Al-Maliki faces US U-turn
Joe Biden's call to integrate Baathists sends shockwaves across the political forces until now promoted by the US in Iraq, writes Salah Hemeid
Two days after US troops pulled out from Iraqi cities and towns last week, US Vice-President Joe Biden flew to Baghdad for a surprise visit, taking on a new role overseeing US policy in Iraq. During his three-day visit the veteran American politician appeared before television cameras relaxed and even smiling as he held talks with a grim-faced Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki and other senior Iraqi officials. In public statements, Biden assured Iraqis that the United States would not shift attention from Iraq after the 30 June withdrawal and also expressed optimism about Iraq's prospects for stability and security.
But even before wrapping up his visit on Sunday, Biden's discussions seemed to be marred by enormous political disagreements, apparently over the way the Obama administration is expected to handle its policy in Iraq. Biden said Iraqi leaders told him privately that they feared President Obama had pushed Iraq "to the bottom of the shelf" to make way for other, more pressing concerns, like the war in Afghanistan. Iraqi officials were quick to point out that they did not see an eye to eye with Biden on issues under discussion. Some even contradicted him and disclosed that Biden was trying to pressure them to accept the return of Baathists and followers of Saddam Hussein's regime into the government through the national reconciliation efforts Al-Maliki has promised to undertake.
The controversy came out in the open Monday when Al-Maliki reiterated that he remained totally opposed to the idea of including Baathists in the government. "We will not allow anyone to interfere in our internal affairs or to be a supervisor of the national reconciliation or political process," Al-Maliki told a gathering in Al-Anbar Province, a bastion of former Arab Sunni resistance to the Americans. His spokesman, Ali Al-Dabagh, was even more vociferous and declared that "the government will never talk to those whose hands were stained with blood" a reference to crimes blamed on Saddam's followers.
In an interview with The New York Times on his way back to Washington, Biden alluded to his failed effort, though tried to send a clear message that much of Al-Maliki government's efforts to succeed in bringing stability to the war-wary country depend on the Americans who still have some 130,000 troops in Iraq. He said the Iraqis are "painfully aware" of their own unresolved issues, and are "very anxious" to pursue a strategic agreement in which the United States can offer educational, political and economic help, including "advice on how to deal with the international business community". In what appeared to be a veiled threat, he made it clear that Iraq's long-term relationship with the United States depends on its ability to "get it right on the political side".
Back in Washington, President Barack Obama stepped in what seemed to be a wildfire of looming dispute to back Biden's mission, though unaccomplished. He warned: "There will be difficult days ahead [in Iraq]," and said that the US will remain a strong partner to Iraq for its security. Obama, speaking on Independence Day festivities on Saturday, said: "Iraq's future now rests in the hands of its own people." He also acknowledged that the transition "won't be without problems".
One thing that Biden's trip highlighted is how much Obama's policy towards Iraq is confused and confusing. On the one hand, it underscored concern in the White House about the fragility of the security situation after US troop withdrawals. On the other, it showed its inability to influence Iraqi rulers that the US itself put in power after its 2003 invasion but who increasingly feel their self- esteem wounded by US interference. With Iraqi cities now mostly empty of US troops and America's day-to- day involvement in Iraqi affairs diminished, it is hard to imagine that Washington will retain the power to dictate to Iraqis what to do.
According to Biden, his mission was intended to "re- establish contact" with Iraqi leaders and prod them towards settling internal disputes over oil revenues and political power sharing. One major concern for Washington, which Biden tried to underline, is that Iraqis are not moving quickly enough to forge a stable government, making political progress in negotiations between Iraqi Sunnis, the Shia and the Kurds. Without even trying to conceal his dismay, he told reporters that "getting it right on the political side" was the reason he came, "and that's the reason I'll keep coming back." He said he was there to deliver the message in person. "What is their plan to resolve the real differences that exist?" he asked.
Neither Biden nor his aids disclosed details about his talks in Baghdad, but Iraqi officials said Al-Maliki appeared uncomfortable with Biden's tone and the heavy- handed way of telling him what to do, rather than asking what he wants. They referred specifically to Biden's proposal to convene a meeting in Washington later this year that will bring together representatives of rival Iraqi factions with Iraq's neighbours to try to resolve all outstanding problems. Under his proposal, Baathists should be called in to join the political process.
One Iraqi official, who talked to Al-Ahram Weekly from Baghdad, said Biden urged Al-Maliki to allow former Baath Party members to regroup in a new political movement and permit them to take part in the next parliamentary elections scheduled for January. The official, who asked not to be named, said Biden suggested that Arab countries that will participate in the proposed reconciliation meeting in Washington are ready to guarantee that the Baathists will abandon any kind of armed resistance if they are allowed to function as a legitimate political party.
If the trip was his showcase after being named by Obama as the top US official in charge of formulating the administration's Iraq's policy, Biden might have been ill- prepared for the daunting task ahead. He also has a problem of credibility with many Iraqis. In 2007, the US Congress passed a bill sponsored by Biden -- then a US senator -- requiring the United States to work in support of the partitioning of Iraq into three semi-autonomous regions, each governed locally by its dominant ethnic and religious factions, the Shias, Sunnis and Kurds. The regions would have dominion over local administrations supported by a weaker federal government in Baghdad.
Political posturing and pride aside, Iraqi leaders should not underestimate Biden's mission or make any miscalculations. They should also heed his warning that if Iraq fell into a period of sectarian violence or ethnic fighting, this would change the nature of US engagement. A careful reading is that the Obama administration is ready for a change in US posture in Iraq that allows it to absolve itself of responsibility if Iraq again descended into chaos, dragged down by lingering national disputes. The one lesson Iraq's leaders should have learned is that the US invasion started with confusion and it should not end with anarchy.