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Maliki is staking a lot on this summit. It is viewed by the Iraqi government as something of a coming out party, proof that Iraq has emerged from a decade of war, occupation, and chaos. Once a leader in the Arab community, since the fall of Saddam the Sunni leaders of all other Arab nations have looked with suspicion on the Shiite-led Iraqi government. Maliki feels it important to repair relations with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, as well as the other Sunni-led nations both because he needs the capital that other nations can invest in Iraq, as well as wanting to improve Iraq’s own security. While relations with Iran have improved (and Iranian infiltration in the Iraqi government is a big problem), Maliki does not want to isolate Iraq by fully embracing Iran. Iraq is one of only three Arab countries that has not condemned President Assad of Syria for his crackdown, although they bowed to pressure from other Arab states and did not invite Syria to the conclave. Maliki wishes to use the improvement of relations with other Arab states as a security blanket in order to fend off Iran.
Syria is expected to be topic number one at the conference, and it is believed that Prime Minister Maliki will soft pedal his support for Assad in favor of Arab unity. Also, he has reached out to Kuwait to try to mend relations, still strained after the 1991 Iraqi invasion. Last month, Maliki visited Kuwait and agreed to settle a long standing dispute over some aircraft stolen by Saddam. It was a small but significant step and Kuwait is reciprocating by attending the conference. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain will not be attending, citing security concerns.
Prime Minister Maliki also sees domestic political benefits flowing from the summit. He has invited representatives of all political blocs to attend the opening session, a point of great prestige for members of his wobbly coalition. But Maliki has yet to strike a power sharing deal with the second largest grouping in parliament, the Sunni-led Iraqiya bloc, despite negotiating for more than a year. And the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has built an independent power base of the poor and downtrodden that threatens Maliki’s claim to speak for the Shiites.
Police in Basra estimate that between 700,000 and a million Sadrites flooded the streets, protesting against the policies of the government that have failed to improve the lives of the millions of desperately poor Iraqis. One protestor from Sadr City echoed the sentiments of most of the crowd, saying, “Lawmakers are looking out for themselves while the state ignores the poor. We want the attention of officials who are busy with their own affairs in their comfortable chairs and armored vehicles.”
While al-Sadr might be considered a political nuisance (his party only has 32 members of parliament out of 275), a real threat to the Iraqi state is brewing to the north. The Kurds are tired of Baghdad interfering in their efforts to secure help in exploiting its oil resources and the situation is coming to a head. Kurdish President Massoud Barzani, in what was billed as a major speech, all but threatened to declare independence from Baghdad if Maliki’s government kept dragging its heels on oil rights and other issues. “It is time to say that enough is enough, because Iraq is headed toward an abyss, and a small group of people are about to pull Iraq into a dictatorship,” Barzani said. He also stated that Iraq was facing “a serious crisis and this situation absolutely is not acceptable to us.”
Maliki already has a Kurdish headache along the Turkish border where Kurdish terrorists strike inside Turkey and then scurry back to Iraq. Turkey has taken matters into its own hands several times, violating Iraqi sovereignty by launching counter terror strikes across the border into Iraqi territory. And now Barzani is threatening to realize the long-standing dream of the Kurdish people and declare independence. Given all that he has on his plate, Maliki can ill afford to risk a permanent fracture.
But the sectarian strife that the bombings were designed to foment may do the job for him. Iraq doesn’t have a government as much as it has a disunified, quarreling, unhappy mob of politicians out to line their own pockets and devil take the rest. Nothing gets done. Nothing is ever decided. The Sunnis walk out of the government at seemingly the drop of a hat. Even within the Shiite coalition there are strains as witnessed by the Sadrites and the radical cleric’s street thugs.
The Iraqi people are a long way from being able to live securely, without threat of terrorists blowing them up. This despite President Obama’s assurance to the American people that Iraq was ready to stand up while we stood down. The slow spiral back into the abyss of sectarian violence may yet prove to be Iraq’s undoing.
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