Many of its leaders, including prime ministers Ibrahim al-Jaafari and Maliki, were close to Iran, while Hakim had spent his long exile during the Saddam Hussein years in Tehran. By refusing to join the UIA, Maliki is sending a strong message to the Iraqi people, saying that more than ever, since coming to power in 2006, he is now standing as an Iraqi statesman – not linked to any regional power. He is effectively taking a step away from the Iranians, and by doing so, polishing his image in the eyes of Sunni voters.
According to the Iraqi daily al-Zaman, Maliki is bracing himself for a new coalition that will include the Sadrists and the Iraqi Dialogue Front of Saleh al-Mutlak, which is a non-sectarian Sunni group that was formed for the elections of 2005. He is also toying with the idea of bringing independent Kurds into his new coalition, which are affiliated neither with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which is headed by President Jalal Talabani, or the Kurdistan Democratic Party, headed by Masoud Barazani.
This is another one of those things that the American media, wallowing in its pseudo-morality over the torture issue and Barack Obama’s volte-face over the role of the military, is missing: who’s going to be the power holder in Iraq after the drawdown?
From a practical standpoint, the most significant divide in Middle East politics isn’t the Arab-Israeli conflict, although it induces the most shame in (and thus the most irrational response from) the Arabs. The most significant is across the Gulf, which is either Persian or Arabian depending upon which side of it you’re on. On the one side are the Shi’ite Iranians and their allies in Hezbollah and Hamas. On the other are the Sunni Arabs, lead by Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The ultimate prize is Saudi Arabia itself, with its oil and Islamic holy sites. In this light Israel is a complicating factor–an important one, no doubt, but a complicating factor.
That makes Iraq an important place, because it’s literally the centre of the Middle East. Whoever controls Iraq can reach out to everything else. It’s been that way since Belshazzar was weighed and found wanting in the balance, and even before that.
al-Maliki is evidently working for an independent Iraq which would have a modicum of independence from either side, and thus have leverage with both. That’s why he’s reaching for the Americans’ bête noire, al-Sadr: fundamentalist he may be, but he’s always wanted an Iraq independent from Iran. That too is a goal of both the Sunni power holders and the Kurds as well.
Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Shi’ite country though it was, was a true buffer between the Arabs and the Iranians, and had Hussein not been stupid enough to invade Kuwait he still would be just that. Whether a pluralistic coalition such as Shi’ite al-Maliki is trying to put together can make that happen again remains to be seen. It’s a situation that needs your prayers; I’m sure that al-Maliki and even al-Sadr would agree!