I've said for over a year now that the twin wishes of Americans to see Iraq effect a political reconciliation between its feuding factions and to see Iraq become a strong U.S. ally in the Middle East are mutually exclusive. The only people who have a snowball in Hell's chance of ever achieving the former are opposed to the latter and American meddling to try to assure the latter has always ended up by moving any chance of the former further away.
Even if the White House and the military weren't massaging the statistics to make the Surge appear anything like a military success, the NIE this week confirms that the political situation is awful and trending towards horrific.
The report predicts that the Iraqi government "will become more precarious over the next six to 12 months" because of criticism from members of Iraqi Shiite parties, Iraq's top Shiite religious figure Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and other Sunni and Kurdish factions.The Grand Ayatollah has problems of his own - someone is bumping off his top aides and no-one has much of a clue who that someone might be. Given that he's the glue that has bound together the Shiite coalition and stopped them going in for wholesale destruction of rivals in the same way as they've gone after Sunnis, that's a bit of a problem.
The assessment also expresses deep doubts that the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki can overcome sectarian divisions and meet benchmarks intended to promote political unity. It finds that Shiite factions have looked at ways to constrain him.
Fighting between the rival Shiite sects (particularly the Sadrist Current and ISCI (formerly SCIRI also called SIIC)) is heating up in major ways. In recent days, two ISCI governors were killed (likely by Sadr's Mahdi Army). In oil-rich Basra, ISCI and Sadr have been stepping up the fighting in anticipation of the British withdrawal (with Fadhila providing a third party to the fight).All of this has led to a very shaky position for Maliki's government, with Bush having to step up to defend the Iran-friendly Iraqi PM and persistent rumors of a coalition attempt to mount a political upset which would unseat him. Those rumors have been a constant matter of speculation in Iraq since at least last December, and we've been following developments at Newshoggers. Although the participants in such a coalition are variable, there are two constants - all the possible factions involved are on record as being implacably opposed to the U.S. occupation and to any federal breakup of Iraq. Speculation on the membership of any such coalition has included either the Sunni group which recently withdrew its ministers from Maliki's government, or the Sadrists, or both.
But most have also included once-leader Ayad Allawi. Allawi has been clear that he thinks the Surge will fail and that U.S. troops should withdraw, even though he thinks worse factional fighting will follow. He has also written a book about his time as interim Iraqi PM which was highly critical of previous American mistakes as they tried to gerrymander the impossible - peace and a friendly ally - which was particularly critical of the Surge's mastermind, General Petraeus.
So news that Allawi has employed a U.S. Republican lobbyist firm with close ties to the White House is note-worthy, to say the least. He's been going to great lengths to distance himself, in front of his Iraqi audience at least, from accusations that he is even more of an American puppet than Maliki (who in truth is just as much of an Iranian puppet and a man who serves two masters ends up serving none). Equally interesting is a report that one of Allawi's key allies is the head of the Iraqi National Intelligence Service - an organisation so in the CIA's pocket that Maliki set up a rival which could be in Iran's.
So which is truth? Is Allawi still a White House dupe and only pretending to have renounced U.S. sponsorship and influence? That's certainly the most obvious explanation to U.S. left-leaning observers who have become used to the Bush administration playing every underhand card to justify staying the failed course in Iraq. But there's a more intriguing possibility - that the wily old survivor Allawi has figured out that he will need conservative help to convince the White House to stand by and watch as he makes a new bid for power, and so he is deceiving Washington about his true intentions. In other words, he's using the Republican's own repertoire of dirty tricks to get them to back what will turn out to be counter to their own policy objectives.
But no-one as yet really knows - just as no-one knows the exact dynamics and powerplays current among the Shiite base, whether the Kurds are actually as US-friendly as they appear or are just saying anything to anybody in pursuit of an independent homeland, whether the Iraians are as in control of the current rulers of Iraq as some rightwing conspiracists have theorised (i.e. totally) or are just as much in the dark as anyone else.
Which brings me back to my point. Matthew Yglesias writes today on the prospects of Iraqi reconcilliation, saying that:
Even if you had a political accord uniting the two major Kurdish parties, the Sadrist, Dawa, SCIRI, and a sufficient number of Sunnis, the sheer quantity of factions would be a problem. If one Shiite faction felt others were ascending at its expense, it would have an incentive to deploy Shiite maximalism to undercut its rivals' positions. Similarly if one Kurdish party saw the other gaining the upper hand. Nobody even knows what the deal is with the Sunnis.The only way all this will reach a definite conclusion is once they factions have fought each other to a standstill. That's the course they have chosen and America isn't forcing anyone to kill anyone else, just making it easier to continue doing so at a slo-cooker pace rather than a fast boil.
If Maliki and other Iran-leaning types gain a clear ascendancy, then the U.S. has lost the chance at a friendly regional ally, despite backing Maliki. If the anti-Maliki groups win out, then they won't be well-disposed to Iran but neither will they be to America. And as long as America continues to act as referee, while also meddling at every level to try to turn Iraq into a friendly regional stronghold, there's no way any one current can come out on top.