Saturday, August 11, 2007

Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is now “hunkered down with a small group of sycophantic cronies, increasingly detached from the business of running a government.” Speaking not for attribution, this was the message conveyed by a former ranking Iraqi government official in London over the weekend. The current drift at the top, he added, could only be reversed by “a strongman at the top.”

Asked if there was such a potential pro-Western leader in the military, he said, “one can always be found. All it would require is a wink and a nod from Washington.” But he conceded this was highly unlikely as the Bush administration’s objective in toppling Saddam Hussein was to establish democracy.

Mr. al-Maliki has little contact with his Cabinet ministers. Half are now off the job. The six Sunni ministers who resigned last week — and five independents who walked out this week — concluded the prime minister is not serious about reconciliation and national unity. They say he sees Iran, where he spent a few years in exile during the Saddam Hussein regime, as “more relevant to Iraq’s future than the United States.” Iran is here to stay as our neighbor, says Mr. al-Maliki’s entourage. And Mr. al-Maliki remains close to Muqtada al-Sadr, the fiery young anti-U.S. cleric who heads the 15,000-strong Mahdi Army militia and also has close ties to Tehran.

With electricity down to an hour or two a day in Baghdad last week when temperatures hit a scorching 58 Celsius (134 Fahrenheit), and much of the city without running water, Mr. al-Maliki and his cronies, with the benefit of generators and air-conditioning, seem far removed from the urgent and monumental task of rebuilding the country. They gave their visitors the impression of being overwhelmed by the challenge. They don’t want the U.S. military to abandon them, but at the same time wish them gone, a syndrome that borders on paralysis. Meanwhile, parliament gave itself a month off and many members went to European destinations to cool off.

The Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) Coordination Committee in Iraq says violence masks a humanitarian crisis that has steadily worsened since the 2003 invasion: 8 million people urgently need emergency aid, including 2 million who are displaced within Iraq and more than 2 million refugees in Jordan and Syria. Many more, said the NGOCC report, live in abject poverty, without basic services, and are threatened by disease and malnutrition. Forty-three percent endure “absolute poverty” and more than 50 percent are jobless. Most of those with marketable skills have joined the refugee exodus abroad.

The major powers, especially France under President Nicolas Sarkozy, who did not inherit his predecessor’s anti-American bitterness over the Iraqi disaster, now see a role for the U.N., with full backing from the 27-nation European Union, that would enable the U.S. to phase out. This would involve giving Iraq a similar status to Kosovo pending its graduation to full-fledged independence. Thus, Iraq’s sovereignty would be held in abeyance pending a new post-Saddam political settlement. But this would require a major increment of peacekeepers, preferably from Arab and other Muslim countries. But none of them is about to volunteer.

Iraq now risks drifting back into a violent quagmire after the U.S. military surge in Baghdad is declared a success, sometime before year’s end. The 190,000 weapons the U.S. admitted were missing, including 110,000 AK-47 assault rifles and 80,000 pistols assigned to the Iraqi armed forces and police, did not bode well for a less belligerent, post-surge future. The Government Accountability Office, investigative arm of the U.S. Congress, reported 30 percent of weapons distributed by the U.S. in Iraq in the last three years could not be traced.

Britain under Gordon Brown is closer to the European Union consensus on Iraq than it was under Tony Blair. Temporary international tutelage could also undermine Iran’s strategy in Iraq, which is to dominate the internal political process through weak pro-Iranian Shi’ite Islamist leaders, like Mr. al-Maliki. Think tank strategists say this gives Iran control of Iraq through pliable friends who are also acceptable to Washington.

Iranian diplomacy has been diligent in laying the groundwork for an Iraqi satellite, or client state. After the al-Maliki government was sworn in May 2006, Iran’s Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki led a delegation to Baghdad. The diplomatic pump had been primed and Iraq’s foreign minister was quick to support Iran’s right to pursue nuclear technology “for peaceful purposes.” Mr. al-Maliki’s Dawa Party is closely aligned with Tehran.

Four months are he took office, Mr. al-Maliki led a delegation of his ministers to Tehran where they met with all the major Iranian leaders and signed several agreements, including border immigration controls and intelligence sharing. Mr. al-Maliki also agreed to deport 3,400 anti-Iranian guerrilla fighters of the Iranian opposition group People’s Mujaheedin Organization of Iran (PMOI), authorized by Saddam and based on their common border.

Mr. al-Maliki reiterated his pledge to kick them out, but the U.S. insisted on keeping them as long as it remains responsible for Iraqi security. This week, Mr. al-Maliki flew to Tehran on his second official visit in 11 months.

President Bush has repeated time and again U.S. forces are in Iraq to defeat al Qaeda terrorists to make sure we don’t have to fight them “over here.” On that front, the news from Iraq was good. Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar Province, with some 25,000 armed followers, have cut their ties with al Qaeda in Iraq and aligned with U.S. forces — against al Qaeda fighters. But al Qaeda is now a global phenomenon, with like-minded extremists and terrorist cells from Mindanao in the Philippines to Morocco. Its support group, ranging from university graduates to middle-class professionals, circles the globe.

In London last weekend, a radical Islamist group that calls itself the Party of Liberation, staged a noisy demonstration attended by several thousand well-dressed professional Muslims who advocate a global “caliphate” with Shariah law for all. The chairman of the party, Abdul Wahid, a medical doctor in Harrow, U.K., attacked Britain’s political leadership: “They say ‘You preach hate.’ I preach a hatred of the lies of people in this country that send soldiers to Iraq. I preach a hatred of torture.”

Conference-goers included computer engineers and scientists, intelligence technology managers, bankers and teachers. They all seem to know how far they can push under the new 2006 anti-terrorism law that prohibits glorification of terrorism. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has asked London to ban Hizb ut-Tahrir, the party of Liberation. But as long as they don’t openly condone suicide bombings, they can proselytize for radical Islam.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.

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