimism of the neocons, which has pushed mainstream media coverage to be increasingly flowery about Iraq’s political progress, in fact the country is poised to explode — even before the November election. And for McCain and Obama, the problem is that Iran has many of the cards in its hands. Depending on its choosing, between now and November, Iran can help stabilize the war in Iraq — mostly by urging the Iraqi Shi’a to behave themselves — or it can make things a lot more violent.
There are at least three flashpoints for an explosion, any or all of which could blow up over the next couple of months. The first is the brewing crisis over Kirkuk, where the pushy Kurds are demanding control and Iraq’s Arabs are resisting. The second is in the west, and Anbar, where the U.S.-backed Sons of Iraq sahwa (“Awakening”) movement is moving to take power against the Iraqi Islamic Party, a fundamentalist Sunni bloc. And third is the restive Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr, which is chafing at gains made by its Iranian-backed rival, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI).
Perhaps the issue of Kirkuk and the Kurds is most dangerous. Last week, the Kurds walked out of parliament to protest a law passed to govern the provincial elections. The law passed 127-13, but it was vetoed by President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd. Juan Cole, the astute observer, says: “The conflict between Kurds and Arabs over Kirkuk is a crisis waiting to happen.” He cites Al-Hayat, an Iraqi newspaper, as claiming that not only do the Kurds want to control Kirkuk, an oil-rich province in Iraq’s north, but they plan to annex three other provinces where Kurds live: Diyala, Salahuddin, and Ninewa. That’s not likely, but they do want Kirkuk, and the vetoed election law would have limited the Kurds’ ability to press their gains there.
The election law was supported by Sadr’s bloc and backed by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and his Iraq National List. Another nationalist party, the National Dialogue Council, has demanded the ouster of President Talabani over his veto of the law. Other Iraqi parties are backing the now-vetoed law, too, which also restricts the use of Islamic religious symbols by political parties seeking to corral illiterate, religious voters.
Because of all this, it now looks like there won’t be provincial elections this year at all. The ruling bloc of Shi’a religious parties and Kurdish warlords are split over the crisis, weakening Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and members of the ruling coalition are trying to patch things up. I don’t think they’ll succeed. Many Shi’a in the ruling bloc, including ISCI, have criticized the law as divisive, but as Arabs it’s hard for them to endorse a Kurdish takeover of Kirkuk. ISCI and the Badr Brigade, its armed wing, are holding parlays to decide what to do. Interestingly, all three members of the ruling presidential council, including Talabani, the IIP’s Hashemi, and ISCI’s Adel Abdel Mahdi, voted to veto the law, putting ISCI and the IIP on record as supporting the Kurds. Bad for them politically.
The IIP says that it wants to mediate the crisis. But the IIP is in a very, very weak position. Having just rejoined the Maliki government, it is under siege at home in its base in Anbar province, where the Awakening is flexing its muscle. This could be the second explosion. The Sunni Arabs are still seething over the divisive Iraqi Constitution and their continuing exclusion from political power, and the Awakening movement sees the IIP (correctly) as wildly unrepresentative. So the Awakening, representing Sunni tribal powers and former resistance fighters, wants in — at the expense of the IIP. That time bomb is ticking, too.
The final crisis-to-be is the Sadr vs. Badr one. The New York Times today suggests that Sadr is weakening: “The militia that was once the biggest defender of poor Shi’a in Iraq, the Mahdi Army, has been profoundly weakened in a number of neighborhoods across Baghdad, in an important, if tentative, milestone for stability in Iraq.”
Don’t believe it. Sadr’s rivals, ISCI, don’t have anything like the popular base that Sadr has. And underneath Sadr is a volatile mix of neighborhood, local and regional militias, mosques, and economic fiefdoms that won’t yield easily to ISCI and Maliki. Because Sadr’s forces are dependent on Iran, however, for arms and cash, Iran may be in the driver’s seat. Just the other day, the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps crowed that the United States has failed to install an anti-Iranian regime in Baghdad, and he’s completely right.
So Iraq is still poised to explode, and Iran may be in control. McCain’s solution: Provoke a showdown with Iran. Obama’s solution: Try to make a deal with Iran to stabilize Iraq. I’m not sure either “plan” will work.
Robert Dreyfuss is a contributing editor of The Nation magazine, and the author of “Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam,” (Metropolitan). Copyright © 2008 The Nation