When Mr. Bush and Ms. Rice arrive in Amman on Wednesday, they will try to enlist help from Sunni Arab leaders to try to rein in the violence in Iraq by putting pressure on Sunni insurgents…. Specifically, the United States wants Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt to work to drive a wedge between the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, and the anti-American Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army has been behind many of the Shiite reprisal attacks in Iraq, a senior administration official said. That would require getting the predominantly Sunni Arab nations to work to get moderate Sunni Iraqis to support Mr. Maliki, a Shiite. That would theoretically give Mr. Maliki the political strength necessary to take on Mr. Sadr’s Shiite militias. “There’s been some discussion about whether you just try to deal first with the Sunni insurgency, but that would mean being seen to be taking just one side of the fight, which would not be acceptable,” the administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity under normal diplomatic practice.This report suggests a two-prong strategy of putting pressure on Iraqi Sunni insurgents, using the Saudis, Jordan and Egypt to help with this while at the same time pressuring al Maliki to break with Moktada al-Sadr and disarm the Mahdi militia associated with al-Sadr. In an earlier post I mentioned Barbara Walter’s book on civil wars, Committing to Peace. One of the most difficult steps in negotiating the end of a civil war is getting each side to lay down its arms and trust that promises made in negotiations will be honored. To me it seems like this would be nearly impossible in Iraq because there are not yet even open negotiations between the al Maliki government and the insurgency much less any promises made. However, the Sadrist walkout of the parliament today and suspension of support for al Maliki’s government does show new stress on the relationship between al Maliki and the Sadrists.
This leaked memo of Stephen Hadley’s does seem to suggest that an important prong of the administration’s policy is to attempt to split al Maliki from al Sadr and to somehow get the Mahdi militia disarmed. This will be extremely difficult to do. My reading of the New York Times article on this leak suggests that it was planned by the administration. Why? Perhaps to place pressure on al Maliki just prior to Bush’s meeting with him tomorrow. Bush’s history suggests he likes to put pressure on people to get them to lean more his way.
One part of this program is to demonize Moktada al Sadr and it is remarkable what an unseemly rush the main stream media is to jump on this bandwagon. The news in the last few days has suddenly seemed to be filled with dramatic stories about this “most dangerous man in Iraq” (next Monday’s cover story in Newsweek!). I don’t have enough knowledge of al Sadr to make a strong judgment about him one way or the other but the way the press supinely presses the administration line of the moment is deplorable. They are so anxious to jump on the bandwagon and scapegoat someone. In their knee-jerk demonization of our opponents they fail in their duty to clarify and inform our public about reality and instead they encourage a soap opera version of the news.
The weakness in the administration’s blame al Maliki and demonize al Sadr move are pointed out in another article in the New York Times:
[It appears] American military and political leverage in Iraq has fallen sharply…. American fortunes here are ever more dependent on feuding Iraqis who seem, at times, almost heedless to American appeals, American and Iraqi officials in Baghdad say. They say they see few policy options that can turn the situation around, other than for Iraqi leaders to come to a realization that time is running out. It is not clear that the United States can gain new traction in Iraq with some of the proposals outlined in a classified [leaked] White House memorandum…. Many of the proposals appear to be based on an assumption that the White House memo itself calls into question: that Prime Minister Maliki can be persuaded to break with 30 years of commitment to Shiite religious identity and set a new course, or abandon the ruling Shiite religious alliance to lead a radically different kind of government, a moderate coalition of Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish politicians…. Against these judgments, some key passages in the Hadley memo seem at odds with the reality on the ground, as if the steady worsening of America’s prospects here has driven the White House to reach for solutions that defy the gloomy conclusions of America’s diplomats and field commanders, not to mention some of Mr. Maliki’s closest political associates…. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most powerful Shiite cleric, has been clear… that the Shiites must subordinate their differences to the cause of consolidating Shiite power. So it is hard to imagine Mr. Maliki approaching Ayatollah Sistani to win approval “for actions that could split the Shia politically,” as the Hadley memo suggests. Shiite leaders, who are tiring of Mr. Maliki, appear to be thinking of replacing him with another Shiite religious leader, and not of sundering the alliance and surrendering the power the Shiites have awaited for centuries. But if recent interviews in Baghdad with senior American and Iraqi officials are a guide, a bigger problem for the administration in effecting change here may be that the United States, in toppling Saddam Hussein and sponsoring elections that brought the Shiites to power, began a process that left Washington with ever-diminishing influence.
One reason for the declining American influence lies in policies that, for various reasons, alienated the political class, most of them former exiles like Mr. Maliki who rode back to Baghdad on the strength of American military power. Many Shiite leaders resent the Americans for compelling them to share power in the new government with the minority Sunni Arabs — a policy, the Shiites say, that guaranteed paralysis for the government. Sunni leaders still resent the American invasion, and the imposition of an electoral process that ended centuries of Sunni dominance. Just as much, they fume over the pervasive influence of neighboring Iran, which backs the Shiite parties. And secular politicians, marginalized by the Shiite and Sunni Islamist politicians who dominate the government, say they, too, have lost faith in the Americans, for failing to protect Iraq’s secular traditions. “Politically, their position is weaker in all aspects,” Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish leader, said of the Americans. “They just got weaker and weaker, and many more people who were supporting them are supporting them less.”