The Bush administration has perfected the art of fall-guy selection. The more convoluted the plot, the more credible the fall guy must be. As Lewis “Scooter” Libby was the fall guy in Washington, Premier Nuri al-Maliki will be the fall guy in Baghdad.

The Baghdad conference on Saturday was a derivative talk-fest setting up three committees to prepare the way for another meeting at the foreign-minister level next month in Istanbul. The subtext, though never explicit, is more glaring: it is the absolute US impotence to guarantee security or stability in Iraq, and the desperate search for a way out, now pitting the “axis of fear” (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates) against the “axis of evil” (Iran and Syria).

The spiraling equation in Iraq is stark. The more that a lone Sunni Arab mujahid with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher can take down a US$25 million Apache helicopter, the more Pentagon counterinsurgency tactics will include “surgical strikes” with minimal “collateral damage” on occupied civilians.

The more President George W. Bush displays brute force in the nonstop surge, and the more Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army lies low, even in a monster slum like Sadr City (whose “street” name is Madinat al-Thawra, “City of the Revolution”), and the more Sunni guerrillas wreak havoc over unprotected Shi’ites (114 dead and more than 150 wounded pilgrims to Karbala last Tuesday; 31 pilgrims coming back from Karbala on Sunday – the day after the Baghdad conference).

The everyday safety of scores of Shi’ites used to be guaranteed by the Mehdi Army. The Jaish al-Mehdi’s main tasks are socio-economic, with a heavy focus on education and charity, but they also involve security, most of all in impoverished Baghdad. The Mehdi Army was already splintered into at least three factions. But now, as a consequence of the surge, neighborhood associations as well as commanders not totally faithful to Muqtada have decided not to lie low anymore – and in effect to reorganize Shi’ite civilian defense.

If a US Army base, rather a Fort Apache, is set up in the “City of the Revolution” – as is taken for granted in Baghdad – it won’t fall in the short term. But it will fall eventually – when the Mehdi Army totally unmelts from the civilian population. For the moment, the US Cavalry is bombing their houses (in Karbala) or raiding them (in Najaf) just to find nothing.

Munthir al-Kewther, born in Najaf, holding a PhD in Islamic philosophy from Kufa University and currently dean of a Dutch journalism faculty, has been adamant in denouncing a systematic US assassination spree targeting key Mehdi Army and Sadrist leaders. The best example, according to Dr Kewther, “was the assassination last December of Sahib al-Ameri in front of his wife and children in his house in Najaf. Al-Ameri was the secretary general of the Shahidollah Institute, a charitable organization that helps poor and displaced people. He had no connections whatsoever to the Mehdi Army” (see The Sadr movement ‘will eventually triumph’, Asia Times Online, March 7).

This fits in a much bigger picture – the apocalyptic devastation of a whole country directly or indirectly engineered by the Bush administration. No fewer than 4 million Iraqis have been killed directly or indirectly, or been forced into exile.

The more the surge expands, the more Iraq dissolves into a horrific degree zero of culture – as in the bombing of al-Mutanabbi, Baghdad’s great book street named after a poet of the Abassid era. And this happened after the massacre of students at Mustansiriya University, older than the Sorbonne. Even books in Iraq “are being assassinated”, a librarian told pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat, comparing the tragedy to the destruction of the library of Baghdad by the Mongol hordes of Hulagu, Genghis Khan’s grandson, in the 13th century. In the words of Hodja Ali, the owner of the ultra-atmospheric Chahbandar cafe – where writers, poets and journalists used to gather – the street was the embodiment of “conscience opposed to violence.”

But conscience could never have eschewed the violence in-built from the start of the occupation. The “assassination of books” is directly linked to the plunder of the Archeological Museum and the National Library – which the US Marine Corps did not even make a semblance of preventing – immediately after the fall of Baghdad almost four years ago. No wonder Iraqi artist Jabbar Mayhis enveloped his head in a wooden box atop the devastated ceiling of the Ibn’Arabi printing press on al-Mutanabbi and solemnly declared the death of culture in Baghdad.

A coup in the making

The real surge in Iraq so far is by the different strands of the Sunni muqawama (resistance) – which have exposed, if any extra proof was needed, the impotence and irrelevancy of the Iraqi state (from Day 1 reduced to ashes under occupation logic).

The more Sunni Arab guerrilla attacks on unprotected, civilian Shi’ites, the more Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki sinks into impotence. The more heavily Sunni neighborhoods in south Baghdad and around the Dora area are under siege by the Pentagon’s infernal surge machine, the more Maliki is a lame duck.

Thanks to wily, Mao Zedong-inspired, nimble muqawama tactics, the much-dreaded Battle of Baghdad is not happening – at least not yet. The muqawama has dissolved into the general population. For the moment, Arab guile is tactically defeating US firepower – as even American generals admit.

General David Petraeus, touted as the miracle worker who might save the occupation from itself, had to admit on the record that in fact the surge won’t solve or stabilize anything. To “stabilize” Baghdad to a minimum, the US would have to deploy at least 120,000 combat troops.

But that’s not the point. The point is that this gory chronicle of a failure foretold is inevitably slouching toward the “secret” US Plan B – which is none other than installing the new Saddam Hussein: in this case the same old “Saddam without a mustache” (as he is known in Baghdad) Iyad Allawi. Allawi’s stellar record – former car-bomber, Ba’ath thug, alleged embezzler (in Yemen), Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) asset, corrupt interim prime minister and “butcher of Fallujah” – could have been penned by a Hollywood hack.

Maliki has been the fall guy from the start. Unlike Libby in Washington, he was not following Dick Cheney’s command. He may have even suggested the broad terms of the surge to Bush. But the Bush administration had no trouble trapping him in his own insecurities in one more operetta starring loads of “collateral damage.”

In essence, Maliki and his helpless, corrupt government – whose only role is to enforce imperial US edicts in Iraq – will be blamed by the Bush administration for failing to help the Pentagon occupy and “pacify” the country with minimum hassle. He doesn’t even control the Green Zone: the US does. Baghdad’s neighborhoods are controlled either by the muqawama or by Shi’ite militias. The ministries of Defense and Interior are infested with death squads. Basra is being slowly ethnic-cleansed: Sunnis were 40% in 2003; now they are less than 14%.

The Shi’ite south is basically controlled by the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. In the Sunni belt, the Americans sort of “control” the day, and the muqawama and al-Qaeda in Iraq control the night and the countryside.

Maliki will be the fall guy and a new Washington/Green Zone-engineered “coalition,” led by perennial favorite Allawi, will usurp his power in Parliament. This coup-in-the-making has been rumored in Baghdad for months. At least this is how the ideal Bush administration scenario develops.

From a Bush administration point of view Allawi’s legitimacy is a minor issue – as most Iraqi members of Parliament would rather legislate by remote control from London anyway. In real life the masses, Sunni or Shi’ite, despise them and totally ignore them. The really popular leaders in Iraq are, religiously, Grand Ayatollah Sistani and, politically, Muqtada al-Sadr – whose reach also includes a great deal of moderate Sunnis.

Sadrism, apart from the excesses of a minority, is in essence a nationalist liberation movement. Thus, for axis-of-evil cheerleaders, inevitably it is as dangerous as Hamas or Hezbollah.

Maliki, the fall guy, is already irrelevant. Any analysis of US imperial designs since the CIA-engineered coup against prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran more than half a century ago reveals the same pattern. If you want divide-and-rule and total domination, who’s your man? A clever, charismatic nationalist or a ruthless CIA asset?