Thursday, March 22, 2007

Iraq - A Political New Dawn?

There are two key reports today that suggest Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki might have finally created the right conditions for a ceasefire and reconcilliation of sorts - undoubtably spurred on by his realization that many in the Bush administration favored replacing him with Ilyad Allawi in an electoral coup.

First comes a Reuters report that says the Maliki government may be on the verge of a deal with some of the major Sunni insurgent groups to work together against Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Saad Yousif al-Muttalibi, international affairs director at the National Dialogue and Reconciliation Ministry, said the talks were designed to persuade the groups to halt guerrilla warfare against the government and help defeat al Qaeda.

"We've already established links and contacts with major insurgent groups," Muttalibi told the BBC in an interview.

"One of the aims is to join with them into the fight against al Qaeda. We are almost getting there and to join forces to attack al Qaeda to get them out of Iraq," he said.
This move is backed by senior Iraqi figures, including Sunni Vice-President Tareq al-Hashemi.

Then the BBC reports there's a sign of a new direction on the other side of the sectarian divide.
An Iraqi militia leader once branded a major security threat has appeared in public alongside Iraq's prime minister after being freed from US custody.
Ahmed Shibani is a senior aide to radical Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr, whose political movement plays a key role in Iraq's power-sharing coalition.

Mr Shibani met Nouri Maliki hours after Iraqi government officials said they were talking with insurgent groups.

The US-led coalition said Mr Shibani could help moderate extremism in Iraq.

In a statement, the coalition said leaders judged that Mr Shibani "could play a potentially important role in helping to moderate extremism and foster reconciliation in Iraq."

Mr Shibani was seen being photographed with the prime minister and was also interviewed on Iraqi TV.

...The BBC's Hugh Sykes in Baghdad says this is a clear sign of government confidence in Moqtada Sadr and his followers in the Mehdi Army.

The group has largely been co-operating with the Baghdad security plan imposed in mid-February.
A broad accord between Shiite and Sunni to spurn Al Qaeda and halt sectarian violence, with Maliki in the middle as the peacebroker, was always what many hoped would happen. However, Maliki was seen as too much in the pocket of the US occupation to effectively work in such a role, since to do so his government had to have enough credibility to talk to those the US brands terrorists. These are encouraging signs that it could still happen and that both sides now see Maliki's government as being less of America's puppets - again, doubtless because everyone knows that's exactly what Allawi is.

But any such reconcilliation will not toe the Bush administration line. Neither Sadr or the Sunni groups involved are likely to back away from their demand that coalition troops leaving Iraq - returning Iraq to a truly sovereign state - is a precondition of peace. It's ironic, but the "surge" may have worked - not by application of military force, mind you, but by proving that the Bush administration had no intention of ever leaving Iraq under its own steam.

It's early days and there's a whole lot could yet go wrong, but this is the most encouraging news from Iraq in a very long time indeed.

Update There's no immediate ceasefire, of course. That was underlined today when a press conference held by Maliki and UN chief Ban Ki-moon in the Green Zone was interrupted by a mortar attack . The single bomb detonated within 50 yards of the presser, shaking the building. Ban ducked, Maliki didn't.

But far more interesting is the news that US forces have arrested a senior Sadr aide on charges of involvement in the Karbala raid that killed 5 US soldiers in January.
"Over the past several days, coalition forces in Basra and Hilla captured Qais Khazaali, his brother Laith Khazaali, and several other members of the Khazaali network, an organization directly connected to the kidnapping and murder in January of five American soldiers in Kerbala," the military said in a statement.
What happened to rightwing blogger's allegations that the Karbala attacks HAD to be the work of Iranian secret agents?

Iraqis who hear this and saw Maliki embrace another Sadr aide just released after 2 years in prison, even after a trial found no evidence against him, will draw the obvious conclusion about Maliki's loyalties.

Sadr's group has always been the most independent-minded of the Shiite militias, being fervently Iraqi nationalist, willing to join non-sectarian coalitions against the US occupation and making a stand against Iraq becoming simply an Iranian satellite. Notice that Qais Khazaali is described as currently a senior aide to Sadr? Not leader of a breakaway faction.

Which makes me highly sceptical of a recent AP report which alleges that a breakaway Sadrist faction based around Qais al-Khazaali is receiving Iranian military training. The story hinges on the accounts of two anonymous "senior militia commanders" who could just as easily be Mujahedeen e-Kalq imposters...and bears a remarkable similiarity to the claims of the notoriously untruthful MeK's US mouthpiece in the US, Alireza Jafarzadeh, on Tuesday. Only a neocon true believer like Jules Cretinden would descibe the AP's story as "well stood up" and then use it as a reason to call for using weapons rather than words against Iran.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more I'm inclined to bet that the arrest of Khazaali today will eventually prove to be based entirely upon "intelligence" received from the MeK. It's simply too pat.