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The real disease that afflicts the Iraqi government is indecision. With 40 ministers in the cabinet, a fractious parliament, and beset on all sides by extremists, the Maliki government gets very little done. For example, the speaker of the Iraq parliament — a Sunni — is not following the government line on the crackdown in Syria, issuing a statement saying, “For the sake of the Syrian people we demand the government, out of its responsibility to safeguard the lives of its people and their property, take the bold and courageous steps to stop the bleeding.” Indeed, as Hiltermann points out, the Syrian crackdown is serving as a wedge issue, with Shias supporting Assad, and Sunnis sympathizing with the protestors. Maliki is caught in the middle, making feeble attempts at reform, but as the bombings today show, he has very little room to maneuver. People are angry and are laying the blame at his doorstep.
There is also the depressing reality that questions the loyalty of the Iraqi army to the state, and the machinations of the Interior Ministry that has always been a hot bed of Iranian influence in the government. A professor of political science at Baghdad University, Hamid Fhadil, points out that the security forces are often more loyal to al-Qaeda or the Shia militias. “It’s hard to talk about the existence of an Iraqi Army and a Ministry of Interior without them being loyal to Iraq,” he observed.
Monday’s attacks highlight the dilemma for both the prime minister and the US government. President Obama wants out of Iraq. He has always wanted out of Iraq, only staying on when it became clear that a precipitous withdrawal would have meant that the nation would have almost certainly sunk into chaos, with Iran standing by vulture-like to move in and feast on the pieces. This would have exposed the president to critics who sensibly argued that telling the enemy when we’re leaving would be tantamount to an open invitation to ratchet up the violence as the deadline approaches — as they are doing.
But Obama is also sensitive to the strategic threat posed by even a weak Iraq joining the Iranian-Syrian-Turkish axis, so it is probable that if Maliki asks some troops to stay on, he will reluctantly agree to such a proposal.
Thus, the Maliki government is in the process of negotiating. And despite fierce resistance from the radical Shia faction headed up by the Iranian-backed cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who promises to hold mass demonstrations and attack American troops after the deadline, Maliki appears to be out of options. There has been tremendous progress in the last five years in training and equipping the army and police, but fighting an urban insurgency while seeking out and destroying al-Qaeda fighters demands more than the security forces appear able to accomplish at this point.
Other factions would also be unhappy if more than a token number of American troops would be allowed to stay. Such a decision would put a tremendous strain on Maliki’s coalition of Iranian-backed Shia parties that want the Americans out. Radical cleric Sayyid Al-Sadr especially can cause the prime minster a lot of trouble. He only controls 40 seats in the 325-member parliament, but his following is much larger. And while poorly armed, his Mehdi Militia is composed of fanatics willing to die at his command. Al-Sadr is so unpredictable that he is just as likely to turn his fighters loose on the government as he is on the Americans.
The government is so fragile and riven with divisions that the negotiations will probably be excruciatingly slow, extending beyond January 1, 2012. This would hugely complicate matters for the American military, which needs advanced preparation in order to bring home the troops that will be leaving and make accommodations for any that will be staying. While it seems likely that the Obama administration will agree to a small number of trainers remaining in Iraq (away from population centers and maintaining a very low profile), issues such as the actual number of troops, what their role will be, and whether or not they will be immune from Iraqi justice, clouds the future of any talks.
“Bloody Monday” in Iraq will long be remembered by the families of the victims. But given all the complicating factors, it is a day that the Iraqi prime minister would almost certainly like to forget.
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