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    Middle East
     Nov 12, 2005
US backs its tarnished golden boys in Iraq
By Ehsan Ahrari

It seems to indicate that the United States is stuck in a rut in its search for future leaders of Iraq: Washington is once again favoring Ahmad Chalabi, who is currently visiting Washington, and Iyad Allawi, who was prime minister during the period of the previous administration, the Iraqi Interim Government.

It appears that Chalabi, the former golden boy of the Pentagon, a convicted embezzler in Jordan and the current deputy prime minister, is driven by the aspiration of becoming the next prime minister of Iraq.

In that quest for power, he is playing a dangerous game of acquiring Iran's support and maintaining the backing of the

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the influential senior Shi'ite cleric in Iraq. Chalabi's visit to Washington is the political ritual of getting the blessing of Vice President Dick Cheney, the epitome of neo-conservativism and chief foreign policy adviser of President George W Bush.

Chalabi is a known friend of Iran, and he visited that country just before his trip to Washington. And the US and Iran are a world apart on the issue of the very nature of the future government of Iraq, ie, whether it should be Islamist or secular.

Chalabi has been accused by the US in the past of passing secret information to Iran, a charge that he vehemently denies. Equally important, he is also accused of providing fictitious intelligence to the Bush administration in his zeal to bring about the ouster of Saddam Hussein. In attaining that objective, his critics - especially from the State Department - accuse him of being driven largely by personal ambition. Needless to say, the neo-cons in the Pentagon would have had no problem with Chalabi taking over the reins of the Iraqi government immediately after the ouster of Saddam.

It follows that Chalabi seems to have only one agenda: his emergence as the next prime minister. However, given his highly tainted credentials and equally shattered reputation, why is the Bush administration currently warming to him? The answer is not that the US is in a rut but that, considering the very nature of the current corps of leaders in that country, its choices are severely limited.

Let there be no doubt that the US would like to see the creation of a secular democracy in Iraq. To achieve that objective, the Bush administration is again courting Chalabi. It knows that he, along with Allawi, are its best hopes.

The interim government headed by Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari has turned out to be a big disappointment, not only for the US but also for the Kurds and the Sunnis. The US had grave reservations about the Islamist makeup of the government, but the cumulative power of the Iraqi Shi'ites and the powerful backing of Sistani left the US with little choice but to accept it.

No one should think that the Bush administration did not experience some glee when Jaafari emerged as a mediocre and failed premier. He proved that he was no dealmaker, at least not the kind that the American interlocutors wanted to see in Iraq anyway. He is reportedly aloof, at times petty, and quite reluctant to forge political compromises.

The process of political sausage making has started anew ahead of elections in December. For now, the Bush administration is following a strategy completely different from the one it followed before the emergence of the Iraqi Interim Government.

It is quietly surveying the potential political strength and popularity of Chalabi and Allawi, two expatriates with shady credentials of being the tools of US and British intelligence. Once again, the litmus test for the US is not whether either of them will prove to be an effective leader, but, long before they get to that point, whether they will prove their mettle by pushing democratic secularism into the faces of the Iraqi Shi'ites and Sunnis. Equally important, they must also demonstrate their ability to be coalition-builders for the creation of a secular democratic government.

In this regard, there is likely to be intense competition between Allawi and Chalabi. Allawi's strength is that he is viewed, especially among the Sunnis, as being above the petty, sectarian-oriented chauvinism that they frequently accuse Jaafari of practicing. In addition, Allawi has established an image as a quintessential dealmaker, a trait that is highly valued in the non-Islamist circles of Iraqi politics. His weakness is that, when he was prime minister, he was viewed as too accepting of what Sunni Iraqis depict as the American obsession with the use of excessive force in dealing with the insurgency.

As much as the Bush administration appreciated Allawi's unquestioned loyalty to the American methodology related to the use of force, it is a bit leery about how benignly the Sunnis would view a potential Allawi premiership. Washington is in no mood to unnecessarily alienate the Sunnis, having learned a tough lesson in their uphill battle with the predominantly Sunni insurgency.

Thus, the Americans want to "keep their powder dry" by also flirting with Chalabi, who has proved himself to be a survivor in the highly explosive political climate of post-Saddam Iraq. Besides, Chalabi still has the backing of Sistani, or at least the grand ayatollah has not yet changed his mind about backing him. Just that fact weighs heavily among the mandarins of American foreign policy. His ties with Iran are not envisaged as a major liability, but it may become a problem.

In America's current preoccupation with deciding to pick its own golden boy in arguably the most crucial elections in Iraq, one must not lose track of a very important question: will Iraq really become a secular democratic country after the elections, regardless of whether it is headed by Chalabi or Allawi?

Unfortunately - from the US perspective - the chances of a secular democracy even in the not-too-distant future are dim at best. Just look at the numbers. Only the Iraqi Kurds are in favor of secularism. A predominant number of Shi'ites support neither an Iran-style government nor a secular government. Even under the best possible scenario, from the point of view of the Bush administration, the next government is still likely to be Islamist, or at least clearly leaning toward giving a central role to Islam in the Iraqi political arena. The Sunnis, though they don't prefer a Shi'ite version of Islamist government, might not object to such a government if it were to take care of their chief economic grievances in the immediate future.

If such a proposition appears tenable, then both Chalabi and Allawi stand a chance to head the government, largely because of their most significant ability to forge a coalition of parties and personalities that may not like each other very much, but don't hate each other either. In the very early phase of learning the art of democratic rule, the mere capability of creating such a coalition on the part of any politicians would be nothing short of a breakthrough.

So, keeping both Chalabi and Allawi as potential golden boys is not a bad tactic for the Bush administration. The clincher in this episode will be which way Iraq's voters go in the elections. Let us not forget the role of the all-important Sistani. The wily cleric is keeping his cards close to his chest, and rightly so, for now, but is likely to play them well in the long term for the sustenance of a Shi'ite-dominated democratic Iraq.

Ehsan Ahrari is a CEO of Strategic Paradigms, an Alexandria, VA-based defense consultancy. He can be reached at eahrari@cox.net or stratparadigms@yahoo.com. His columns appear regularly in Asia Times Online His website: www.ehsanahrari.com.

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Sunnis searching for a role (Nov 8, '05)

Iraq's forgotten war
(Nov 4, '05)

Chalabi still in the fight (Feb 18, '05)


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