Patrick Cockburn: Washington should accept Iraq as a Shia state

Trying to prevent this outcome only serves to destabilise the country further
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The Independent Online

It has now been four-and-a-half months since the parliamentary election on 15 December, when the Shia religious parties won almost half the seats. It has taken this length of time for Mr Maliki to replace Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the interim prime minister, who held his office for almost a year. Iraqis are wondering why the crisis could not have been resolved earlier, since the two men are politically identical leaders of the Dawa party.

In speaking of anything to do with the Iraqi government it is worth restating the limitations on its authority. "It is the government of the Green Zone only," a senior official told me in exasperation. "I swear to you there are some ministers who have never seen their own ministries, but just call their director-generals to bring documents to the zone so they can sign."

Nevertheless, the dispute over who should be the next Iraqi prime minister does reveal the state of the different parties and countries now struggling to control the country. The political battle showed that the US is still not comfortable with the idea of Iraq being ruled by the Shia community, though they are the majority of the population. Fear of Shia rule was one reason why Washington did not overthrow Saddam Hussein in 1991.

The Shia leaders see US demands for the formation of a "national unity government" as being a polite way of trying to dilute the Shia victory at the polls in December. Washington is clearly worried at the growth of Iranian influence and of the growing power of Muqtada al-Sadr, the nationalist cleric whose Mehdi Army militia fought the US military twice in 2004.

There were plenty of reasons for getting rid of Mr al-Jaafari. He was a notably ineffective prime minister. But the criticism of Mr Jaafari by President Jalal Talabani, the Kurdish leader supported by the US and UK, was interpreted by the Shia political leaders as an underhand attempt to roll back their takeover of the Iraqi state. In this they were largely correct. The crisis has gone on so long because the Shia coalition, the most powerful political force in Iraq, wanted to show that it could not be forced to give up its candidate. It also suspected that the US and Britain were hoping to split the Shias by rejecting their choice of prime minister.

The US and Britain now seem bereft of ideas about what to do next. Once again they vainly sought to promote their favourite Iraqi politician, Iyad Allawi, despite his dismal performance in government and at the polls. He may now have suffered his final political defeat, from which even his foreign friends will be unable to resuscitate him.

Over the last year a Shia-Kurdish alliance has formed the Iraqi government, with a few token Sunni politicians brought on board for the sake of appearances. Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador, has sought to boost Sunni political fortunes in the hope that this will drain support from the Sunni insurgency. There is no sign of this happening. Several Sunni politicians who claim to be linked to the armed resistance have been unable to prevent their own relatives being kidnapped and murdered in recent weeks.

The Kurds contemplated breaking their alliance with the Shia religious parties. They were angered by Mr Jaafari's refusal to consult with them or to implement agreements on Kirkuk which the Kurds hope to make a permanent part of their own region. But after a lengthy internal debate they decided that they had no alternative but the Shia religious parties.

"For the Kurds it would be suicidal to side with the Sunni and Iyad Allawi because you would alienate [the Shia] 60 per cent of the population," said a Kurdish government official.

The US and Britain are unlikely to find the next government, which will serve for four years, much better than the present one. Mr Maliki will probably behave much like Mr Jaafari. The Shia parties are not going to give up their grip on the Interior Ministry, which commands more armed men than the Defence Ministry. At best they will name a new minister who will continue to strengthen Shia control of the security forces. The Shia militias are growing in strength because of Shia fear of Sunni attacks since the destruction of the al-Askari mosque in Samarra.

Washington should accept that Iraq, even in the form of a loose confederation, is going to be the first Arab Shia state since the fall of the Fatimids in Egypt in the twelfth century. Trying to prevent this outcome only serves to destabilise the country further.

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