Eric Martin over at American Footprints has a good piece on recent goings on in Iraq and the broader question of Maliki and his view of power.
It has been asserted by some of the brighter lights in the progressive foreign policy firmament that, due to this dynamic [ed: unconditional troop presence], the US must begin to remove forces (and threaten, credibly, a complete withdrawal) in order to focus the mind of Iraq’s leadership on addressing grievances of minority groups that it could previously afford to ignore – by virute of the presence of those US forces. However, Reidar Visser argues that The Surge may have rendered even this bit of hoped-for leverage impotent. Maliki might not view the threat of withdrawal with the same sense of urgency that he would have at some point in the past…
Indeed I think Visser is quite accurate. To answer David Petraeus’ question way back when “How does this end?” only one of three ways:
1. A new dictator/strongman (call that The Maliki Option)
2. The Lebanonization of Iraq.
3. Federalization/Full Partition of the Country (The Yugoslavization of Iraq)
#3 is already partially the case with the Kurdistan as a separate country de facto (not de jure at this point).
So any discussion of the future of Iraq is always already a discussion of the non-Kurdish parts of Iraq. i.e. Even if Maliki becomes dictator it’s only of the non-Kurdish parts of Iraq.
Martin (via Visser) is discussing the possibility of number 1. [Martin quoting Visser discusses some potential manuevers to stop this reality none of which I think would work–but give them a look you might find them possibly effective].
#2 involves the US leaving and the civil war re-ignitng but this time–unlike in #3 or the First Iraqi Civil War from 2004 to 2006–there are cross-ethnic/cross-sectarian alliances a la the Lebanese Civil War. The Mahdi Army folks could hook up potentially against with the Sunni Tribesmen in an alliance of convenience against the Iraqi Army/Badrists. Or the Kurds could be fighting Sunnis one day (on the Kirkuk side) while fighting the Shia government the next (potential flashpoints on the more eastern flank of the country). Alliances woud shift, be temporary, and it would be hard to figure who is fighting who, good guys and bad guys and all the rest. The net result of which would be a hollowed out state and the proliferation of militias (a la Hezbollah) that become de facto states-within-states with a weak central government, though the country still formally holds together, and is played by the neighboring powers (Iran as Syria in this analogy and the Saudis as well the Saudis in this analogy) in their quest for regional dominance.
Number three would be more like what we saw in the first phase of the Iraqi Civil War prior to the Surge. Ethinc cleansing of the Sunni from Baghdad, refugees, and the Shia controllling the country.
But I see no way that the proposals of holding the country together as a democratic state make any sense in this regard. There is no way these populations can be held together under the current circumstances under democratic rule. Maliki could become a strongman who allows a more open economic situation–if he can get a handle on the violence–bring in foreign investment etc and try to make Iraq a kind of Malaysia/Singapore of the Middle East.
My general sense is that #2 and/or #3 is more likely. But Maliki got more time with how the Surge has gone than I thought he would. But the Tribesmen at the end of the day want a Sunni government and it ain’t gonna happen. Maliki, Sistani, the Iranians their entire plan is based on one aim and one aim only–to keep the Shia in power. No pressure from the US is going to change those aims. Those aims are in direct conflict. Not to mention Sadr and his aims (which are of a different sort still).
At the end of the day, I just don’t see a way in which Maliki’s future is tied to a deal with the Sunni. Now that the Tribesmen are armed, seems to me he will have to defeat them before any such peace could be gained.
Is the democratic process going to continue after the US leaves? Interestingly the only one who seems to be putting his chips in that pot is Sadr. He could run a nationalist, pro-democratic, Hezbollah-like campaign in the event of a Lebanon-like reality in Iraq.