Monday, April 13, 2009

Maliki's crackdown on Awakenings: a hint of larger ambitions?

Yesterday, Foreign Policy's Marc Lynch discussed the recent tension and violence between members of the Awakening Councils (as many as 100,000 former insurgents who cooperated with the U.S. in 2007-2008 against al-Qaeda) and the Iraqi government. Led by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, the Iraqi government has cracked down on a number of Awakening leaders in the past few weeks, arresting some on charges of planting roadside bombs, extortion, robbery and links to al-Qaeda. Many Awakening members contend that they are being targeted because of a sectarian agenda in the Iraqi government (most Awakenings are Sunni, while Maliki's government remains Shiite-dominated). Members also fear "betrayal" by U.S. forces, who had been paying them but recently turned over management of the Awakenings to the Iraqi government, which has failed to pay or find promised jobs for many Members. In response to the arrests and perceived betrayal of the Iraqi government and U.S., some Awakening members are reportedly responsible for or linked to the recent spate of bombings in Iraq. If this tension continues, Iraq could see a return to higher levels of violence and insurgency.

As Lynch writes, some believe that,

"narrow, sectarian perspectives in Baghdad are winning out over the Iraqi national interest with potentially devastating consequences... Most Arab writers (for example, the Kuwaiti Shamlan Issa in al-Ittihad yesterday) point the finger at the continuing lack of progress on political accomodation and national unity -- which for them, generally means the accommodation of Sunni interests and the integration of the Awakenings. The "resistance camp" paper al-Quds al-Arabi has been covering the "coup against the Awakenings" as closely as have the Saudi-owned media (though with a bit more schadenfreude). Many of them are reading the crackdown on the Awakenings through as unmasking the 'true Shia sectarianism' of Maliki's government -- reinforcing their pre-existing, deep skepticism about the new Iraq...

I've been warning about the potential for trouble with the Awakenings project for a long time, and it would be easy to say that those predictions are now coming due. But I think it's way too early for that -- there is still time for these troubles to demonstrate the costs of political failure and to become the spur to the needed political action.

That's why it's really important that the United States not now begin to hedge on its commitment to the drawdown of its forces in the face of this uptick in violence. It is in moments like this that the credibility of commitments is made or broken. Thus far, the signals have been very good -- consistent, clear, and tightly linked to continuing pressure on political progress. President Obama reportedly pushed hard on the political accommodation front during his stopover in Baghdad last week, and General Odierno did very well to emphasize on CNN yesterday that the U.S. is firmly committed to removing its troops by the end of 2011. Maliki and everyone need to take a deep breath and strike power sharing deals before things go south, and understand that they will pay consequences if they don't."

I agree that things are still far from beyond repair, but I'm less sanguine than Lynch appears to be about Maliki's intentions. In the back of my mind, in the part focused on Middle East politics, I can't help but suspect the centralizing actions of Maliki over the last few years might point to a deeper ambition for power. For example, cracking down on militias and establishing two security forces (the Baghdad Brigade and the Counterterrorism Task Force) reporting directly to the prime minister have perhaps improved security, but they have also strengthened significantly Maliki's position. Improving security remains a priority concern for Iraqis (according to a Pentagon report, security is now the number 2 concern for Iraqis, having been passed in January, 2009 by the need for improved basic services), but security enforced by a strong central state is a double-edged sword. In the Middle East and North Africa, there are too many authoritarian leaders adept at ruling through the various tools of co-option and coercion. As Lynch says, "Maliki's government sees very clearly how fragmented, mutually mistrustful and competitive the Awakenings are." I think that can fairly be extended to the political parties and sectarian groups in Iraq.

With a divided political scene and civil society, it's all too possible for Maliki to play one group off the other and emerge as the final arbiter of political bargaining, granting patronage to some and punishing others who challenge him. This possibility is still only a possibility and Maliki has a ways to go before he has that kind of power, but after looking at Morocco, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Tunisia, Syria, etc., it would be a good idea, I think, for people to pay more attention to Iraq's possible return to authoritarianism (albeit likely a kinder version with the cosmetic trappings of democracy). Maliki is not yet "one of the guys" in the club of rulers in the region (a large reason why is that Maliki is Shia and nearly all of the Arab leaders are Sunni and suspect Maliki of a sectarian agenda), but he seems to be trying.

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