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Security, Reconciliation in Iraq Are Irreconcilable

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Without reconciliation, all the gains .. will be at grave risk of foundering when American troops are no longer around.

That's the warning message that U.S. President Barak Obama, the present and immediate past U.S. ambassadors, Christopher R. Hill and Ryan C. Crocker, and the present and former American military commanders, Gen. Ray Odierno and Gen. David H. Petraeus have been repeatedly saying. "What Mr. Obama would do if chaos set in as the American troop withdrawal gathers momentum next spring and summer could be one of the most testing moments in his presidency, all the more so for the evident fact that most Americans and most American legislators .. seem to have decided that America has already borne the burdens of Iraq for too long and needs to shift its priorities to Afghanistan," according to John F. Burns, The New York Times' chief foreign correspondent, on the ground in Baghdad before, during and after the U.S. -- led invasion.

The car bombing in a parking lot adjacent to a building where a meeting was held on reconciliation efforts -- attended by a representative of the National Reconciliation Committee (NRC) formed by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki -- in the capital of the Iraqi western province, al-Ramadi, on October 11 was the latest example of the irreconcilable security and reconciliation in Iraq.

All efforts at reconciliation exerted by the U.S. occupying power, Arabs collectively through the Arab League or separately by individual Arab states, or by regional powers have failed. While Obama is seeking a tactical exit strategy from Iraq for the sake of a long term "strategic" commitment thereto, "Iraqization" of what he described as the U.S. "war of choice" on Iraq seems to be his option. A prerequisite for "Iraqization" is installing an effective "Iraqi" government in Baghdad; a prerequisite for such a government is an Iraqi national reconciliation, and here Obama's moment of truth in Iraq is racing against time.

Biden, al-Maliki Cannot Deliver

Promoting the level of the supervision for sectarian reconciliation from a Secretary-of-State or a Defense Secretary to Vice President Joe Biden will not make it a success. Biden made three visits to Iraq this year, but the outcome has been more insecurity and instability. Inside Iraq, Biden is best known as a co-author of the 2006 "Biden-Gelb Plan," which urged "as much real power as possible be devolved from Iraq's central government in Baghdad to three mini-states that would divide the country along ethnic and religious lines." Helena Cobban, a McClatchy News reporter, on July 6, quoted an Iraqi demonstrator against Biden's second visit, "Biden's visit sent the signal to us that Iraq will be divided. Biden's background doesn't allow him to play any role in reconciliation." Norwegian analyst of Iraqi affairs, Reidar Visser, concluded that Biden's "solution" boils down to merely a power quota distribution among the three ethno-religious groups of "Kurds, Sunnis and Shia." The persisting failure proves that Biden was the wrong man for a mission of an Iraqi "national" reconciliation.

Al-Malki is not the right man for the mission either. Bolstering him only gives him a veto power on reconciliation. His life long anti--Baath and deep--rooted bias as well as his life long engagement with Iran and his sectarian and political loyalty thereto are trapping him into an anti--Baath obsession that unwisely made him challenge Biden during his second visit to conclude that reconciliation was, and is, an Iraqi "internal affair" that Biden has nothing to do with. Al-Maliki's version of reconciliation is based on abruptly cutting Iraq off from its Arab geopolitical affiliation, conceding to the Iranian and Kurdish view that only the Arabs of Iraq, a founding member of the Arab League, are part of the Pan -- Arab bondage, although they are the overwhelming majority of Iraqis, and consequently giving priority to ties with Iran and the United States. Hence the latest deterioration of Al-Maliki's ties with Syria and the reluctance of Saudi Arabia to send an ambassador to Baghdad. Internally, al-Maliki's sole hope to form a semblance of a non--sectarian electoral constituency ahead of the upcoming elections on January 16 -- pending "sectarian" reconciliation in the "parliament" to pass an election law -- was pinned on winning the support of the Sunni al-Sahwa (awakening) militia, which the U.S. was successful in recruiting to fight al-Qaeda, despite its Sunni power base. However, the tribal leader of al-Sahwa, Sheikh Ahmad Abu Risha, recently announced he would not join al-Maliki's electoral coalition. (Iraqi daily al-Zaman on October 13, 2009).

Meanwhile, Iran's version for reconciliation is on record as sectarian, and accordingly a non-starter, either for national accord or for security. Tehran succeeded in grouping together almost all the pro-Iran Shiite militias in one electoral bloc, a recipe for more bloody sectarian strife and further disintegration of the country on a sectarian basis. The Baghdad's bombings of August 19 of the sovereign ministerial symbols of al-Maliki's "state" was the bloody manifestation of "to-the--death" power struggles between the two sectarian blocs. Both blocs found accusing Syria of harboring the alleged culprits in the bombings and in threatening to take Syria to the UN Security council, their best way to divert both internal and external attention away from their own responsibilities, and indirectly, Iran's.

