Robert Dreyfuss is an Alexandria, Va.-based writer specializing in politics and national security issues. He is the author of Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam (Henry Holt/Metropolitan Books, 2005), a contributing editor at The Nation and a writer for Mother Jones, The American Prospect and Rolling Stone. He can be reached through his website, www.robertdreyfuss.com.
President George W. Bush meets today with Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, the turbaned leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), a Shiite fundamentalist party that is strongly tied to Iran. In so doing, the president is meeting with someone who, perhaps more than anyone else in Iraq, is responsible for trying to destroy Iraqi national unity, prevent national reconciliation among Iraq’s ethnic and sectarian mix, and push Iraq into civil war. Al-Hakim, who was virtually Fed-Ex’d into Iraq by the Pentagon in March 2003, was a mainstay of the Iraqi National Congress, led by neoconservative darling Ahmed Chalabi throughout the 1990s. And today al-Hakim controls the SCIRI militia, the Badr Brigade, the Iraqi interior ministry and many of Iraq’s feared death squads. Not to put too fine a point on it, Hakim is a mass murderer.
What’s stunning about Bush’s encounter with al-Hakim is that it occurs precisely at the moment when critically important bridges are being built across Iraq’s Sunni-Shiite divide—bridges that al-Hakim is trying to blow up.
During a stop in Amman, Jordan, on his way to the United States, al-Hakim point blank tried to torpedo the idea of an international conference that might bring together Iraq’s various factions. Such a conference was explicitly proposed by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan last week, who offered to host it. A similar conference, or one like it, is likely to be part of the recommendations that will be issued on Wednesday by the Iraq Study Group, the panel co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Indiana Representative Lee Hamilton. But al-Hakim trashes the idea. “It is unreasonable or incorrect to discuss issues related to the Iraqi people at international conferences,” said the Shiite radical. “The proposal is unrealistic, incorrect and illegal.” (It is, of course, perfectly legal.)
It is not the first time that al-Hakim has tried to undermine reconciliation efforts. During repeated attempts by the Arab League to organize a conference that would bring Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish leaders together with representatives of the armed resistance in search of an accord, al-Hakim almost single-handedly destroyed the idea. And it is al-Hakim, whose SCIRI controls much of Iraq’s south, who is the driving force behind efforts to create a separatist Shiite-run state in Iraq’s south.
Hakim’s wrecking-ball effort is taking place in the context of unprecedented efforts by leaders of Iraq’s factions to create what many Iraqi leaders are calling a “government of national salvation.”
Such a government would topple and replace the ineffectual, clownish Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Supporters of the idea, who are getting ready to announce a National Salvation Front in Iraq, include rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, many of Iraq’s Sunni leaders in and out of government, representatives of the Iraqi resistance and perhaps even some important Kurdish leaders.
Last week, when the feckless Maliki traveled to Jordan to meet Bush, Muqtada al-Sadr ordered his 30 members of parliament to suspend their participation and pulled five cabinet ministers out of Maliki’s government. Sadr’s Mahdi Army, one of the most powerful of Iraq’s armed factions and one which has been involved in death squads and assassinations itself, controls large parts of east Baghdad and many areas of the south, and they have fiercely opposed Hakim’s SCIRI. According to Sadr, his political forces will not rejoin the government until the United States has announced a timetable for the end of the U.S. occupation of Iraq.
Sadr is now reaching out to Sunni and Kurdish leaders to form an anti-occupation bloc that will represent the vast majority of Iraqi public opinion. Polls have shown that up to 80 percent of Sunni Arabs and 60 percent of Shiite Arabs want an immediate end to the occupation.
Among those supporting the new National Salvation Front, along with Sadr, are Saleh Mutlaq, the Sunni leader of Iraq’s National Dialogue Front; Tariq al-Hashemi, a leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party; former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, and many others. According to the Iraqi newspaper Al-Arab Al-Yawm, Mutlaq described the front as a broad cross-section of Iraqis opposed to the U.S. occupation:
Mutlaq added that the new front will include a number of groups that are not participating in the current Iraqi government including Baathists, pan-Arabists, the Founding Conference that includes 46 political movements, the old Iraqi army leadership, and tribal leaders from the middle and south of Iraq. In addition, the front will include representatives from Turcoman, Yazidi, and Kurdish patriotic leaders who are against the occupation and for Iraq's unity, and other Christian movements that believe in Iraq's unity.
Mutlaq also said that seven leading Iraqi Shiite ayatollahs will support the new grouping.
Even as the National Salvation Front takes shape, there is strong evidence that Sunni and Shiite clerics are reaching out to each other.
Two weeks ago, Muqtada al-Sadr demanded that Sunni clerics issue a fatwa , or religious order, condemning killings of Iraqi civilians by al-Qaida types and offering Sunni help to rebuild the domed mosque in Samarra that was destroyed in a bombing in February. It was that bombing that touched over the most severe phase of Iraq’s civil war, setting of a wave of reprisal killings among Shiites and Sunnis.
Since Sadr’s call, several leading Sunni clerics have done as Sadr asked, according to the Los Angeles Times, including top Sunni religious leaders in Basra, Nasariyah, Amarah and Samaweh. All four were associated with the Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS), the leading Sunni religious group in Iraq, which has close ties to the Sunni insurgency. Not only that, but Harith al-Dhari, the leader of the AMS, issued a blunt condemnation of al-Qaida:
Al Qaeda is part of the resistance, but the resistance is of two kinds. The resistance that only resists occupation, this we support one hundred per cent. The resistance that mixes up resisting the occupation and killing innocents, even if it calls itself resistance, this we condemn.
Two weeks ago, the Iraqi interior ministry, which is heavily controlled by Hakim’s SCIRI, issued an arrest warrant for al-Dhari, accusing him of maintaining ties to “terrorists.”
This sort of inter-communal reconciliation is precisely what Iraq needs. Furthermore, to build it will require that Iraqis come together on the one issue about which most of them agree: ending the U.S. occupation. There is, without doubt, a majority of Iraq’s parliament opposed to the occupation. To create a replacement government of anti-U.S. Iraqis, who would then demand that the United States leave Iraq, would be a difficult task at best, because of the very presence of 150,000 U.S. troops and America’s overbearing ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad. Furthermore, it is a fragile effort: a major assassination or targeted violence could shatter it before it even gets off the ground.
Still, it is perhaps Iraq’s last, best hope for ending its civil war and starting to recreate a functioning state. Against this, there is talk inside the Bush administration, of “picking a winner,” of choosing sides in Iraq’s civil war—which, of course, means backing the Shiites. Such a notion is a nonstarter, if for no other reason than the question: Which Shiites? For the Bush administration, it could only mean SCIRI, Hakim’s band of thugs and assassins.
If so, it would be the last, ugly mistake for President Bush’s merry band of incompetents, bunglers and war criminals. The release of the Baker-Hamilton report on Iraq on Wednesday will signal the end of the Bush administration’s neoconservative-driven war policy, and the beginning of a new, realist-dominated consensus that America’s foreign policy establishment hopes will restore some of the U.S. prestige and influence that has been eviscerated by Bush’s invasion of Iraq.
It is too much, perhaps, to expect from the Bush administration, but here’s an idea. Instead of trying to court Hakim and SCIRI to support a continued U.S. occupation of Iraq, the White House ought to acknowledge and heed the growing body of opinion in Iraq that wants the United States out, fast.