What’s Up With Nouri al-Maliki?

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If you’re wondering why the Iraqis haven’t met those pesky benchmarks, today’s Washington Post provides an explainer. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki hails from Iraq’s Dawa party, a secretive Shiite organization that was forged in opposition to Saddam’s regime. It is tight-knit and suspicious of outsiders, even (and perhaps most especially) those belonging to competing Shiite political groups. According to the Post:

Maliki, observers say, is trying to compensate for his party’s frail position against his Shiite rivals. Unlike influential Shiite clerics Moqtada al-Sadr or Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the Dawa party controls no militia and has a small grass-roots following today.

“He’s trying to strengthen the Dawa party at the risk of marginalizing other political groups,” said Wamidh Nadhmi, a political analyst.

And divisions among Shiites pale in comparison to the chasm that has developed between them and the Sunnis. Much has been made of the recent American effort to enlist Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar Province and elsewhere to assist in the fight against foreign al Qaeda fighters. The strategy appears to be working (at least for now), but the Post article notes that it is also fueling Shiite paranoia:

Maliki and his advisers are already mistrustful of new U.S. alliances with Sunni insurgents and tribal leaders who have turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq. Where the Bush administration sees a success story, Maliki and other Shiites worry that the United States is empowering groups still determined to overthrow their government.

It does make you wonder… If we arm, equip, and train Sunni tribesmen to fight al Qaeda and organize Sunni “neighborhood watches” to help protect them against Shiite death squads, it might earn us their short-term appreciation and deter them from attacking U.S. troops. Then again, it might fuel the civil war that many people believe will follow our departure from Iraq. This is surely not lost on American planners. General Petraeus recognized the risk, telling a reporter: “You have to make sure that the neighborhood watch doesn’t end up watching someone else’s neighborhood.” Good luck.

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