A special to the Huffington Post
A peaceful coup is being attempted in Baghdad, seeking to replace Nouri al-Maliki with a coalition between the Sunni political leader Saleh al-Mutlak and the Shiite insurgent leader Moqtada al-Sadr.
In the background are calls from Iraq's leading Shiite and Sunni clerics for an American withdrawal timetable.
Al-Mutlak, an ex-Baathist who heads the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue has eleven seats in parliament which, combined with Sadr's twenty percent bloc, is enough to destabilize or even bring down the regime of al-Maliki.
As reported last week in the Huntington Post, secret efforts to strike a deal with the Sunni nationalist resistance have been underway for months. Ex-Baathists like Mutlak, Sunnis in the Muslim Scholars Association, and in particular the revered Sunni cleric Harith al-Dhari, are strongly supportive of a political settlement based on a US withdrawal timetable. But the sudden move by al-Sadr's Shiite bloc, which pulled out of the Baghdad government over al-Maliki's meeting with Bush, provides the anti-occupation coalition with significant, perhaps decisive, power, if they choose to bring down al-Maliki's shaky coalition.
US commanders make no secret of their desire to crush al-Sadr's Mahdi Army - indeed they are waging a war of attrition - but they will be frustrated if the new coalition takes hold. Mainstream media has reported that the US has hoped to cajole the Sunnis to align with al-Maliki against al-Sadr, a scenario that seemingly is being rejected and reversed. Instead, al-Sadr's bloc is demanding a US timeline for withdrawal.
CNN' Nick Robertson featured an interview today [Thursday morning] with al-Mutlak in Baghdad, describing the unfolding transition plan as having been months in the making. It appeared that a threatened al-Maliki would have to join the call for US withdrawal, or face the possibility of being replaced by an interim government. Wolf Blitzer described the al-Maliki government as "teetering." [Earlier this year, 104 Iraqi parliamentarians, over forty percent of its membership, signed a resolution calling for an American withdrawal timetable; it was tabled under American pressure.]
Any of these scenarios would seem intolerable to the Bush Administration. But how would it respond to a demand from a reconstituted Baghdad government for a withdrawal timetable? Send more American troops into Sadr City? Facing a request from Baghdad for withdrawal, American domestic demand for a pullout could become overwhelming, even for Bush.
This week's immediate outcome cannot be predicted, depending as it does on al-Maliki's response, the US embassy's role, and above all, the determination of al-Sadr to forge a coalition with al-Mutlak across the sectarian divides.
However, al-Sadr is a well-known Arab Shiite often at odds with more pro-Irani Shiite parties like that Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, and has been a critic of the "political quietism" of the elderly Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. His base is the Shiite urban underclass, centered in Sadr City slum. His forces fought in collaboration with the Sunnis during the American siege of Falluja in 2004, and rose against the American forces on two other occasions in 2003 and 2004. They have sent 100,000 people into the streets demanding US withdrawal, and on one occasion collected one million signatures door to door on a withdrawal petition. [for more information, see Ahmed Hashim's Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency in Iraq, Cornell, 2006]
I listened to al-Mutlak several weeks ago in Amman during a peace dialogue with American activists. According to my notes, al-Mutlak said:
"Our Front for National Dialogue was ahead in many polls, with seventy percent in Sunni areas and thirty percent among the Shi'a. But things changed with all the killings, and we got only 11 positions in the parliament. We lost one hundred campaign workers killed during the election. I lost my own brother.
"The whole electoral process is a false thing and we cannot rely on it...
"After the occupation, [the US] has been trying to remove the Iraqi identity, and corrupt our morals and ethics, building a totally difference image of the people, one of looters and thieves...
"They are pulling Iraq into a new quagmire, that of civilian conflict, Before we thought we would remove the occupation. But as the British ambassador has said, a full-scale civil war is near...Actually, the Shiites suffer as much.
"US should realize that some Shiites who cam from iran are trying to create a state within a state...
"Death squads have been created so that everyone will believe in the US project as the 'only solution'. Iraqi nationalists have fought hard against federalism [partition]. But death squads are frightening many Sunnis into supporting federalism for their protection...the death squads are to implement the [neo-conservative] New Middle East Project. We must fight together against this...It is based on making our countries smaller and dividing people. Federalism is the start of partition and civil war, starting ethnic conflicts over borders and oil...
"My personal view is that the reason for Sunni insecurity is the presence of US troops in Iraq. The Arab Sunnis were the most anit-US occupation, but now the US is trying to take advantage of their vulnerability and wants them to ask the US to stay. Now it is very complicated. We want the US to withdraw its troops but correct all their mistakes before the pull out. There should be a timetable for withdrawing troops plus a parallel timetable for fixing their mistakes."
Clearly this was not a call for immediate American withdrawal. Neither was it a request that the occupying forces stay indefinitely. Rather, it was a proposal demanding an immediate public decision to embrace withdrawal within a political solution, perhaps requiring one or two years to carry out. For the Sunnis, those political solutions were identified in the secret documents reported on the Huffington Post last week: a cease-fire [which could be coordinated with the pullback proposed by the Baker Study Group], restoration of Baathist professionals and military leaders in Sunni areas, amnesty and prisoner releases, US financing of Iraqi-led reconstruction, the fair distribution of oil revenues, etc.]. The sticking point would be the deadline for withdrawal, which could be gradual and prolonged, or more immediate. The interim outcome for Baghdad, with its five million residents divided 60-40 between Shiite and Sunni, might be cease-fires in place, while US troops withdraw and services like electricity restoration take priority.
For al-Sadr, his bloc would expand further inside government, where he already controls four ministries. His Mahdi Army would avoid another battle with the Americans. He would become, sooner or later, the most popular leader in a reconfigured Iraq. Like it or not, the current Lebanon model comes to mind, where Hezbollah dominates the south and is a major player in a coalition government representing several ethnic/religious groups. Such may be the outcome of the neo-conservatives' grand design for the Middle East.
That leaves one question mark, the role of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Until now, representatives of the Sunni resistance have minimized the issue by saying that a cease-fire and withdrawal deadline would drastically shrink the base of the "foreign fighters." But others note that the "foreign fighters" have integrated themselves deeply into parts of the country. Drawing them into a cease-fire would remain a major issue during any withdrawal scenario. Surveys indicate it is unlikely that a continuing jidhad would be supported by many Iraqis if the occupiers were withdrawing and lights were turning on.
[For an informative account of Dr. Harith al-Dhari, see Dahr Jamail and Ali al-Fadhilly, IPS report, Nov. 26, 2006. He was received warmly by Jordan's King Abdullah this week, a sign of his rising diplomatic importance.]