A silver bullet aimed at Iraq's
head By Ehsan Ahrari
important aspect of the United States' quest for
government stability and for resolving the
ever-escalating sectarian violence in Iraq is the
campaign to have Ibrahim al-Jaafari dumped. The
incumbent premier was chosen by the dominant
Shi'ite bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA),
after January's elections to continue for another
The Sunnis, the Kurds and secular
Shi'ites now fully support the US in wanting to
fire the silver bullet that would get Jaafari out, but
overarching question ought to be whether his
replacement will result in the emergence of a
national-unity government - something that Jaafari
has been unable to facilitate.
the Shi'ite faction in the UIA led by Abdul Aziz
al-Hakim and his Supreme Council for the Islamic
Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) said it would put
forward the name of another candidate to replace
Jaafari, who in February narrowly won the Shi'ite
vote after receiving support from influential
cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
This split in the
UIA was made public after US Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice and Jack Straw, the British
foreign secretary, paid an unexpected visit to
Iraq to press for the political deadlock to be
Replacing Jaafari, though, is no
guarantee that anything will change, or that it
will not worsen, but the officials visiting Iraq
will not want to hear that. Worse, the Shi'ite
split opens the possibility of clashes among rival
factions, which both have effective militias.
In the post-Saddam Hussein era, the most
comforting aspect of political developments from
the vantage point of the Shi'ites was that they
perceived the US forces and their act of toppling
the dictator as necessary evils, and a
precondition for establishing Shi'ite rule through
the introduction of democracy.
they were right in that calculation. Now a number
of developments are turning that dream into a pipe
dream, even a nightmare, for the Shi'ites. The
foremost of these developments is the emergence of
Shi'ite militias. The best known (or the ones with
the bloodiest image) are the Badr Organization of
Hakim and the Mehdi Army of Muqtada.
these, the administration of US President George W
Bush is threatened most by the Mehdi Army. Muqtada
has always been perceived by the Americans as a
loose cannon and a Trojan horse for Iranian
influence, even though he is at times critical of
The US has been fully aware
of the damage caused by the Shi'ite militias in
relation to Sunnis. However, it did not follow a
resolute policy of dissolving or eradicating them.
It was only after the bloodletting that followed
the February bombing of the revered Shi'ite Golden
Dome in Samarra that the US occupation authorities
came to a conclusion that, to win Sunni support
for a unity government, they must contain, if not
dissolve outright, the militias.
the not-too-effective strategy of fighting the
Sunni-supported insurgency, another layer - that
of winning the hearts and minds of the Sunnis -
A starting point of this
resolve was to initiate a campaign to dump
Jaafari, since he is aligned with the Muqtada
faction, favors virtually independent Shi'ite,
Sunni and Kurdish areas, and wants Islamic rule.
Discontent over Jaafari has now served to split
the UIA, which must have been the US intention all
along, placing Jaafari's Da'wa Party and Muqtada
at odds with Hakim's SCIRI.
What is also
working in favor of the Bush administration in its
drive against Jaafari is that, since the January
elections, there has been a new realignment among
the Sunnis, the Kurds (led by President Jalal
Talabani) and secular Shi'ites, focused very much
against the candidacy of Jaafari.
and Kurds do not like his Islamist credentials,
for different reasons. Kurds don't like them
because of their secularist predilections, while
Sunni groups don't like them because they clash
with their own theological perspectives of an
This is providing the
Americans a golden opportunity to deprive the
Islamists - at least the pro-Iran faction - from
capturing the government.
believe that by so visibly favoring the
Kurdish-Sunni-secular-Shi'ite alliance they will
achieve the following. First, they will win
goodwill from the Sunnis, which could translate
into a reduction of their active support for the
insurgency. This is what is popularly called the
campaign to win the hearts and minds of the
Second, the US is hoping that once
Jaafari is dumped, his replacement will be Adel
Abdel Mahdi, or, better yet, former premier Iyad
Allawi. Even though Allawi's chances are slim, US
Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad will certainly push
for him behind the scenes. The US thinking appears
to be: when your adversaries get wobbly knees,
push even harder for their fall.
unknown - but an extremely important variable - is
whether the dumping of Jaafari will bring an end
to sectarian strife. The best guess is that it is
likely to have very little - to no - effect, for
the following reasons.
disgruntled Muqtada faction is not likely to sit
still. It could follow the example of the Sunnis
by creating its own version of insurgency. Second,
even though the Americans are counting on the
ability of Abdel Mahdi to become a
coalition-builder, that capability is still very
much of an unknown variable. Third, the Kurds, in
general, have shown little tolerance for acceding
to major concessions demanded by competing
factions, if such measures are perceived as
jeopardizing their cherished autonomy.
About the only reason the Kurds have
aligned themselves with Sunni Arabs and secular
Shi'ites now is to oust Jaafari. In Iraq - as in
the Middle East as a whole - the principle of my
enemy's enemy is my friend has very limited and
ephemeral effectiveness. Once Jaafari goes, there
is a high chance that the Kurds will return to
their previous tactics of coming up with
"non-negotiable" demands regarding the
resettlement of Kurds in Kirkuk, and other related
The greatest unknown variable
related to all these developments is the role of
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the senior
spiritual leader among Shi'ites. He recently
manifested his displeasure toward the US
administration's growing meddlesome attitude over
political maneuvering among Iraqi groups by
reportedly not even reading a letter that was sent
to him by President Bush. According to some
reports, the letter was not even translated for
the ayatollah's reading, a measure that carries
quite a bit of political and symbolic significance
among Shi'ites. However, political observers claim
that Sistani will opt for a unity government and
will not object if (to be precise, when) the UIA
finally dumps Jaafari.
Should Jaafari go,
there is little doubt that the US capability to
remain a kingmaker will have been re-established.
Not that it will necessarily make any difference.
Ehsan Ahrari is the CEO of
Strategic Paradigms, an Alexandria, Virginia-based
defense consultancy. He can be reached at [email protected]or [email protected].
His columns appear regularly in Asia Times Online.
His website: www.ehsanahrari.com.