“We fasted for three months; then we broke our fast with an onion.” – Iraqi proverb
After fasting – or watching nonstop squabbling – for almost three months since the January 30 elections, Iraqis finally got their onion: a new cabinet no one likes (except the Kurds). Shi’ite Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari didn’t get what he wanted. No wonder: the Washington/Green Zone is wary of him. The Sunnis are threatening to walk out of the government altogether. Approved by 180 parliamentarians against five, with a significant 90 absences, this is not even a full cabinet: Jaafari was unable to appoint permanent ministers to the Oil, Defense, Electricity, Industry and Human Rights ministries. All posts are meant to be filled by May 7.
A fraudster drenched in oil
The crucial Oil Ministry post is expected to go to a Shi’ite. But the conflicting factions within the election-winning United Iraqi Alliance simply could not reach an agreement. Alarm bells have been ringing all over the Green Zone on the news that the Sadrists of the Fadila Party badly want the Oil Ministry.
But for the moment, even more alarmingly, the acting minister is none other than the unsinkable convicted fraudster, former Pentagon darling and purported Iranian agent Ahmad Chalabi. “For the moment” could last a lifetime: Chalabi – who has been oiling his connections with leading Shi’ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani for a long time – will undoubtedly waste no time filling the Oil Ministry with his Iraqi National Congress cronies. Not a few in Baghdad firmly believe that the Green Zone may have had a perverse hand on his appointment.
To say that Sunnis are angry would be an understatement. Powerful Sunni tribal Sheikh Ghazi al-Yawer, one of the vice presidents, is threatening that all Sunnis may withdraw from the government – because this cabinet lineup is not what they had agreed to with Jaafari. No wonder: Sunnis wanted to finish off once and for all with de-Ba’athification, and insisted on a very firm Arab nationalist government.
Shi’ites from religious parties would never agree to these demands. Some Sunnis have already pulled out, such as the Front of Sunni Arab Blocs, which includes the Front of National Blocs and the National Dialogue Council. The Sunnis wanted seven ministries, especially Defense (they will probably get it; Jaafari is the acting minister). An alert Sistani was wise enough to have pressed for 10 ministries for the Sunnis.
One fears for Jaafari: he still has an uphill negotiation battle ahead. Some powerful Sunni tribal sheikhs and religious leaders have been fiercely denouncing “an occupation of Kurds and Shi’ites.” Only a month ago, Sheikh Abu D’ham was saying that “the Kurds are asking for Kirkuk. Later on they will start asking for Baghdad. It was Saddam Hussein who gave the Kurds too much, more than they deserved.”
Kurds may have received too much once again. They keep Hoshyar Zebari as foreign minister, an affable, American-approved Iraqi face to the world, and they have important positions in ministries such as as Planning and Development Cooperation (Barham Salih), Communications (Jwan Maasoum, a woman), Labor and Social Affairs (Idris Hadi) and Water Resources (Abdul Latif Rashi). Shi’ites predictably got several important ministries: Interior (Baqir Jabbur), Finance (Ali Allawi), Agriculture (Ali al-Bahadli), Justice (Abdul Hussein Shandal) and Transport (Salam al-Malik). A welcome development is that the Science and Technology Ministry is attributed to Bassima Boutros, a Christian woman.
As things stand, there’s not a chance of the new government and parliament writing a draft constitution by mid-August. The political calendar will have to be delayed. Ominous signs abound. Moderates are dwindling, such as respected former diplomat Adnan Pachachi: he fled to the United Arab Emirates, perhaps in disgust, after his secular list received only one parliamentary seat in the elections.
The unsettling feeling about the cabinet is that it is hostage to a big picture it won’t be able to control. This is because the foundations for a new Iraq – in fact, the Year Zero imposed by the Americans after Shock and Awe – simply do not exist.
The country’s infrastructure and administration were totally devastated. Everything the Americans did pointed to an incendiary division on sectarian lines. Major players – fiercely against the occupation – are absent from this cabinet or any previous interim government. Scores of employees in most Iraqi ministries simply don’t go to work; as far as the Ministry of Interior is concerned, according to the Jordanian press, this means hundreds of staff in the counterinsurgency sections.
With unemployment at a staggering 70%, many won’t think twice to secure a US$400 monthly salary as a police officer; but when the going gets tough, as it does on a daily basis, these forces instantly dissolve. As for the Iraqi Armed Forces, $400 a month is unlikely to change the minds of disgruntled youngsters, already fierce nationalists more inclined to fight the occupiers.
I want my militias
There are even more ominous prospects. Outgoing interim prime minister and former US intelligence asset Iyad Allawi – known in Baghdad as “Saddam without a mustache” – badly wanted the Interior Ministry, so he could control his Ba’athist, Mukhabarat pals in charge of security and counterinsurgency. He didn’t get it – the chosen minister is a moderate Shi’ite, Baqir Jabbur – nor any other cabinet posts he craved. So Allawi refashioned himself as opposition leader (his party had 40 seats in the elections), which would be tantamount to saying that the White House/Pentagon/Green Zone is now the opposition, since Allawi is the Americans’ man. President George W Bush may have never thought he would be minority leader one day.
A least six militias are rampaging throughout Iraq, armed, trained and funded by the Pentagon. One of these – the powerful Special Police Commandos, with at least 10,000 men – as already acknowledged by US generals – is widely involved in applying the dreaded “Salvador option” that retired General Wayne Downing, former head of all US special operations forces, considers a “very valid tactic.” The Special Commandos were active in the assault on Samarra last October, which American generals hailed as a “model” of counterinsurgency operations (not exactly: the resistance continues). They are also active in Ramadi and Mosul.
Their commander is the feared Major General Adnan Thavit al-Samarra’i, a member of an aborted, Allawi-conceived coup against Saddam in 1996. Thavit until now has been none other than the “security adviser” in charge of the face-lifted, Saddam-era General Security Directorate – infested with Saddam-era Mukhabarat agents. This is the organization Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld considers so precious that he had to fly to Baghdad to personally order Jaafari not to dismantle it. Thavit also happens to be the uncle of the former minister of interior. All this explains Allawi’s obsession in controlling a ministry that so graciously houses his Pentagon-cherished top militia. Two other militias – the Muthana Brigade and the Defenders of Khadamiya – are also subordinated to Allawi.
From the White House/Pentagon point of view, the Special Police Commandos are the vanguard in the fight against the Sunni Arab resistance. But even with the commandos and with the Iraqi prison population swelling to more than 10,000, the resistance keeps averaging at least 60 attacks a day – and counting. Economic sabotage – the repeated bombing of electrical plants and oil pipelines – is relentless.
The Marines also have their own pet militias, such as the Iraqi Freedom Guard and the Freedom Fighters: these are usually Shi’ites from the south sent to fight against Sunnis in explosive Anbar province – the heart of the resistance. Pentagon financing of these myriad militias and the active involvement of Allawi in all these operations suggest that the Pentagon itself is destabilizing the country it is supposed to control. Destination: civil war.
It is not difficult to believe that Sunni Arab public opinion has not by any measure started to believe in the political process. It’s true that many powerful Sunni Arabs, at least for the moment, are making a distinction between terror and resistance. But the moment the majority of Sunni Arab public opinion equates illegal occupation to the Shi’ites, Kurds and the political process, civil war is inevitable. There’s nothing this hostage cabinet can do about it. We’re not there yet, but it’s getting closer by the minute.