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Reading The Pictures: Latest Cover For Iraq's Core Meltdown

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The-Last-Battle

Remarkable, isn't it, how this cover -- illustrating Sunday's NYT Mag lead story on Iraq -- manages to reduce an otherwise complex multi-ethnic, multi-party train wreck into a simple one-liner?

What Michael Gordon's 8,000 word article does well is detail the U.S. Military's intense and largely successful effort to convert the Sunni insurgency into Awakening councils, and how these entities now hang in a tenuous state given the Shiite government's reluctance to legitimize or integrate them.  The article also describes the delicate circumstances between what it terms the 'powers that be' and the 'powers that aren't' within Shiite Iraq.  The article outlines power schisms between tribal and more urban/professional Shiites, and between more religious and secular Shiite factions.  In particular, it highlights the power struggle between Prime Minister Maliki's Dawa party, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim's Islamic Supreme Council party and the Sadrists.

Over and over, however, the article places all the chips for coherence, stability and political order on the provincial elections scheduled for this October.

Those are the same elections we learned Wednesday, however, that now aren't going to happen based on the failure of the Iraqi parliament to approve them prior to adjourning for the summer.

Because the Administration and John McCain's story line about the stabilization of Iraq is actually based a lot more -- especially at this point -- on democratic progress than on military supplication, you would think that this setback would be extremely major news.  But no, with the U.S. election in full swing and those Olympics getting started, nobody -- especially the U.S. media -- seems much interested in the fact that this patchwork state America pulled apart in the Persian Gulf is failing because the Kurds, in a battle for Kirkuk with the Arabs and the Turkmen, had already opted out of the elections, and the rest of the government -- especially the Prime Minister, looking to duck al-Sadr at the ballot box -- took the same pass.

Which leads me to the "tastes great, less filling" dynamics of Sunday's cover.

What we see here is an thoroughly artful image of one of those Sadrist "Death to the U.S." demonstrations, the boy literally in the face of the American audience.  The text -- "The Last Battle"  -- activates a sense of an ultimate confrontation, but misleads one to think it's between the Mahdi and the Americans as opposed to the Shiites and the Shiites.  (The nuance-killing caption reads: "An anti-American protest by Iraqi Shiites in Sadr City last month.")  Even more misleading, though, is the sense that, after five years of war, finality in any form is coming to this battered country.

But even that degree of misdirection and reductionism is trifling in light of Wednesday's parliamentary disaster.

Far from failing to honestly represent the Shiite-Shiite conflict, this cover misses the larger picture by kilometers.  It's not just that the cover shills for the Bush and the authoritarian Maliki Administration and the McCain campaign by, one more time, laying blame at the feet (and umbrellas) of the Mahdi.  It's that it completely negates the complexity of: the central government's lack-of-a-battle with the Kurds, who have largely broken away; the brewing re-run with the Sunnis, who see the "make nice" money running out at the same time the prospects for representation are slipping away; and a Shiite core meltdown, based on the fraying disposition of all manner of Shiite have-nots, who aren't getting any.

Okay, now back to Paris, Britney, the floor exercises and synchronized swimming.

For more of the visual, visit BAGnewsNotes.com.

(image: Benjamin Lowy/VII  for The New York Times)