Iraqis have become victims of violence in many different circumstances since the American invasion of the country in 2003. Many have been victims of sectarian violence between the Sunni and Shi‘i communities, in which Shi‘i religious institutions and occasions have been particularly targeted by Sunni militants. Few, however, could have anticipated that the Shabaniyah festival in Karbala on August 28, to mark the anniversary of the birth of the twelfth Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, would end with over 50 people killed in fighting between Shi‘i gunmen and Iraqi authorities, sparked by the heavy-handed security arrangements in the city. More than 200 people were injured, and pilgrims were ordered to leave the city hours before the scheduled climax of the celebrations.
Official sources blamed the clashes on supporters of dissident Shi‘i leader Muqtada Sadr, who denied involvement, appealed for calm and demanded an independent inquiry into the clashes. Security at the festival was in the hands of the local police force, which is considered to be linked to the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, led by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, which is regarded as a rival to the Sadr group in internal Shi‘i politics. The internal conflict between Shi‘i groups should be a corrective to those who insist on seeing Iraqi affairs in strictly sectarian terms, and particularly those who imagine some monolithic Shi‘i bloc pushing a particular agenda on the rest of the country.
The trouble in Karbala adds to the pressure on Iraqi prime minister Nouri Maliki, and highlights some of the complexities of the political situation in which he finds himself. In recent weeks, he has come under increasing pressure from the US, which initially supported his promotion to the Iraqi premiership. With the Bush administration desperately seeking scapegoats for its failure in Iraq, and facing increasing pressure in the US for a quick withdrawal of its troops, one of Bush’s strategies has been to blame the failures on Maliki, who had previously been seen as an American ally in Baghdad.
Although many outside observers, particularly those who see the Iraqi political scene in sectarian terms, tend to think of Maliki as representing the country’s majority Shi‘i community, the situation is more complicated than that. Maliki, who became prime minister in April 2006, when it became clear that Ibrahim al-Ja‘afari could not form a national unity government, is leader of the Dawa Party, regarded as a “moderate Shi‘i party”, which is long established in Iraqi oppositional politics, but has less public support than other Shi‘i parties. Having been a relatively minor figure in Iraqi opposition politics until 2003, Maliki emerged to prominence in the Dawa party after the US invasion, was elected to the transitional National Assembly in the elections organised by the US in January 2005, and played a major role in the deliberations over Iraq’s new constitution until it was approved in October 2005. He was named prime minister when the US gave up on the government of Ibrahim al-Ja‘afari, also of the Dawa Party, who had become prime minister a year earlier, but was seen by the Americans as being too close to the Sadr group, the most anti-American of Shi‘i groups, in the United Iraqi Alliance.
At the time that Maliki became prime minister, it was seen as a success for the Americans in Baghdad politics, particularly the influence of Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador to Iraq at the time. Khalilzad had lobbied among Shi‘i political leaders for Maliki’s promotion, and praised them for agreeing to his demands, saying that “It showed that Sistani doesn’t take Iranian direction. It showed that Abdul Aziz Hakim doesn’t succumb to Iranian pressure. He stood up to Iran.”
Unfortunately for Maliki, his appointment was seen by many Shi‘is as evidence that their political leaders could not stand up to Washington; hence support for dissident Shi‘i leaders such as Muqtada al-Sadr. Maliki was not helped inside Iraq when Khalilzad praised him, saying that his “reputation is as someone who is independent of Iran” and as someone “who sees himself as an Arab”. While it is true that many Shi‘is are wary of Iranian influence, and keen to maintain their distinct Arab and Iraqi identity despite their common faith with Iranians, it is also true that they are a lot less worried about Iranian interference than they are about American hegemony.
If Maliki is not, therefore, simply an agent of Shi‘i aspirations in Iraq, it would be equally simplistic to regard him as just a creature of the US. Although the neo-cons told Americans that Iraqis would be so grateful for their liberation that they would co-operate with all the US’s desires, they should have known from their experience of dealing with Iraqi opposition groups before the invasion that this would not be the case. Although the Americans have made themselves a dominant political presence that Iraqis cannot ignore, they are by no means omnipotent. Like any imperial ruler, however powerful, they need the co-operation of at least a sector of the conquered people in order to exercise their will in the country, and this co-operative elite needs to have sufficient standing among the local people to serve the US’s objects. For political reasons, as well as practical ones, the US could not simply establish another military dictatorship in Iraq. It therefore needed to find allies among Iraq’s politicians who could mediate between it and Iraq’s people. In the process it has cultivated a series of Iraqi politicians, from Ayad Allawi to Maliki, who it hoped would bridge the gap between American and Iraqi aspirations. Considering that the main priority of most Iraqis is to have the occupation forces out of their country, it is not surprising that this has proved difficult.
For Iraqi politicians, therefore, the imperative has been to keep on the right side of the Americans, their own domestic constituency (mainly the Shi‘is, as the US realised from the outset that any credible political leadership would have to come from the majority community), and the political representatives of minority communities, mainly the Sunnis and Kurds, whose cooperation is essential. Considering that all three groups have completely different priorities, it is impossible for any leader to satisfy them all, and not surprising that Maliki’s government is falling apart. At the same time, Maliki is facing marginalisation by the Americans who promoted him, as Allawi and Ja‘afari were cast aside before him.
This explains the growing criticism of Maliki by the Bush administration. Speaking on August 28, US president George W. Bush used blunter language than ever before. “Will the Maliki government respond to the demands of the people?” he asked rhetorically. “If not, the people will replace it.” Similar threats against Maliki had already been made by opposition USpoliticians, seeking to use Maliki’s perceived failure as a stick with which to beat Bush. Bush’s apparent concern for the rights of Iraq’s minorities is, of course, no more genuine than his concern for the wishes of Iraq’s people generally. Maliki’s real failure is to persuade the country and its parliament to accept the US’s key interests, particularly the permanent presence of US troops, the establishment of Iraqi forces capable of controlling the country on the US’s behalf, and --perhaps most importantly, hence the little attention paid to it in public discourse -- the passing of the Draft Hydrocarbon Law by which control of the country’s oil-reserves (believed to be second in size only to those of Saudi Arabia) would be transferred to local governments that are more amenable to American pressure, and multinational oil-companies would be guaranteed a larger share of oil-profits than ever before.
It is perhaps a sign of the emptiness of US policy that Republicans are again transferring their support to Ayad Allawi to replace Maliki. It says much about the real balance of power in Iraqi politics that a major Republican lobbying company, Barbour Griffith & Rogers (BGR), has reportedly been paid a quarter of a million dollars to persuade media outlets to discredit Maliki and promote Allawi as a viable alternative. The reality, however, is that no Iraqi leader can balance the many contradictory demands of Iraq’s politics as long as the US remains in the country, which, if Iraqis get their way, may not be much longer.