Commentary Magazine


Maliki Bests Erdoğan, Barzani

On December 19, 2011, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government issued an arrest warrant for Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi alleging that al-Hashemi had planned a wave of bomb attacks and had directed the assassination of Shi’ite opposition. The move unleashed a furious wave of political maneuvering, not only in Baghdad and Erbil, but also amongst Iraq’s neighbors, most notably Turkey. Interpol subsequently upheld the warrant against al-Hashemi, whose trial is ongoing even as Hashemi remains a fugitive. Almost nine months on, it’s clear that Maliki has come out the winner. Hashemi and his allies—Masud Barzani and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—miscalculated and face a growing perception respectively of weakness and fallibility among their home constituencies.

Erdoğan and Barzani’s embrace of al-Hashemi was a cynical and sectarian strategy. While Turkish diplomats still insist, despite evidence to the contrary, that Erdoğan harbors no ill-will toward Jews and Christians, Shi’ite and Shi’ite offshoot sects are another issue. Often, strict adherents to any religion exhibit more tolerance toward those of other religions than they do toward those whom they consider deviating from their own. Simply put, Erdoğan dislikes Turkey’s Alevis. Upon winning his first national elections, Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) included not a single Alevi parliamentarian. He has since unleashed a campaign of discrimination, refusing to recognize Alevi places of worship, in some cases even threatening to tear them down. Alevis complain he is imposing Sunni religious education teachers upon their children. Like his counterparts in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan, Erdoğan will never accept a Shi’ite-led Iraq.

To date, Turkey and many Persian Gulf Arabs espouse a “do-over” strategy toward Iraq, which would see the restoration of a Sunni Arab dictatorship over both Kurds and Shi’ites “by an Iraqi nationalist general who doesn’t have blood on his hands.” Many of these countries—and the Iraqi politicians they help sponsor—have been willing on one hand to castigate Maliki as a sectarian dictator and on the other sponsor terrorism and violence directed toward Maliki and the larger Shi’ite community, thus creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Masud Barzani’s game is different. While Barzani has talked a good game against Baathists, he never hesitates to embrace them to bolster his popularity or pocketbook. Hence, in 1996, Barzani invited Saddam’s Republican Guard into Erbil to help push out rival Jalal Talabani (and the Arab opposition to Saddam). This is only the most famous example. The fact that Hashemi openly has sympathized with Baathists and sought to return many of the worst offenders to power is immaterial for Masud.  Barzani’s rivalry with Maliki comes down to oil revenue and disputed territories. By embracing Maliki’s rival, Barzani hoped to manufacture Maliki’s collapse and manufacture a deal which would benefit Barzani’s own oil claims. Into the mix, he sought to rally his own people with nationalist rhetoric, promising to defeat Baghdad and even hinting that he would declare Kurdish independence. Now, months later, oil companies waiver on Kurdish deals, Barzani’s promises ring empty, and he must negotiate with Maliki as a chastised politician. Masud might have pretensions to be a strongman, but he is increasingly ridiculed even in regional capital Erbil as “Balon Barzani” because he is full of hot air.

Maliki’s victory can be good for Iraq. Certainly, Max Boot and others are right that the United States should be wary of Iranian encroachments into Iraq. But it is absolutely wrong to suggest that all Shi’ites are fifth columnists. Most Iraqi Arabs are Iraqi nationalists, regardless of their sectarian preference. The growth of Iranian influence is a direct result of America’s precipitous withdrawal from Iraq, which has denied Maliki and other Shi’ite leaders the ability to preserve Iraqi interests by playing America and Iran off each other. As for Hashemi and his allies—including Ayad Allawi, a man revered in U.S. military circles but respected less in Iraq because of his reputation for laziness and overreliance on outside powers—the alternative they provide is potentially as deleterious. After all, Hashemi’s sympathy toward al-Qaeda is as dangerous for the United States as Baghdad’s flirtation with Iran.

With Maliki emerging victorious from his power struggle, it would behoove the United States to support him as he tries to restore order in Iraq, castigating him when his policies violate the norms of good governance and human rights, and assisting any efforts to drive a wedge between Iraq on one hand, and Syria and Iran on the other. As for his foreign critics, rather than try to subvert the only political leader who managed to cobble together a coalition after elections, they might better expend their energy ensuring that Iraq’s next elections are as transparent as possible, so whomever hold the premiership will forever remain accountable to ordinary Iraqis.

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