Former British Army Chief of Staff, General Richard Dannatt, who stepped down at the end of August, speaking at the Royal United Services Institute in London, attributed "our failure" in Iraq first to the "early switch to an economy of force operation in favor of Afghanistan," which has become now Obama's "strategic priority," and second to missing "a window of consent" early after the invasion to address Iraq's security and basic needs by the U.S. -- led coalition forces, which allowed "the rise of the militias supported so cynically by the Iranians." Dannatt was short of saying that the security and reconciliation in Iraq have become irreversibly irreconcilable.

In February last year, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was asked by CNN's Wolf Blitzer about the success of the "surge" in Iraq: "The gains have not produced the desired effect, which is the reconciliation of Iraq. This is a failure. This is a failure," she said. Defense Secretary Robert Gates admitted candidly in mid-March that without "sectarian reconciliation" among Iraqis the "strategy won't work." Indeed, the entire point of the surge of 30,000 troops was to bring such reconciliation about by, in Gates' words, "buy[ing] the Iraqis time." Gates was wrong, what is required is a national reconciliation, not a sectarian one. Sectarian strife was "the" expected outcome of the removal by invasion of a national regime, not the other way round.

Less than seven years on, the "political process" has already proven a failure. Those same players -- whom the White house, whether under Obama or under his predecessor, George W. Bush, has been trying to recruit recognition of their legitimacy by the United Nations, but more importantly by their Arab brethren and regional neighbors -- doomed it a failure. This "process" seeks to reconcile the irreconcilable militias turned into political parties, whose dual loyalty is more to Iran and the U.S. than to their own people, who are driven by this dual loyalty and their factional interests than by the national interests of Iraq, incessantly playing their U.S. and Iranian mentors one against the other, and more than ready to instantly recur to militia practices and drop their posturing as civilized political players whenever their narrow factional interests are threatened or their quotas in the U.S. --engineered "political process" diminish or seem about to be altogether lost.

Four de Facto Governments

Ironically, Iraq has now two self--proclaimed sectarian governments, the first is the Shiite U.S. -- installed and backed in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone and the second is the al-Qaeda's underground Sunni Islamic State of Iraq (or Dawlat al-'Iraq al-Islamiyya in Arabic); both are in a declared state of war, but neither has real authority on the ground that encompasses all the regional territory of the country. A third de facto theocratic pro--Iran Shiite state has evolved in southern Iraq, where it is no more possible to discern whether Baghdad or Tehran is the central authority. It is no surprise a strong call is made for a "federal" entity similar to the Kurdish one in the north. A fourth de facto Kurdish government rules in Iraqi Kurdistan, but similarly has no "national" authority. Legitimacy of the four governments is challenged both internally and externally. Obama's strategy, like that of his predecessor Bush, reveals no concrete evidence that he is looking for anything other than sustaining this tragic status-quo in Iraq.

There is no single dominant grouping in this internal struggle for power. The new "Iraqi army most often behaves as a Shia militia," and "the last chance for some kind of stability may be the division of Iraq into three nationally based independent states," Michael Dougall Bell concluded, writing in the Globe and Mail on September 30. Disintegrating regional states into smaller ones on religious, sectarian and ethnic bases has been a pronounced goal of Israeli strategists for too long now to be dismissed as an unrealistic. This writer only can tell how much he was influenced by the Israeli view, given the fact that Bell was a former Canadian ambassador to Israel and former chair of the Donor Committee of the International Reconstruction Fund Facility for Iraq. However, Bell is not a lone voice. The think tank of The Independent Fund for Peace titled its ninth report on Iraq earlier this month, "A Way Out: The Union of Iraqi States." Dismantling Iraq is now a realistic threat, as never before.

The NRC was grudgingly formed under the pressure of a U.S. and Arab demand to reconcile the sectarian (Shiite) government of al-Maliki and the pro--Iran sectarian regime that brought him to power, with the national and Pan--Arab majority, whose power base is perceived by the U.S. to be Sunni. The Sunnis have been marginalized and bloodily squeezed out of public life and institutions since the U.S.--led invasion in 2003 -- allegedly for being the power base for the pre-invasion regime, but for sectarian reasons over the last seven years. These Sunnis populate the heart of Iraq, the capital of Baghdad, as well as the northern and western provinces, in particular in al-Ramadi, which is the largest in area. It is also the most decisive strategically, because it borders three Arab countries - Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Not surprisingly, this majority was the incubator, and their provinces the bedrock, of the Iraqi national resistance, which so far has deprived the White house from declaring "victory" in Iraq. "I'm not sure we will ever see anyone declare victory in Iraq, because first off, I'm not sure we'll know for 10 years or five years," U.S. Army Gen. Ray Odierno, the top American commander in Iraq, told reporters at a Pentagon briefing on October 1. Disillusioned by the U.S. promises of security, democracy and development as well as by any sectarian bonanza promised by Iran, the Shiite majority in southern Iraq are again recurring to their national and Pan--Arab credentials, and the Islamic--oriented rejection of foreign hegemony, be it U.S. or Iranian, is increasingly contributing to disillusionment both in the south and the north of the country. This paves the way for the Iraqi resistance to expand southward gradually, but determinably.

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*Nicola Nasser is a veteran Arab journalist in Kuwait, Jordan, UAE and Palestine. He is based in Ramallah, West Bank of the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories.

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