Forget the surge. Forget the Democrats and their idiotic timetables and benchmarks. Forget that the President is once again mishandling the delicate political situation in Iraq. This news from the Iraqi Vice President about the Sunnis simply up and leaving the government is the crisis of the war:
Iraq’s top Sunni official has set a deadline of next week for pulling his entire bloc out of the government—a potentially devastating blow to reconciliation efforts within Iraq. He also said he turned down an offer by President Bush to visit Washington until he can count more fully on U.S. help.
Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi made his comments in an interview with CNN. He said if key amendments to the Iraq Constitution are not made by May 15, he will step down and pull his 44 Sunni politicians out of the 275-member Iraqi parliament.
“If the constitution is not subject to major changes, definitely, I will tell my constituency frankly that I have made the mistake of my life when I put my endorsement to that national accord,” he said. (Watch al-Hashimi express anger over lack of power-sharing )
Specifically, he wants guarantees in the constitution that the country won’t be split into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish federal states that he says will disadvantage Sunnis.
Al-Hashimi’s cooperation with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government is widely seen as essential if there is to be a realistic chance of bridging the Shiite-Sunni divide in Iraq—one of the key goals of the Bush administration.
Al-Hashimi is no fool. He can see as well as I or anyone else who has bothered to pay attention that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is not making a sincere effort to address the issues that would facilitate reconciliation between Sunni and Shia and start the process of making Iraq a whole country again. The oil revenue sharing bill has been languishing for months in the Iraqi Parliament with no sign that the objections of the Kurds or Sunnis are being addressed much less that the Shias are anxious for the bill to become law in the first place.
Some of the other vital issues that Maliki is either avoiding or approaching in a half hearted manner guaranteeing failure include the proposed de-Baathification board that would allow those Sunnis who worked for Saddam but did not participate in the atrocities to work for the government – an important economic measure for the Sunni community where unemployment is rampant and where many thousands are prevented from police and army duty by their past affiliation with the regime. And Maliki’s reconciliation plan – submitted to Parliament with great fanfare last June – seems to have slipped through the cracks with nary a word heard about it in months. A Reconciliation Conference held last spring was a spectacular failure as most of the Sunni invitees refused to attend. And why should they? Until amnesty for insurgents is put on the table, what’s the point?
There are other issues that al-Hashimi and the Sunnis are concerned about including the above mentioned changes in the constitution. Outnumbered, outgunned, and nearly out of time, the Sunnis need those constitutional changes to salvage what’s left of their community. With nearly 2.5 million refugees outside the country and 750,000 internally displaced citizens (the vast majority of them Sunnis) the Sunni population has declined by an estimated 15% and is only getting smaller. They must have hope that there is a place for them in the new Iraq. And Maliki and the Shias are spitting in their face by not addressing any of their concerns.
To be sure Maliki finds opposition to these plans at every turn. Some of it almost certainly inspired by an irrational desire on the part of some Shias and Kurds for revenge. That, after all, is why Iraq is in a civil war. But there also appears to be some calculation involved on the part of both Maliki’s Dawa party and the largest political party in Iraq, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). Dragging their feet in Parliament and in the Cabinet council can be seen as a deliberate attempt to effect exactly the outcome al-Hashimi is threatening; a Sunni withdrawal from government which would give these Shia elements the excuse to either “ghettoize” the Sunnis by confining them to central and western Iraq or worse, it would give some of their more radical members a pretext to begin slaughtering the Sunnis wholesale in order to bring about a “Sunni-free” Iraq.
But if al-Hashimi and the Sunnis leave the government, it begs the question: Just who or what is Maliki in charge of in Iraq? The answer is not too damn much. Hence, a Sunni withdrawal would make the Maliki government nothing more than an empty shell, not even in charge of many Shias especially in the south where rival militias are already clashing in earnest in an attempt to gain control of towns and villages.
Maliki seems paralyzed, unable to face the facts regarding what must be done to save his country. Here’s al-Hashimi on the consequences of a Sunni withdrawal from government:
The withdrawal of the Sunni bloc would unravel months of efforts to foster political participation by Sunnis in Iraq’s government. It also would further weaken al-Maliki just weeks after Shiite Cabinet ministers allied with Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr bolted from the government.
Al-Hashimi’s Iraqi Islamic Party was key in getting Sunnis out to vote in the December 2005 election. Sunnis had been reluctant to take part in the political process, and many were only convinced to do so with the promise of changes to the Iraqi Constitution. Al-Hashimi said the United States co-signed those changes, and now a year and a half later nothing has been done.
Without a change to the constitution, he said, “The situation would be a disaster for Iraq.”
