Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 March - 5 April 2006
Issue No. 788
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The sleeping giant

Abbas Kadhim* reviews the reasons behind the strained relations between the US ambassador and Iraq's Shia

Click to view caption
Iraqi men crying over the coffin of Ali Al-Mayahi, a member of Al-Dawa Party. Al-Mayahi was one of 18 worshippers killed in a US-led raid on a Shia mosque south of Baghdad

The raid on a mosque in Sadr City is another evidence that United States Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad and the top generals on the ground have run out of ideas. The main victims are members of the Sadr movement and the Da'wa Party, whose leader is the current Iraqi prime minister, Ibrahim Al-Ja'fari. The two groups have no history of good relations with the Americans and both have stood against the invasion of Iraq from the beginning. The latest showdown between these two entities -- the Sadris and the Da'wa -- was over the nomination of prime minister for the coming four years.

Against the wishes of the US Embassy and its close Iraqi allies, Ibrahim Al-Ja'fari was nominated by one vote over the US favourite -- or "the lesser of two evils" -- Adel Abdul-Mahdi of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).

The main problem that emerged from the recent Iraqi election, and the previous ones, is the devastating failure of US favourite candidates to achieve any success. This has been the case with democratic elections everywhere in the Middle East -- HAMAS is another stark example. Disturbing as it may be, this outcome is a test for the US rhetoric about democracy in the Middle East.

In Iraq, the principle of helping friends and disturbing the opponents wins against the principle of democratisation. First, the US has forced a so- called "government of national unity" which is going to effectively cancel the results of the elections for the second time in Iraq and create a government of religious and ethnic entitlements. This is the first act to circumvent the Iraqi constitution on the road of reducing it to a role similar to those played by other constitutions in the region.

There is no denying that the birth of an Iraqi government is very difficult. But this can be made even more difficult with the involvement of the wrong midwife. The selection of Ambassador Khalilzad for this task was one more evidence that the Bush administration has not yet grasped the salient dynamics of Iraqi society. Oversimplification has been the hallmark of the mentality in charge of the Iraqi affair.

For Washington, a Muslim ambassador is more likely to succeed in dealing with Muslims than would another ambassador. Yet, had there been any reflection, it would appear that sending a Sunni ambassador to a country where the crux of the dispute pertains to the Sunni-Shia grievances may only cripple any chances of success. So far, Ambassador Khalilzad's mission has been to bring the Sunnis to the table, mainly by pressing the Shia to give up part of their electoral entitlement.

The goal is to reduce the violence which is blamed on the new power distribution in Iraq. But so far, the Sunnis are still unsatisfied and violence is on the increase and now there is the real prospect of a Shia insurgency. This begs the obvious question: what rationale is left for keeping Khalilzad on the job?

The next project Ambassador Khalilzad introduced is the establishment of a government institution consisting of the heads of the winning lists which is going to serve as a board of directors over the government. First of all, such council flies in the face of the Iraqi constitution. Second, it is going to establish the principle of consensus and stalemate and undermine electoral democracy. Iraqis are already seeing it for what it really is: an attempt to admit the losers from the window and make them equal to the winners of the election.

Worse of all, the proposed council is being called " majlis ahl al-hall wal-aqd " (the council of the movers and shakers, so to speak). In addition to its elitist and anti-democratic appearance, it reveals a gross lack of understanding of Shia history. It was a similar concept that took the power away from the Shia time and again following the death of the Prophet. Here too, the undemocratically-appointed "movers and shakers" of Ambassador Khalilzad will truncate the Shia power which came to them from the elections. In defense of this council, the proponents say that it is a way to revive the Governing Council which former US administrator Paul Bremer appointed shortly after the occupation of Iraq. Given the fact that the Governing Council turned out to be the most incompetent and trivial institution in the history of Iraq, one can easily see what its revival will accomplish in the upcoming era.

Then came the twin attacks on the Shia, the bombing of the Samarra shrine by terrorists and the recent attack on the mosque in Sadr City which was blamed on American forces and Iraqi units who seem to operate out of the control of the Iraqi government. Both incidents were blamed partially on Ambassador Khalilzad whose remarks seem to be followed by a disaster every time he opens his mouth. Coincidence? Maybe. But the recent Shia reactions to the work of the ambassador indicate that they have had it.

* The writer is an Iraqi academic based in the US.

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