More bombings today in Iraq.
Meanwhile, a knowledgeable Capitol Hill staffer worries that we may see violence between Shiia factions later this year. He writes:
In the provincial elections, Maliki did very well, but it was largely at the expense of ISCI. ISCI, realizing this, reacts by doing a couple things-first, they reach out to their traditional constituency as any decent politician does (even in Iraq). Fine so far. Second, they try to frustrate Maliki's plans to prove him a weak leader. They really only have one great lever to do that (peacefully)-money. Maliki got votes because people saw him as a strong leader (justice and security) and because he's done a reasonable job spreading money around through tribal support councils, hand-picked ministers with buckets of cash to spend after certain conflicts (Basra, Mosul, Sadr City, couple other places). ISCI currently holds the keys to future funds because they control the Finance Ministry (Bayan Jabr, a lovely sociopath-not sure if you've ever had the pleasure of meeting him. He was the Interior Minister who had torture chambers in the basement. He got punished by being promoted to Finance Minister) and we are already seeing signs that, ostensibly due to budget cuts, support for Maliki's tribal councils and a couple other initiatives is being reduced. (By the way, a fun side effect of this is that the budget cuts have also provided an excuse to not absorb more SOI into the security forces. Not that huge numbers were going in already, but that trickle has generally stopped).
Maliki's problem is that he really only directly controls a couple things-the Special Forces (CTB) and the Operations Cells that have been set up in Baghdad, Basra, Mosul, and I think one or two other places. But really, at the end of the day, he only controls the Special Forces and two, maybe three, Army divisions who's commanders he has on speed dial on his cell phone. The rest of the Army is Kurd or has heavy levels of former Badr Brigade folks or whatever, and the Interior Minister is developing into a political rival. So, his main avenues of response are likely to be to try to leverage US aid (and the embassy and MNF-I are being a little leery of this so as not to seem to be picking winners) or to go after some of his opponents. There have been a couple raids and heavy handed use of Iraqi Special Forces, and some of it seems to have been aimed at Maliki's political opponents, including ISCI supporters/officials (it's a little unclear).
If I am right, the budget crisis brings to a head, probably quicker than we would wish, some of the potential longer-term conflicts between the Shi'a groups, right before national elections (or even after). (By the way, I personally am expecting large numbers of allegations of election fraud in December/January-my belief is that the only reason everyone didn't try to fix the provincial elections is that all parties convinced themselves that they were going to win). So, question is, what do we do about it?
Some things seem obvious -- keep a tight leash on our embedded folks with ISOF, Iraqi intel agencies, and other forces, sign up a huge number of election monitors, and find ways to ameliorate some of the budget cuts. But on the last point, there is little appetite in DC to spend lots more money on Iraq reconstruction (for a variety of reasons). So I don't see a lot of good options on that front.
Thoughts? I realize this somewhat goes against the "Maliki as strongman" view, in that this analysis he doesn't actually control all the levers of power and won't until he wins more on the national level or takes decisive action with the security forces, which is difficult with us there and without securing his flank (like getting the Kurds on board). But I don't see that he has lots of other options if he wants to stay in power and "win" (however defined) the national elections. I'm not sure I see a good "win" for us out of this however it goes."
I'd be interesting in hearing from people who know Iraqi politics about this. I've been more worried about Maliki as a strongman, but I find this argument pretty persuasive.
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Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.