Iraq: will we walk or be kicked out?
Iraq: Pulled Out Or Pushed Out -- by Robert Dreyfuss/ TomPaine.com
Two parliaments, half a world away from each other, struggled with calls to end the war in Iraq yesterday. In Washington, Democrats in the U.S. Congress ended weeks of squabbling to settle on the outlines of a legislative plan to end the war no later than August, 2008, and perhaps sooner. Meanwhile, in Baghdad, a new constellation of political parties is beginning to take shape in the Iraqi parliament, united around the idea of asking U.S. forces to leave Iraq as soon as possible. Tremendous obstacles stand in the way of pro-peace forces both in Congress and in Iraq’s parliament, but if I had to guess, I’d bet that the Iraqis will ask the United States to get out of Iraq long before Congress can force the issue.
Most congressional progressives and members of the Out of Iraq Caucus aren’t thrilled with the plan cobbled together by Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Even so, let’s give credit where credit is due. Four months after an election in which American voters went to the polls to demand an end to the war, the Democrats responded by proposing a timetable to do just that, calling for the withdrawal of U.S. forces by the end of 2007 if President Bush can’t certify that the Iraqi government is meeting a series of specific benchmarks, and by August 2008 even if those benchmarks are met.
The Democratic House leadership is: facing a nearly unified Republican caucus in both the House and Senate opposed to any weakening of the U.S. role in Iraq; threatened by a promised White House veto; and dragged down by the anchor of several dozen conservative, Blue Dog Democrats afraid to challenge President Bush over the war. Nevertheless, House leaders have probably done about the best they could. It won’t satisfy anti-war activists, who’ll have to redouble efforts to turn up the heat on the congressional Dems. And it hasn’t exactly won plaudits from congressional progressives, who are pressing their own plan to force a more definitive exit, and sooner, by making more aggressive use of the power of the purse to force a withdrawal by the end of 2007—even though most of them are likely to hold their noses and vote for Pelosi’s watered-down plan, too.
But the harsh reality of the American political system, in which the White House holds most of the cards—from its veto power to the president’s role as commander in chief—means that Congress is playing politics, not making policy. To be sure, it’s good politics: over the next 18 months or so, the Democrats can draw a sharp distinction between their support for a withdrawal deadline and the president’s obsessive insistence on escalating the war. That, in turn, can help guarantee that the November 2008 election results in another Democratic landslide. A recent USA Today poll showed that a stunning 77 percent of Americans favor bringing U.S. troops home if the Iraqi government fails to end the civil-war violence there. But the House legislation isn’t likely to become law. Nor is an anti-war resolution in the Senate, where the Republicans are planning a filibuster to stop it.
And so, at least as far as Congress is concerned, the war will go on. True, Democrats might find a reservoir of courage that will enable them to conduct the kind of full-court press on Iraq that’s needed to end the carnage there. And true, if enough Republicans in Congress stopped acting like suicidal lemmings running over the Iraq War cliff and defected to the peace camp, the war would end quickly. But neither of those seems likely.
While Congress may be stymied, however, something important is happening in Iraq.
Few Americans pay attention to Iraqi politics, but over the past few days something has occurred that could change the course of the war. For the first time since the Iraqi election of 2005, a coalition of Sunni and Shiite Arab parties and leaders is starting to take shape, across the sectarian divide that has fueled the civil war. It began two days ago, with the announcement by the Fadhila (Islamic Virtue) party that it is leaving the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), to become an independent political party.
With 15 seats in the Iraqi parliament and with a significant grassroots base throughout the Shiite areas of southern Iraq, Fadhila is a nationalist party committed to the idea of a unitary Iraqi state. It is opposed to the breakup of Iraq into regions or statelets. And its leader, Nadim al-Jaberi, is explicitly opposed to sectarianism. He is committed to reaching out to Sunni parties and secular groups to find common ground, and a new political coalition. Most important, like most of the Sunni parties in Iraq, al-Jaberi and Fadhila support the rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.
Fadhila is currently negotiating with Sunni and secular parties—including the Sunni religious bloc, a quasi-Baathist Sunni nationalist party and the secular Iraq National List led by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi—on the formation of a new Sunni-Shiite-secular bloc in Iraq that would have nearly 100 votes in the 270-member Iraqi parliament.
Not only that, but Fadhila is a “Sadrist” party, whose origins lie in loyalty to the powerful Sadr clerical family. Fadhila is not loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr, the thirty-something mullah who leads the Mahdi Army. But there are enough ties between Fadhila and the Mahdi Army that perhaps Muqtada’s own bloc could be persuaded to join the emerging new coalition, too. (Late last year, Muqtada’s party pulled out of the Iraqi government, and according to Iraqi insiders Sadr is also talking to the same nationalist, Sunni and secular forces about the creation of a new “government of national salvation.”) Along with a handful of independent Shiite members of parliament, that would give the new coalition enough power in parliament to have a vote of no confidence in hapless U.S. ally Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, topple his government and then reconstitute a nationalist Iraqi government that could ask for the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Even part of the ruling Dawa party, Maliki’s own party, is said to favor the idea.
Yesterday, members of the Iraqi parliament representing all of those parties—Fadhila, Allawi’s bloc and the Sunni parties—held an unprecedented teleconference with a dozen members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, an event organized by Representative Jim McDermott (D.-Wash.). Fadhila’s Nadim al-Jaberi took part in the teleconference, and he minced no words. “Putting a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops is a very important step in giving Iraqis confidence that the occupation will end,” he said. Jaberi also added that by quitting the UIA, Fadhila has permanently splintered the Shiite bloc. “We have opened a very wide door in redrawing the Iraqi political map,” he said, hinting that Muqtada al-Sadr’s party might walk through that door and join the new bloc.
Other Iraqi parliamentarians, including Saleh Mutlaq of the Iraqi National Dialogue Front, along with representatives of the Iraqi Accord Front (Sunni) and the Iraq National List, also took part in the teleconference with Jaberi. All called for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, along with emergency efforts to reconstitute a new Iraqi government and to rebuild the Iraqi armed forces.
The emerging new Iraqi coalition is fragile, and it could easily fall apart or fall victim to intensified sectarian warfare. Many obstacles lie in its way, including the attitude of the Kurds, the opposition of the powerful Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and other factors—including, of course, the machinations of the United States and its ambassador in Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad. But it’s at least possible that by the summer a new government could start taking shape in Baghdad, one that could (among other things) assert its nationalist credentials by demanding a timetable for a U.S. pullout.
President Bush, of course, would do everything he could to prevent the emergence of such a new coalition in Iraq, including possibly the use of military force against its leaders. Unlike with Nancy Pelosi’s legislation, however, at least the White House can’t veto something that the Iraqi parliament passes.
(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 , 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.)