The selection of Jawad al-Maliki as the new Iraqi Prime Minister does little, so far, to clarify the nature of US objections to the prior designation by the Shiite alliance of Jaafari as PM. Reporters and bloggers have generated elaborate profiles of Maliki’s record, but none have discerned any major differences between Jaafari and Maliki. One US diplomat, cited by the New York Times, reports that Maliki is simply more “competent.” Maybe. But the idea that the administration of George W. Bush put it all on the line in defense of “competence” stretches credulity to the breaking point. Swopa cites the LA Times conclusion: Jaafari and Maliki appear to be carbon copies.
If so, it becomes even more difficult to discern who blinked in the impasse over Jaafari. On the one hand, Khalilzad’s attempt to spin the Maliki deal as “a major positive” seems like a weak effort to cover his losses. Khalilzad’s attack on Jaafari seemed, at times, to aim at reshaping the power balance in Iraqi governance, replacing democratic Shiite majority rule with an extra-constitutional government of “national unity.” No sign of that here. Not yet, at least. If he aimed at substance, he missed. Khalilzad blinked. And lived to fight another day.
On the other hand, if the Shia–Sistani, but especially Sadr who stood by Jaafari for months while the US complained–were really looking to defy the US and establish their political independence, why hand the US even a symbolic victory? Why accept a carbon copy when you hold all the winning cards? Why allow Zhalilzad the (false) image of success?
If personnel changes do little to illuminate the central issues at stake in the Jaafari impasse, policy decisions almost certainly will. First up, according to Reuters, the future of Iraqi militias. Maliki seems to favor “integration” of militias within the official security system, the US allegedly wants the militias disbanded. Is this the real crux of the issue? If so, Maliki seems defiant and the US is headed for tough sledding with the new government. But does the US want “all” militias disbanded? The Kurdish Peshmerga? Nah. The US-instigated and trained Shiite “Commando” units at the Interior ministry? Nah. Sadr’s Mahdi army? Maybe, but why? Hasn’t Sadr has been pretty well contained within the political system? And if Khalilzad is interested in reaching across the sectarian divide, is it plausible to think that Sadr’s nationalism is so dangerous? Sadr has worked overtime to try to keep his own rank-and-file base from retaliating against the Sunni minority for anti-Shiite terror attacks.
During the long months of the Jaafari impasse, Iraqi Shiites rightly suspected that Khalilzad’s real goal was to put the Shiite genie back in the bottle and restore Sunni minority rule in Iraq. If Badr brigade control at the Interior Ministry is a symbolic sign of Shiite power, then the militia issue seems significant at that level. But during the last two months, Khalilzad managed to keep SCIRI closely aligned with his agenda. If there is some massive split between SCIRI and its own militia wing, it is fair to say that the details of such a rupture have been largely ignored by media outlets of all stripes.
Suppose, then, that the real index of US efforts to retreat from de-Baathification is the fate of former-Baathist and pro-Baathist figures like Iyad Allawi, Adnan Pachachi, and Salih Mutlak. If so, then the real mystery of the Jaafari impasse is that it featured entirely mixed-up alliances. Allawi, Pachachi and Mutlak stood with their old sectarian enemies: the Kurds and the pro-Iranian Shiite forces of SCIRI. Standing in opposition to this peculiar re-Baathification initiative was the most ant-Iranian Arab nationalist Shiite leader and the only Shiite leader with links to the Sunni-led insurgency, Muqtada al-Sadr. The alleged reason: Sadr is still bitter that Allawi led military campaigns to crush Sadr during Allawi’s time as US-appointed Prime Minister. Maybe. But the world has seen stranger bedfellows.
Perhaps one reason why Khalilzad blinked and let the Jaafari impasse slide was because the battle lines were not useful for a sustained campaign againt Shiite power. Don’t worry, though, he’ll try again. And next time, he might have Sadr on his side. At the height of Shiite objections to Khalilzad’s post-election maneuvering in favor of a national unity government, Juan Cole noted that Sadr offered up a peculiar, but potentially significant formula: “We want the expulsion of the Occupier and not the American ambassador.” Khalilzad, take note.