December 12, 2006, Volume 9, Number 43
IRAQI REACTIONS TO U.S. REPORT FOLLOW FAMILIAR PATTERN. On December 6, the bipartisan Iraq Study Group released its much-anticipated report with suggestions for changing U.S. strategy in Iraq. Many of the recommendations are a clear break from the Iraq policies of the Bush administration, particularly the suggestion that the United States directly engage Iran and Syria. However, since the report is nonbinding and carries no legal weight, U.S. President George W. Bush has no obligation to implement its recommendations.
Regardless, the initial reactions among Iraqis suggests there are divisions over whether the report is a successful blueprint for helping pull Iraq out of the cycle of sectarian violence, or if it is a flawed document loaded with unrealistic proposals.
Mixed Reactions In Iraq
As the Iraq Study Group's recommendations were released, the reactions among Iraqi politicians were mixed. Many seemed relieved that the report suggested that U.S. troops focus less on combat and provide more of a supportive role, while giving Iraqi forces more security responsibilities. Many of the positive comments consisted of terse and vague praise, suggesting that some Iraqi politicians were unsure about what elements of the report would be adopted by the U.S. government.
The head of the Sunni-led Iraqi Accordance Front, Adnan al-Dulaymi, told Al-Sharqiyah television on December 7 that the report "contained sound views, especially with regard to the U.S. presence in Iraq."
Shi'ite lawmaker Sami al-Askari said that the report had many positive elements. "I think the Baker-Hamilton commission listened carefully and responded to what the Iraqi government wants," he was quoted by "The New York Times" on December 7 as saying.
However, not all Iraqi lawmakers expressed enthusiasm for the report. Some suggested that that the report was unrealistic and the security situation would not improve even after the U.S. military handed security responsibilities over to the Iraqis.
"If the U.S. Army, in its troop levels and hardware, is unable to provide security, then how can we imagine that increasing the number of the [Iraqi] army and police and better training will decide the situation?" Muslim Scholars Association spokesman Muhammad Bashar al-Faydi said, Al-Jazeera satellite television reported on December 7.
Blaming The Occupiers
Many Iraqi politicians expressed surprise at what was perceived to be a threat by the report, suggesting that Washington end "political, military, or economic support" for Iraq if the Baghdad government failed to meet certain "milestones" in its performance. This implied that the burden was fully on Iraq and many Iraqis feared that this would be an easy way for the United States to pull out of Iraq. Iraqi lawmakers also resented the implied criticism, and instead blamed the United States, as the occupying power, for not doing enough to ensure stability.
"The United States calls itself an occupation force, according to the Geneva Convention. If you are an occupier, then you are responsible for the country," Kurdish lawmaker Mahmud Uthman told AFP on December 7. "They have no right. This is not fair."
Bassim Ridha, a top adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, described the threat of the United States cutting off support if Iraq did not perform as hypocritical. "If they do not support the government, then it will look as if they do not do what they preach. I do not believe they will stop the military support until they complete their mission. We need their support to go forward," Ridah told Al-Sharqiyah television on December 7.
For their part, Kurdish lawmakers expressed outrage at the report's recommendation to block one of the Kurds' most important goals: a referendum on the future of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. The report says that "a referendum on the future of Kirkuk (as required by the Iraqi Constitution before the end of 2007) would be explosive and should be delayed."
Kurdish legislator Uthman said that the future status of Kirkuk was enshrined in Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution and blocking or delaying the referendum defies the constitution, he told "The New York Times" on December 7. "It's sort of interference in Iraqi affairs, actually. These points are really worrying for the Kurds," he said.
Report Viewed Along Sectarian Lines
While Iraqis debate the merits of the Iraq Study Group's report, it seems that most Iraqis agree on the need for change. However, judging from the reactions of various Iraqi politicians, their views on the report fell in line with familiar sectarian agendas.
Sunni Arabs continue to squarely place the blame for Iraq's problems on the Shi'ite-led government, calling for it to end its practice of sectarianism and cleanse the security services of their infiltration by militia elements. Muhammad al-Faydi of the Sunni-dominated Muslim Scholars Association told Al-Jazeera on December 7 that the Iraqi government needed to make serious changes before anything can be accomplished.
"We find, for example, that the report recommends the need for the Iraqi people to cooperate with its government and that this provides for them a safe future, while we know that the government today is part of the problem and that the militias that kill the people are affiliated with influential political blocs in parliament," al-Faydi said.
However, Prime Minister al-Maliki and other influential Shi'ite leaders have shown in the past an unwillingness to clamp down on the militias and it seems unlikely that they would acquiesce to the report's recommendations that they do so. Therefore, it remains to be seen whether any tangible steps will be taken by Iraq's Shi'a and Sunnis to address sectarian disagreements. (By Sumedha Senanayake. Originally published on December 8.)
INCREASED U.S. INVOLVEMENT IN IRAQI POLITICS CARRIES RISKS. This week, the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, met with U.S. President George W. Bush in Washington to discuss the current security situation in Iraq. The meeting came on the heels of Bush's November 30 summit with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Amman, Jordan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 1, 2006).
These meetings with two of Iraq's most prominent figures indicate a new seriousness on the part of the U.S. administration to engage more closely with Iraqi political figures. But while the United States immerses itself deeper into the Iraqi political landscape to find a way to end the seemingly unrelenting violence, it may also find itself walking a very fine line.
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 skyrocketed. On November 23, an attack on the Shi'ite district of Al-Sadr City killed more than 200 and was labeled by the international media as the deadliest attack in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 27, 2006).
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. (By Sumedha Senanayake. Originally published on December 7.)