Last week, a fierce critic of the Bush administration's war in Iraq went, perhaps, a bridge too far. Pauline Baker, president of the Fund for Peace, flatly predicted that there is no hope for Iraq, other than its collapse and fragmentation. Upon issuing a report that described Iraq as the second most unstable "failed state" after Sudan, Baker told the Washington Post, "We have recommended ... that the administration face up to the reality that the only choices for Iraq are how and how violently it will break up."
And she's not the only one. Many opponents of Bush's adventure in Iraq, from left to center-right, have thrown up their hands. Most notorious, Senator Joe Biden, Leslie Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations and former Ambassador Peter Galbraith have written off Iraq, either predicting or encouraging its breakup into mini-states. Countless others have concluded that ethnic and sectarian divisions in Iraq have hardened into permanent hatreds. And there are those who — sadly or gleefully, depending on their point of view — declare definitively that Iraq was never really a nation. Instead, they say, it is an artificial creation that never existed except in the minds of British imperialists like Winston Churchill and Gertrude Bell.
Such sentiments are being challenged by a nascent bloc of Iraqi nationalists who, against all odds, are working to put together a pan-Iraqi coalition that would topple the U.S.-backed government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Maliki's ruling alliance includes separatist Kurdish warlords and Iranian-backed Shiite fundamentalists, both of whom want to carve out semi or wholly independent statelets. Although it has not yet jelled, Maliki's opposition — which includes Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, as well as Christians, Turkmen and others — is within striking distance of creating a functioning parliamentary majority.
More important, outside Parliament the nationalists represent an overwhelming majority of rank-and-file Iraqis. Among the Sunnis, who have 55 seats in the 275-member Parliament, there is broad support for maintaining Iraq's territorial integrity not only among its deputies but throughout the armed Iraqi resistance, a diverse group that includes Baathists, Sunni tribal leaders, former military officers and the Association of Muslim Scholars, a Sunni religious organization that claims to be the political arm of the resistance.
Among the Shiites, most Iraqi observers believe that if new elections were held, the big winners would be Muqtada al-Sadr's party, which controls much of eastern Baghdad and wields great power in the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, and the Fadhila party, a quasi-Sadrist party with great strength in Iraq's south, particularly Basra. The big losers would be the ruling Dawa party, which has little or no remaining support, and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), an Iranian-backed paramilitary party that now calls itself the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq (SICI).
Add to those forces the dwindling but still significant influence of secular nonsectarian Iraqis, whose titular leader is Iyad Allawi. Allawi's party, which has friends in the Arab Gulf and good connections to the CIA and MI-6, controls twenty-five deputies in Parliament. Its strength is ebbing as Iraq's middle class flees the civil war at an accelerating rate. But Allawi, who also has strong ties to Iraq's military officer class, could be a power broker in the emerging nationalist coalition.
Almost unnoticed in the American media, these nationalist forces have been groping toward an accommodation that could oust Maliki. In fits and starts, and under the worst possible conditions — literally under fire — they are looking for a way out of the ethnic and sectarian crisis. It is an effort that has been under way for nearly a year. But they are doing so not only without American support but with determined opposition from the Bush Administration.
Even though the nationalists represent what is probably Iraq's last chance to avoid civil war, collapse and fragmentation, the Bush administration continues to support the Maliki government, the Kurdish warlords — America's closest allies in Iraq — and, most inexplicably, the Shiite fundamentalists in SICI. According to recent reports, Washington may be toying with the idea of replacing Maliki with Adel Abdul Mahdi, currently the Iraqi vice president and a leader of SICI. Last week Abdul Mahdi threatened to resign his post, and he appears to be angling for Maliki's job. (In 2006, during the prolonged negotiations following the December 2005 elections, the U.S. Embassy quietly backed Mahdi over Maliki, but Maliki triumphed — by one vote — with the support of Muqtada al-Sadr.)
Why isn't Washington backing the nationalists, despite its growing frustration with Maliki's inability to meet the so-called "benchmarks" of political reconciliation that the United States wants? Because what holds together the emerging nationalist coalition, more than anything else, is militant opposition to the U.S. occupation of Iraq.
Over the past two months, the nationalists in Parliament have won two landmark votes: the first in support of a bill calling for the United States to set a timetable for withdrawal and the second in a vote demanding that the Iraqi government submit any plan to extend the U.S. occupation past 2007 to Parliament.