He added, “I would like to see the identity of my country, in fact, restored back.”
Meanwhile, the President has been ineffective in his jawboning the Iraqi Prime Minister, failing to get Maliki to face up to his responsibilities:
On Monday, the president held a 25-minute videoconference with al-Maliki, the White House and the prime minister’s office announced. In Washington, White House spokesman Tony Snow said political reconciliation efforts were “the focal point of those conversations.”
Al-Maliki talked about getting leaders of Iraq’s major factions together “to sit down in a very practical way and say, ‘Let’s get this stuff fixed,’ ” Snow said.
“What you got was a very clear sense from the prime minister that it was important to be making progress,” he said.
It may be “important to be making progress” but one wonders to who; Bush or Maliki?
Al-Maliki’s office said Bush will dispatch a senior administration official to Iraq to rally support for the government, while the prime minister “reaffirmed the importance of continuing cooperation and coordination” between U.S. and Iraqi troops now trying to pacify the capital.
The importance to Maliki that the Capitol be pacified is that if the Americans leave, he’s very like to find himself on the short end of a very long rope. So he will try to keep the Americans pacified by saying all the right words about reconciliation and power sharing while doing nothing to affect the former and actually try and sabotage the latter.
What to do? The Administration efforts in the political sphere have failed miserably to this point. Might it be time for Bush to bite the bullet and give Maliki the heave-ho, replacing him with some kind of government that would do what everyone agrees is necessary but that no one seems willing to work for?
It would be like taking all of those purple fingers raised in triumph following the election and cutting them off at the knuckle. But it may be the only way to save the country. This would be a last resort, the last arrow in Bush’s quiver and he may not use it anyway. Perhaps he’d rather see Iraq disintegrate than give up on his personal dream of promoting democracy in the Middle East.
There will be efforts to entice the Sunnis back into government if they leave. But I am absolutely convinced that Maliki, as with every other promise he has made to us, will do only the minimum necessary to bring that about. Al-Hashimi probably senses the same thing which is why he is willing to walk out in the first place.
This is without a doubt the crisis of the war. How the Administration handles the delicate matter of trying to keep the Sunnis in the government while putting pressure on Maliki to get busy with reforms will tell the tale of whether or not Iraq can be put back together again or whether it will fly apart at the seams.
Allah is back at Hot Air blogging about Iraq. He has the story of Sadrists guarding a Shia shrine – at our request. Trenchantly, he fleshes out the pros and cons.
He also comments briefly on al-Hashimi’s threat:
Iâ€™ll leave you with a report from CNN about Iraqâ€™s Sunni Vice President, Tariq al-Hashimi, threatening to pull his MPs out of the government unless the constitution is amended to prohibit partition. Heâ€™s worried about Anbar being shunted off into its own country where it wonâ€™t get any of the oil revenue from the Shiite areas, but a report from Iraqslogger last month says he might have something even bolder in mind:
What is more interesting in Az-Zamanâ€™s lead story is the fact that the Iraqi Vice-President, Tariq al-Hashimi, is attempting to construct a new coalition, similar to [Iyad] â€˜Allawiâ€™s in several ways and carrying a comparable â€œanti-sectarianâ€ agenda. Az-Zaman said that al-Hashimi has also entered talks with the Fadhila party and that he is engaged in a race with â€˜Allawi to gather allies for a bid for the Prime Ministership.
A Sunni prime minister? When the current president and speaker of parliament are also Sunnis? Not anytime soon, pal.
With both Allawi and al-Hashimi waiting in the wings for a call from the Americans, one would think that Maliki would get the message and get moving on reform. But Maliki has his own card to play; a Shia uprising if we toss Maliki and his Shia brethren.
And that, my friends, would be game, set, match.
It doesn’t necessarily worry me when lefties agree with me. But re-reading my post, I was a little uneasy that I had perhaps taken too dark a view of Hashimi’s threat.
Kevin Drum, a reasonable liberal, echoes my sentiments:
The October 2005 deal has served its purpose admirably: it got the constitution passed and it gave everyone some breathing room. But eventually the Shiites and Kurds were going to have to come through with some changes, and no real progress has ever been made on that. Just stalling.
So what happens next? Prime Minister Maliki might be able to buy himself some more time, but probably not much. Eventually it’s going to become clear that the Sunni amendments aren’t going to be proposed, or if they are proposed, that they aren’t going to pass. That day is looking ever closer, and all the battalions in the world aren’t going to help Iraq if the Sunnis irrevocably pull out of the government. Stay tuned.
Reasonable people can disagree about the extent of this crisis. But I have to make an effort to come up with something worse.