Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Monday, June 26, 2006

  More theater in Iraq

On the face of it, you might find it hard to reconcile the twin reports in today's NY Times and LA Times concerning the reception of Prime Minister Maliki's reconciliation proposal in Iraq. But the problem is easily resolved. The NYT is serving up some of Maliki's talking points, whereas the LA paper has taken a greater interest in the facts. Anyhow, talking points can be enlightening and are always entertaining.

Together, these two news stories strenthen my suspicion, expressed on Saturday here, that Maliki's reconciliation plan involves a lot of theater and not so much substance. I'd like to be able to hope that it will take hold, but for now the thing appears to be stalled.

Those who have thoughts about how the Democrats ought to react to Maliki's plan might want to take note.

A few days back I advanced the theory that Maliki was trying to convince all interested parties that his plan had momentum; that he was holding all sorts of strings in his hands; and hence that he had strengthened his personal power and authority. Hence is a nice word, when you think about it. In particular, Maliki wants to give the impression that he's close to bringing the Sunni insurgents on board. The problem was, the Sunni insurgents begged to differ.

The plan as finally unveiled on Sunday, however, was gutted of all its most controversial proposals, especially the timeline for the withdrawal of US troops; a promise to revisit the nature of the constitution; a sweeping amnesty; and a recognition that Iraqis resisting the coalition forces were not to be treated as terrorists. In other words, Maliki had abandoned all the things that had been put into the earlier draft in order to entice the Sunnis to join the reconciliation process. There was nothing really new left in the proposal, when it finally did emerge. It was mostly just a package of old proposals and fine sounding sentiments.

The LA Times report about the Maliki proposal suggests it has little credibility among Sunnis active in the resistance.

By diluting any language about a troop withdrawal, the proposal undermines itself, said Wamidh Nadhmi, a Baghdad political scientist sympathetic to the Sunni cause.

"If I were the resistance, I wouldn't talk with a government that depended on a foreign army," he said. "I would talk with the foreign army."

Some Iraqi critics also said the plan failed to address the changing nature of the violence, which they argue has turned more and more from a nationalist fight against U.S. occupation into a sectarian war waged between Arab-backed Sunni extremists and Iranian-backed Shiite militias.

"The whole thing is mixed up," said Sheik Ali Abdullah, leader of the Hamad Jasim, a branch of the Dulaimi tribe in Al Anbar. "We're giving Maliki a full opportunity, but we're sure this government will fail."

Past attempts at luring Sunnis into the political process also were touted as ways of reducing the insurgency, but failed. One analyst, who tracks violent groups in Iraq, said few of the groups engaged in killings and bombings have a toe in the political world, or desire to.

By contrast, the NYT tries to paint a more hopeful picture. Yet the propaganda on offer is painfully transparent. NYT quotes a Sunni political ally of Maliki who wishes us to believe that the Prime Minister's proposal has already convinced some of the Sunni insurgents to join in negotiations.

Ayad al-Samarraie, a hard-line politician from a leading Sunni Arab party, said that the overture by the groups was a significant step in bolstering the legitimacy of Mr. Maliki and possibly drawing other insurgents forward. Members of Mr. Samarraie's organization, the Iraqi Islamic Party, hold some of the top posts in the government and have urged Sunni Arabs to take part in the political process in order to temper the power of the Shiites and Kurds.

"This is a good and affirmative step from the armed groups," Mr. Samarraie said. "We are now looking for other armed groups and militias joined to parties to see how they will work with this project," he added, referring to Shiite militias that are supported by the ruling political parties and accused by Sunni Arabs of abductions, torture and executions.

It sure sounds like Mr. Samarraie has a copy of the very talking points that I surmised Mr. Maliki was trying to promulgate. That is to say, he's having the NYT to know that Maliki's proposal is gaining momentum, and Mr. Maliki's power and standing among Iraqis is growing. Splendid; if only it were true.

It's all too clear that a Shiite ally of Maliki, Hassan al-Suneid, who also is quoted talking up the proposal's success, is determined to avoid being pinned down about how many such Sunni insurgent groups there are, what their influence is, and even when they began negotiating with Maliki.

The groups are made up of Iraqi nationalist fighters and have floated their proposal through Sunni Arab negotiators, Mr. Suneid said in a telephone interview. They "are not implicated in the bloodletting of Iraqis," he added. Mr. Suneid declined to say how many groups want to open talks, who they are and how big or influential they are, though they supposedly have carried out little or no major violent operations. There are indications that seven insurgent factions are involved.

These sound like the same seven groups who were ridiculed by a Sunni insurgent spokesman in the Times of London article I discussed Saturday. Therefore it looks like Maliki's political allies are trying to convince the NY Times today that the "splinter groups" he's been negotiating with for some time are, instead, just now approaching Maliki as a result of the (supposed) momentum that the announcement of his proposal has generated.

In other words, Maliki is desperate at this stage to give the impression that his proposal really does have momentum. Not merely eager to give the impression, but desperate.


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