DAMASCUS - Generations of Iraqi leaders have succumbed to the "Iraqi curse" -
dying violent deaths while in office or soon after leaving it. Prime Minister
Nuri al-Maliki's date with destiny could well be determined by his present
fixation on another date - when United States troops should permanently leave
This week, Maliki reiterated that he had agreed with the United States that all
145,000 American troops would withdraw from Iraq by the end of 2010. The
negotiations are for a Status of Forces Agreement to govern relations between
American troops and the Iraqis after the United Nations mandate expires this
Maliki said there would be no security agreement with the US
without an unconditional timetable for withdrawal, "No pact or agreement should
be set without being based on full sovereignty, national common interests, and
no foreign soldier should remain on Iraqi land. There should be a specific
deadline and it should not be open."
And that deadline is 2010, Maliki said. The US denies that such a date has been
reached, and talks of a 2015 timetable.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Baghdad last week to get Maliki
to change his position, with no luck. President George W Bush talked to him via
satellite conference, but Maliki was adamant, echoing words heard at every end
of the political spectrum in Iran.
The US then told him - in a polite way - that he was lying over the date. White
House spokesman Tony Fratto fired, "Any decisions on troops will be based on
conditions in Iraq. That has always been our position and it continues to be
our position. An agreement has not been signed. There is no agreement until
there is an agreement signed." US officials have confirmed there is a draft
agreement but said it needed to be put to both governments and the Iraqi
parliament for approval or amendment.
But Maliki sticks to the 2010 date. He has also heavily criticized the military
pact in its current form, because it gives US personnel immunity from Iraqi law
on Iraqi soil, noting, "We can't neglect our sons by giving an open immunity
for anyone whether he is Iraqi or a foreigner."
Iraqis realize their prime minister is either being dishonest with them, to
appease rising disgust with the US, or has been fooled by the United States, or
pressured into saying something by the Iranians. One thing is clear - Maliki
has strained relations with the United States. They were never fond of the
premier, but worked with him reluctantly despite his relationship with militias
like the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr, to try and bring security to Iraq.
That failed and under Maliki, the militias - mainly Shi'ite - have grown all
the more stronger. He has walked a tightrope between Washington and Tehran, but
with the Bush administration reaching the final months of its tenure at the
White House he seems to have chosen sides. There is no longer any sense in
obeying the Americans, Maliki reckons, especially as they were asking him to do
things he cannot deliver, like rapprochement with Sunnis and the signing of the
controversial pact with the Americans - which Iraqis call the "Treaty of
As a result, he has cuddled up further to the Iranians and relaxed security in
Baghdad, to reset the situation ablaze. The last thing the Americans want in
the last months of the Bush administration is a civil war in Iraq. He is
telling the Americans, "It's either me or violence." Many believe this strategy
was drawn up in Tehran, including Wafiq Samarrai, a former security advisor to
President Jalal Talabani, who in turn is an ally to Maliki. Samarrai resigned
from his job this week to speak freely about Iranian interference in Iraqi
affairs. "I have found it suitable to play my role writing books or in
newspapers, to shed light on what I believe to be the threat by Iranian
Maliki and the Iraqi curse
Maliki is unable to strike a balance between national and sectarian
affiliations, nor can he please the international community, the US or the Arab
world. Only the Iranians still seem firmly supportive of the premier. He too,
however, is being damned by the Iraqi curse.
Domestically, his approval ratings are down - not for security - but for basic
services that he cannot provide for ordinary Iraqis, such as clean drinking
water, sewage disposal, medical care and electricity, which now gets cut 18-20
hours per day in Baghdad. That reality becomes all the more difficult for
ordinary Iraqis when they realize that Maliki has allocated $15 billion of the
state budget in 2008 for grand infrastructure projects throughout Iraq.
Stories of internal fighting in Iraq - which used to be front-page news - are
now covered on inside pages of major Arab dailies. That was not the case in
2003. This is partly due to a feeling that goes, "We cannot help you if you do
not want to help yourselves."
The repeated brutality of attacks - not against US forces but against fellow
Iraqis - has contributed heavily to the disenchantment with Iraq by ordinary
This week, 25 young cadets were killed in a suicide bombing in Diyali, 150
kilometers northeast of Baghdad, while 40 were wounded. A car bomb went off in
Tikrit, badly wounding 13 civilians. Earlier, nine had been killed and 27
wounded in a bombing in Baquba.
The greatest tourism achievement this summer in Baghdad has been the reopening
of a pool (established in 2002 and named after Saddam Hussein) that used to
welcome swimmers and picnickers prior to the war of 2003, at a rate of 250,000
on weekends. It prompted a Tourism Ministry official to say at the event, "I
tell the Iraqis, Baghdad is now safe."
This was followed by festivities, staged by the government, welcoming 250
families who returned to Baghdad, a signal that Maliki's Iraq is indeed "safe".
Meanwhile, Iraqi dailies mocked both events, citing a report from neighboring
Syria that revenue from tourism this summer had reached US$2 billion, with
511,000 tourists. Iraqi journalists angrily asked, "Why not Iraq? Has the
'Iraqi curse' befallen the citizens as well as leaders of Iraq?"
Ordinary Iraqis hauntingly speak of an "Iraqi curse" that befalls on all those
who assume senior government office in Baghdad. Of all the leaders of Iraq,
only one lived a decent life after leaving office. His name was Abdulrahman
Aref, who ruled from 1966 until being toppled by the Ba'ath coup of 1968.
This week, the Iraqi government even authorized a pension for his wife (5
million dinars - US$4,228 - per year), one year after he died in Amman, Jordan,
at the age of 91, and was given a state funeral in Baghdad.
King Faisal I, the founder of modern Iraq, also died a normal death in 1933.
His son King Ghazi was killed in a car accident (believed to doctored by the
British) in 1939, at the age of 27. His son King Faisal II was murdered, at the
age of 23, along with the entire royal family by Iraqi revolutionaries, on July
14, 1958. The crown prince was crucified by the mob, while veteran prime
minister Nuri al-Said was shot, then dragged through the streets of Baghdad
until his body disintegrated.
Abdul-Karim Qasim, architect of the revolution of 1958, was himself shot by his
comrade Abdulsalam Aref in 1963 (at the relatively young age of 49). Aref
himself died in an airplane crash (also believed to be doctored) in 1965. He
was 45. The Ba'athist Ahmad Hasan Bakr, who assumed power in 1968, was toppled
and humiliated by Saddam Hussein. Saddam himself came down with thunder and was
then executed in 2006, having led Iraq for 24 bloody years.
His two sons received horrific deaths in 2003. More recently, the "Iraqi curse"
has been less severe. Over the past year, Jalal Talabani has been hospitalized
to the United States for heart problems while Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was
rushed to London - twice - for medical treatment.
Parliament speaker Mahmud Mashadani was hospitalized to Amman, while vice
President Tarek Hashemi received treatment in Istanbul. Abdul Aziz Hakim, the
powerful head of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council is being treated for cancer
in hospitals in the US and Tehran, while National Security Advisor Muwafak
al-Rabei has been taken to London, and is reportedly in bad health.
The Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani called in several prominent journalists as
rumors circulated that he was on his deathbed, to show the world that he is not
in poor health. All of that has been headline news in Iraqi newspapers over the
past few days; all of the nation's "leaders" are out of the country and/or in
hospital beds - a perfect time for a coup.
A quick read through Iraqi history shows that if Maliki continues in present
behavior he will either be asked to step down, abruptly, by the Americans, or
will suffer the fate of Ghazi I, Faisal II, Qasim, Aref, Bakr and Saddam, this
being the Iraqi curse.