Clear losers and winners in Baghdad
By Sami Moubayed
DAMASCUS - In the mid-1970s, Syrian playwright Mohammad al-Maghout authored a
beautiful scene about accountability in the Arab world. In it, the mayor
promises his people serious reform and change, sacking the director of real
estate from his post and replacing him with the director of finance. The
director of finance is thereby automatically sacked from his post, and replaced
by the director of real estate. The two men simply exchange dossiers, and the
fez on each other's head.
That scene came to mind this week, as Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki
promised Iraqis serious change after five attacks ripped through the capital
(the third of their kind in Baghdad in less than six months) on December 8,
killing about 121 people and wounding another 448. Maliki, ostensibly furious,
commander of Baghdad Operations, General Abboud Kanbar, replacing him with
General Ahmad Hashem Aoude, the deputy commander-in-chief of operations.
Instead of dragging Kanbar to court for failing to prevent such a horrific
security breach, Maliki passed another law, naming him deputy
commander-in-chief of operations, thereby replacing Ahmad Hashem Aoude.
Maliki has done it again - opening himself to ridicule - by refusing to step
down, despite repeated evidence that he is virtually incapable of pulling his
country together. The tailor-made accusation was ready, barked off by an
Interior Ministry official who blamed it on al-Qaeda and supporters of
ex-president Saddam Hussein.
This is a familiar scene, after six attacks struck in Baghdad in August,
killing over 100 people, and then again on October 25. In all three cases, a
scapegoat was ready: the Saudis, the Iranians, the Syrians, al-Qaeda, or Iraqi
Ba'athists - anybody but Iraqis themselves.
Much of this has become routine to many observers of the Iraqi scene. It starts
off with one deadly explosion, followed by several others within a 30-50 minute
difference, inflicting maximum pain. This is followed by visible anger on the
Iraqi street, with loud voices calling on the prime minister to resign, along
with his ministers of defense, security and interior.
Then comes a chorus of accusations against all of Iraq's neighbors, aimed at
saving Maliki's neck and political future, along with an official downplaying
of the entire ordeal. This time, the Ministry of Health said that the death
toll "was only 77", not 121.
This week, the security committee at the Iraqi parliament announced that it
would summon and question security-related ministers in the Maliki cabinet,
including the prime minister, over the chaos that has surfaced in Baghdad since
Ironically, the chair of that committee is Hadi al-Amiri, who is head of a
militia that is armed to the teeth, and shoulders blame for much of the mayhem
that has taken place since 2003, along with other militias like the Mehdi Army.
Amiri is a member of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC), a former ally of
the prime minister who is now competing against him to win control of
parliament in elections that have been set for next March.
The SIIC and other parties once close to Maliki are furious with him for
reasons that are different and in some cases contradicting. The Sunnis claim
that Maliki is a sectarian dictator who has systematically worked at keeping
them away from any senior government post since coming to power in 2006. He has
refused to release Sunnis from jail, grant them more say in the cabinet or
issue a general amnesty allowing those in exile from the Ba'ath Party to return
Many heavyweight Shi'ites, like Muqtada al-Sadr and top leaders in SIIC, have
also parted ways with Maliki for reasons related to the distribution of power
in Iraq, rapprochement with Sunnis and relations with regional players like
Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Within 48 hours of the Tuesday attacks, all of these parties came out to
criticize the security breach and blame the government - ironically which they
are all members of - for not doing enough.
Had parliamentary elections not been just around the corner then the side
effects of these attacks would have been minimal on both Maliki and his team.
The timing, however, is a clear indicator that whoever is behind them wants to
humiliate the prime minister ahead of the polls.
They are blaming Maliki of having done little in terms of finding and arresting
the culprits of the August attacks. Simply said; had the real terrorists been
arrested, then October 25 and December 8 would not have happened. Instead of
finding the criminals, however, Maliki wasted his time by blaming it on the
Syrians, leading the real culprits to believe: "if we did it once - and got
away with it - then we can do it again and get away with it."
What seems almost certain now is that three of the heavyweight coalitions
running for the March elections will be defeated because of the three deadly
Loser number one is the State of Law Coalition, headed by the prime minister
and which includes prominent chiefs of Sunni tribes. Apart from Maliki, who has
his own power base in Baghdad, most of the figures in the alliance are well
known - but not influential. They derived their political and social weight
from the posts they carried under Maliki, like the deputy speaker of parliament
and the spokesman of the Maliki cabinet, along with the ministers of education,
health, tourism, immigration, youth, sports and parliamentary affairs.
Maliki relied on them for political support but he certainly cannot lean on
them in times of crisis - rather, if he falls, they automatically fall with
him. Particular Sunni players allied with Maliki in this coalition might win in
their individual capacities rather than because of electoral alliances, like
Said Yawer and Ali Hatem Suleiman, from the influential Shummari and Duleim
tribes respectively. Maliki himself will probably also win, but the State of
Law Coalition as it stands will likely lose the elections.
Loser number two is the Iraqi United Alliance that is headed by Interior
Minister Jawad Boulani and Sunni tribal leader Ahmad Abu Risheh. The obvious
reason why this coalition - which was never too popular to start out with -
will not survive is the track record of Boulani. Who would vote for an interior
minister who has failed to prevent three of the deadliest attacks ever in
Baghdad since the downfall of Saddam's regime in 2003?
Additionally, even before the bombings, Sunnis despised Boulani, accusing him
of using the police department at the ministry to settle old scores with the
Sunni community. He was also accused of absorbing Shi'ite militias into the
police force, regardless of their discipline, education or criminal record, and
of using the basements of the ministry to arrest and torture Sunni figures.
Over the past few days, stories have surfaced in the Iraqi press of corruption
at the ministry, often targeting the minister. One of the suicide bombers last
Tuesday blew himself up next to a court house, smuggling the explosives right
under the nose of Boulani's men at the checkpoint surrounding the court
This leaves three standing coalitions out of the five political groupings.
Survivor number one will be the Iraqi National Alliance (INA) of ex-prime
minister Ibrahim Jaafary, which includes seasoned figures from Ahmad Chalabi
and strong players like Muqtada and SIIC. It has clearly and firmly distanced
itself from Maliki over the past six months, so as not to drown with the
sinking ship, although during the years 2006-2008 all of these players were
among Maliki's strongest supporters.
These players have a very strong influence in the Shi'ite districts, and the
Sadrists especially operate a very efficient charity network that bolsters
their power base within the slums and poorer districts of Baghdad. While the
SIIC is strongly allied to the business elite of Baghdad, the Sadrists are
powerful among young people, especially in schools and universities.
Survivor number two is the Iraqi Accordance Front, which is filled with leaders
of the Sunni community. Like the INA, they have been telling voters that they
have nothing to do with the failed state of Maliki, having walked out on his
cabinet in August 2007. They will likely milk the security breach, however, to
attract more votes, saying that Maliki has failed to materialize his famous
Baghdad Security Plan.
Supporting them in this line is survivor number three, the Iraqi Nationalist
Movement, a secular outfit that calls for accountability and security, headed
by ex-prime minister Iyad Allawi.
As for regional players, apart from strongly condemning the Baghdad bombings,
most are distancing themselves from the Iraqi mess at this stage so as not to
be seen to be taking sides with or against the prime minister, waiting to see
what the results will bring next March.
Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.