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Friday, June 09, 2006

Iraq politics: Turning point?


The killing of Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi and the approval of the main security posts in the new Iraqi government have provided the first hopeful signs for some time for Iraq's chances of escaping further degradation and of clawing its way back to some semblance of stability and security. The death of Mr Zarqawi, who had inspired the radical Sunni Islamist and virulently anti-Shia vanguard of the insurgency, could open the way to a change in the balance of forces in the conflict-ravaged central region of Iraq, and, conceivably to a truce between some of the insurgent groups and the government. The filling of the defence, interior and national security posts in the government, also gives the prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, the opportunity to take the initiative in seeking to impose the authority of the central state over an increasingly anarchic country.

However, caveats are in order. Mr Zarqawi clearly played an important part in the insurgency, particularly in inciting sectarian conflict through attacks on Shia civilian and religious targets. But he was not in any sense the overall commander of the disparate groups lined up against the US forces and the Iraqi government. Likewise, the limits of Mr Maliki's power and authority have been exposed by the compromises he has been obliged to make in his pursuit of consensus on the security appointments to the cabinet.

The Zarqawi legacy

Mr Zarqawi had turned himself into the prime target for the US and Iraqi government forces through his assiduous self-promotion. Having claimed the mantle of al-Qaida's chief of operations in Iraq, Mr Zarqawi cultivated an image of ruthlessness and Sunni supremacism through issuing a stream of videos and communiqu├ęs. He was in this respect the only "visible" leader of the insurgency--little is known about other leaders, with the exception of Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, a former deputy to Saddam Hussein thought to be playing a central role in the operations of the remnants of the Baath party.

Towards the end of last year, reports started to surface about increased tensions between Mr Zarqawi and Iraqi tribal leaders in the main Sunni Arab areas to the west and north of Baghdad. However, the prospect of a breach in Sunni ranks was overshadowed in February this year when the Shia al-Askariya shrine was blown up in Samarra in February, in an operation presumed to have been the work of Zarqawi forces. That incident resulted in a sustained outbreak of sectarian violence that has, to all intents and purposes, created a state of civil war. In a document purported to have been an intercepted letter from him to the al-Qaida leadership outside Iraq in the early days of the insurgency, Mr Zarqawi had argued that the only way to mobilise Iraq's Sunnis effectively and make Iraq ungovernable was to provoke the Shia into attacking their sect. The events of the past few months indicate that this strategy has started to pay of handsomely--and that Mr Zarqawi himself may have become less important, as the sectarian violence has gained its own momentum.

One of the principal tasks facing Mr Maliki's new security team will be to halt that momentum, through both military and political means. Iraqi regular forces are gradually taking on more operational security duties from the US in the main Sunni areas, with the recent deployment of an entire division of the Iraqi army in Al-Anbar province. The new defence minister, General Abdel-Qader Mohammed Jassem al-Mafarji, is expected to try to accelerate this process. A Sunni, he was a senior commander in the Iraqi army in the 1980s, but fell out with Saddam Hussein after he opposed the decision to invade Kuwait in 1990, and was sentenced to jail four years later. He resumed active service after the US-led invasion in 2003. As well as deploying more army units in the Sunni areas, Mr Maliki is likely to seek to win the allegiance of Sunni tribal leaders to the government, and to stifle any attempt by former aides of Mr Zarqawi to pick up his mantle.

Shia backyard

The other main challenge for Mr Maliki is to impose order on the fractious Shia political groups that constitute his political base. The most contentious of the three security appointments was that of interior minister, which was subject to intense wrangling between the various Shia factions. In the end Mr Maliki managed to win approval for Jawad al-Bolani, who is affiliated to none of the three main players--the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI; which previously controlled the ministry), the followers of Muqtada al-Sadr and Mr Maliki's own Daawa party. Mr Bolani is part of the Fadhila faction of the Shia United Iraqi Alliance UIA, which holds the largest bloc of seats in parliament. Fadhila proclaims allegiance to Mr Sadr's late father, and is particularly influential in Basra, which has recently been the scene of increasing violence both between Shia militias and directed at British forces in the southern city. The third appointment approved by parliament in its June 8th session was for the new post of national security minister, which has gone to Shirwan al-Waili, a UIA MP from a rival wing of Daawa to that of Mr Maliki. Mr Waili is said to have served in the general intelligence services under the former regime. He said that his remit would include combating "economic crimes", which suggests that he will become involved in efforts to crack down on fuel smuggling rackets, which have been an important element in the recent violence in Basra.

Better outlook?

The developments of June 8th have been the first real positive news for the Iraqi government and its US protectors since the election, which took place almost six months ago. In the meantime, thousands of Iraqis have died in a relentless series of atrocities, and work on rebuilding the country's infrastructure and institutions has virtually ground to a halt. There is now a chance, however slim, to turn back the tide.

Source: ViewsWire Middle East
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