Iraq: A House Divided

"The United States has been pushing Iraq to speed up the formation of a unity government, seen as the best option to subdue the violence gripping several Iraqi cities," the Associated Press reports today. "But the talks are fragile, in a country with deep sectarian differences between Shiites and Sunnis and daily violent death tolls in the dozens." Recent heavy-handed meddling by the Bush administration into Iraq politics has done nothing but renew charges that the United States is "trying to subvert Iraqi sovereignty." Such clumsy handling of the political situation is damaging the efforts of the Iraqi people to put their country on a path to democracy.

Political process stalled

Negotiations over the formation of the Iraqi government have been ongoing since the election results were certified in early January, and the Iraqis have been "unable to agree on a new, permanent government for the country for more than five weeks." The March 16 meeting of the Iraqi parliament set in motion what will ultimately be a long process of choosing a ruling government. Currently, talks are stalled and compromise "hinges on" whether Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the current prime minister, should receive a second term. Jaafari has the "backing of firebrand, anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr," and "as long as the other major blocs oppose Mr. Jaafari, the process is at a standstill."

White House continues to meddle in Iraqi politics

In an effort to jumpstart the negotiations, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad told Shiite officials that President Bush "doesn't want, doesn't support, doesn't accept" Jaafari, Iraq's next prime minister. Khalilzad's move "is the first time the Americans have directly expressed a preference in the furious debate over the country's top job," and "it is inflaming tensions between the Americans and some Shiite leaders." The White House confirmed that Khalilzad met with a Shiite official, but did not deny that it expressed disapproval of Jaafari. "The U.S. ambassador's position on al-Jaafari's nomination is negative," one Iraqi leader with close ties to Jaafari said. "They want him (the prime minister) to be under their control." Also, the U.S. sent a message to Iraq's senior religious cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, "strongly implying" that Jaafari should withdraw his nomination. "[B]y contacting the revered Shiite Muslim leader, the administration risks further angering Iraqi leaders, who already complain that the United States is interfering too much with the process." While Bush has promised to "help the Iraqis establish a democracy," the U.S. has a history of unsuccessfully butting into local Iraqi politics (e.g. the failed candidacy of Ahmed Chalabi). This latest "sign of White House impatience over the deadlocked talks to form a new government" could risk making the important work of democracy illegitimate in the Iraqi people's eyes.

Failure in battle for hearts and minds

"If I were grading," Defense Secretary Rumsfeld said Monday, "I would say we probably deserve a 'D' or a 'D-plus' as a country as to how well we're doing in the battle of ideas that's taking place in the world today." In Iraq, the battle of ideas received another setback as "tensions between Shiite leaders and the American government ... boiled over" after a controversial U.S.-Iraqi joint military raid of a compound. The Pentagon said the units "discovered an Iraqi hostage and numerous weapons" inside the compound, but they had not known it "contained a place of worship." Rumors of "cold-blooded" killings quickly made their way around Iraq. The event "has been damaging for the United States and a propaganda windfall for Sadr as the country's Shi'ite, Kurdish and Sunni leaders struggle to form a government of unity to head off civil war." Rumsfeld admitted the incident again showed how the U.S. "has not figured out how to combat anti-American propaganda by Iraqi militants."

The 'Unity Myth' distorts the reality of the situation

The ethnic and religious divisions in Iraq have led to delays in the political process. As the weeks go by, Iraqi leaders have "offered a myriad of reasons for the delay in forming a government, and their reasoning often reflected their religious or ethnic loyalties." Outside of the political arena, sectarian violence continues to escalate around Iraq. The U.N. International Organization for Migration recently reported that since the February 22 bombing of Samarra's Golden Mosque, "sectarian violence has displaced more than 25,000 Iraqis." Iraq continues to be a country where "Shiite majority and Sunni Arab and ethnic Kurdish minorities have been competing for a share of power and turf since the overthrow of President Saddam Hussein three years ago." Yet the administration continues to describe the situation in unrealistic terms. Secretary Rice described current negotiations as an "extraordinary scene with Iraqi Sunni and Shia and Kurds all working together toward a unity government." "Every time the [Iraqi people have] had a chance to vote," National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said last weekend, "they have voted for unity." But Iraqis have voted based on their ethnic and religious identities. In fact, only nine percent of Iraqis supported "national unity" candidates in the December election.

Where to go from here

Rather than directly interfering in Iraq politics or painting a false picture of the situation, the administration could do more in two areas. First, the administration should follow the Iraqi foreign minister's lead and pressure Iraq's neighbors to get more involved. Second, a strategy of Strategic Redeployment out of Iraq would unfetter the political process from the whims of "terrorists and cynical Iraqi politicians" who blame Americans for sectarian violence. "A timetable for withdrawal will spur Iraq's battling factions to try harder to reach a compromise before U.S. troops leave," the American Progress analyst Brian Katulis wrote recently. Such a plan "acknowledges up front that Iraq's problems cannot be solved by American boots on the ground," but rather by the Iraqis themselves.

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