New U.S. Approach
Bush's meeting with al-Hakim suggests a new and more aggressive direction by his administration to try and help end the violence in Iraq. In the past, the United States preferred to take a "hands-off" approach while Iraqi politicians and leaders squabbled. Although U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad was an ever-present figure in the background, the Bush administration did not project an image of direct engagement among Iraq's different political players.
The political process in Iraq has virtually ground to a halt, while violence has exploded. On November 23, an attack on the Shi'ite district of Al-Sadr City killed more than 200 and was described by international media as the deadliest attack in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
The American public has grown increasingly weary of the situation in Iraq and the Republican Party's huge losses in the November 7 U.S. Congressional elections reflected the public's frustration. Therefore, the U.S. administration has been pressed to make changes in its Iraq policy, and it seems that more direct engagement with Iraqi politicians is seen as a way shake up Iraq's political logjam.
U.S. national security adviser Stephen Hadley outlined this strategy of meeting with Iraqi politicians to support Prime Minister al-Maliki's government in a classified memo that was leaked to "The New York Times" on November 29. "Press Sunni and other Iraqi leaders (especially [SCIRI head and al-Maliki rival] al-Hakim) to support al-Maliki," Hadley wrote.
Risks Of Closer Engagement
However, this more aggressive approach by the Bush administration has its risks. First, a more direct U.S. involvement in Iraqi politics could be interpreted as U.S. meddling in the affairs of a sovereign state. Indeed, if that were the perception among Iraqis and by extension, the Arab world, it would essentially contravene the Bush administration's much-vaunted Greater Middle East Initiative to spread democracy throughout the region, especially since Iraq was envisioned as an example of successful democracy for the rest of the Arab world to follow.
Furthermore, the United States has been highly critical of Iran's and Syria's interference in Iraqi affairs. U.S. officials have accused Tehran of supporting Shi'ite militias suspected of carrying out sectarian attacks, and Damascus of allowing Sunni insurgents to cross into Iraq from Syria. Deeper involvement in Iraqi politics by the Washington, no matter the reason, may embolden Tehran and Damascus to take a harder stance and actually increase their involvement in Iraq and as a result, worsen the violence. They may view the U.S. involvement in their neighbor's political affairs as a direct threat to their national security.
Finally, reaching out to al-Hakim might be perceived as a slight against Prime Minister al-Maliki. Although Bush reaffirmed his support for al-Maliki in Amman, referring to him as the "right guy for Iraq," his meeting with al-Hakim, who is viewed as a political rival of al-Maliki, might be seen as the United States distancing itself from an already weak leader. This is particularly true in light of the leaked Hadley memo, which cast serious doubts on al-Maliki's leadership.
Iraq's political paralysis and the increasing violence has placed al-Maliki in an untenable position and his departure may be imminent. Indeed, Iraqi parliament speaker Mahmud al-Mashhadani, a Sunni, said on December 5 during an informal session of parliament carried on Al-Iraqiyah television that the government was in shambles and leadership was lacking. "There is a vacuum of authority resulting from the government's weakness and its inability to exercise its legitimate powers. This has produced so much chaos," he said.
While Bush's meetings with al-Maliki and al-Hakim suggest that his administration is trying to keep Iraq's coalition government afloat, it could have serious repercussions with Iraq's Sunnis. Both leaders are Shi'a and Washington needs to be careful not to give the impression that it is favoring Shi'ite leaders at the expense of Sunnis.
Even though Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, a Sunni Arab, has been invited to visit the White House in January, the Sunnis' perception of being marginalized could further fuel the insurgency. U.S. officials widely expressed the belief that the Sunnis, including former members of the Ba'ath Party, form the backbone of the insurgency.
During an interview on Al-Jazeera satellite television on December 6, Iraqi journalist Harun Muhammad said the United States should learn from its mistakes and not marginalize the Sunnis.
"Former U.S. policies were based on alliances with Shi'ite and Kurdish organizations at the expense of the Sunnis and this alliance has led to catastrophic results not only for Iraq, but also for the United States, its interests, standing, and role, which pushed U.S. decision makers to reconsider their policies in Iraq," he said.
The Imam Al-Mahdi Army on parade (epa)
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THE COMPLETE PICTURE: Click on the image to view RFE/RL's complete coverage of events in Iraq and that country's ongoing transition.