More and more, it seems that the Obama administration has utterly forgotten about Iraq. With its laser-like focus on Afghanistan and its diplomacy with Iran, it's rare that Iraq gets any attention. A whole team of State Department and NSC staff is mobilized on the Iran issue, Afghanistan and Pakistan have their special envoy, Richard Holbrooke, and even the Sisyphus-like effort to deal with the Palestine-Israel problem has its own special envoy, George Mitchell. But Iraq is an orphan. At times, it's like the White House has put Iraq in a box called "George Bush's blunders," and it doesn't plan on looking into the box. There's no go-to person in the Obama administration for Iraq. Ambassador Christopher Hill, who's relatively new on the job, isn't an Arabist or an Iraqi specialist, and he's taking -- perhaps appropriately -- a hands-off attitude toward the swirl of Iraqi politics.
But the devastating attacks in Baghdad -- twin car bombs that killed more than 150 people and wrecked the Iraqi Ministry of Justice and the provincial council complex -- are a sign that Iraq is still simmering. The bombings were very similar to the August 19 attacks that destroyed the Iraqi foreign ministry and finance ministry. Then, as now, the bombers struck at the very heart of the Iraqi government.
In January, Iraq will hold elections to determine whether Prime Minister Maliki remains in power. The parliamentary elections have spurred numerous Iraqi factions to maneuver in advance of the vote -- and most of those factions have armed wings, paramilitary forces and, in the case of the Kurds, whole national armies at their disposal. So far, despite the urgency of the problem, the current Iraqi parliament bas been unable to devise a formula for holding those elections and to pass a law governing them, though there are reports that a compromise deal has been reached.
The main players in the election drama, so far, are Prime Minister Maliki, a religious Shiite politician from the fundamentalist Islamic Dawa party who's planning to run as a born-again Iraqi nationalist under his State of Law party banner; a broad coalition of Shiite religious parties, backed by Iran, including the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and Muqtada al-Sadr's bloc; a secular, centrist bloc organized around former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and his Iraqiyya party, which has support from ex-Baathists, nationalist Sunnis, and many secular, nationalist Shiites, too; and, of course, the Kurds, who control their independence-minded fiefdom in three northern provinces of Iraq.
There is also an amorphous group of dissident Sunnis, including some of the Awakening (sahwa) movement, some parties based in provinces such as Anbar and Ninewa (Mosul), and various Sunni religious parties and individuals, some of which may opt to run as a formal coalition. A new formation, the Unity of Iraq Alliance, which includes some Sunnis and some important Shiites, is emerging, too.
The best continuing analyses of Iraqi politics is the blog by Reidar Visser, a Norwegian political scientist who is a long-time observer of Iraqi affairs. (If you're interested in the details of the various Iraqi coalitions, take a gander at Visser's take on the Iran-backed, Shiite religious Iraqi National Alliance, Maliki's State of Law bloc, and the multu-ethnic, cross-sectarian coalition called the Unity of Iraq Alliance.)
The perpetrators of the huge bomb attacks are unknown. Not unexpectedly, every Iraqi faction is blaming its enemies. Maliki is blaming Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Baathists, but at the very least the attacks have severely hurt Maliki's main cliam to leadership, namely, that he's kept Iraq safe. Many Sunnis are blaming Iran, charging that Iran's intelligence service is orchestrating the Baghdad attacks in order to force Maliki to abandon his independent electoral stance and sign on to the Shiite bloc, the Iraqi National Alliance. And, indirectly speaking for the Shiite bloc, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of Iran has blamed "foreign agents" for the attacks:
"The bloody actions being committed in some Islamic countries, including Iraq, Pakistan and in some parts of the country (Iran), are aimed at creating division between the Shiites and Sunnis.... Those who carry out these terrorist actions are directly or indirectly foreign agents."
Al Qaeda has claimed responsibility for the bombings, but such claims have to be taken with a grain of salt.
The basic fact remains that, as US forces draw down, Iraq is perched on the brink of renewed civil war. One flashpoint is Kirkuk and other areas of Iraq claimed by the Kurds. Many Sunnis are increasingly resentful of Maliki's arrogance, his refusal to accommodate Sunni demands, and his fealty to Iran. And various Shiite militias, including the Sadr's Mahdi Army and the ISCI Badr Brigades, are likely to support their electoral efforts with armed might. It's going to be a bumpy ride.
By Robert Dreyfuss:
Reprinted with permission from The Nation