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Rice visits Baghdad to oust prime minister
U.S. calls the shots in the "new" Iraq

By Lee Sustar | April 7, 2006 | Page 12

SO MUCH for the "progress of democracy" in Iraq. At the beginning of April, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw traveled to Iraq to strong-arm Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari into stepping aside--in favor of a U.S.-backed candidate and a Washington-approved "national unity government."

The visit came a week after U.S. forces and their Iraqi sidekicks raided a Shiite Muslim mosque controlled by followers of Moktada al-Sadr, whose support for Jaafari gave him the edge to remain as prime minister in the incoming government.

The U.S. attack--which reportedly killed dozens of civilians--will only increase the sectarian tensions that have led to an estimated 2,000 killings in Iraq since the Shiite golden mosque in Samarra was blown up last month.

Little more than a year ago, U.S. politicians were eager to promote the symbol of fingers colored purple with ink--the method used to identify Iraqis who voted in an election for a national assembly.

But the two elections since then--a constitutional referendum and a parliamentary election--didn't give the U.S. the result it wanted, and Iraq is on the brink of a civil war based on ethnic and religious sectarian rivalries. Instead of a U.S. stooge like former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi in charge, as Washington had hoped, a coalition of Shiite Muslim parties more or less aligned with Iran is dominant.

Now comes the latest scheme: confront Sadr militarily to make the price of his inclusion in the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance too high for Ayatollah al-Sistani--and split Jaafari's al-Dawa party from its main coalition partner, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).

While both SCIRI and Dawa are longstanding allies with Iran, SCIRI is seen by Washington as somewhat more acceptable. Jaafari, in the U.S. view, has become unreliable--not only because of his deal with Sadr, but because of a recent trip to Turkey, which enraged Washington's Iraqi Kurdish allies wary of Turkey's historic role in repressing Kurdish nationalism.

Thus, squeezing Jaafari and striking out at Sadr are part of an effort to cut a deal with SCIRI. If SCIRI cedes control of the Interior Ministry, the U.S. will tolerate Adel Abdul Mahdi--a former Maoist turned Islamist and, more recently, neoliberal economist serving the interests of Western multinationals--as prime minister.

Other candidates for prime minister acceptable to the U.S. include Hussein Shahristani, a high-profile Shiite academic without much of a political base--much like Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a front man for Washington's shifting alliances with various warlords who hold the real power.

U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad set up the Afghan system, and he has a similar plan for Iraq--devising a mechanism to balance competing factions while the U.S. stabilizes the occupation's power.

The other element in Washington's "national unity" plan for Iraq is a restored role for Allawi, a longtime CIA asset, as either Interior or Defense Minister, plus the inclusion of some compliant Sunni politicians.

Rice all but spelled this out during a press conference in Baghdad: "I want to emphasize that you have to have a government of national unity, so that a minister of defense and minister of the interior can be appointed whose responsibility is to provide security in conjunction with the multinational forces here, and then to produce conditions under which...these militias, of course, can be disbanded."

Sadr, by contrast, is opposed to the weak federal Iraq envisioned by the U.S., which would grant de facto independence to Iraqi Kurds in the North and a Shiite-dominated South, centered on Basra.

With a base in the vast Shiite slum in Baghdad, Sadr has positioned himself as a nationalist. He claims to have ties to sections of the Sunni insurgency--his forces fought U.S. troops twice in 2004--and has built relationships in Lebanon and elsewhere in the region.

But to undercut Sadr and Jaafari, Khalilzad met with top Iranian officials to secure their cooperation on Iraq--even as Washington pressures Iran over its nuclear program.

Even if the U.S. succeeds in cobbling together a national unity government, there's little likelihood of isolating the Sunni insurgency. Nor can Washington's power play resolve the underlying conflicts--Kurdish separatism, including a bid for Kirkuk, which is at loggerheads with the would-be secular nationalism of Allawi.

Plus, by attacking Sadr, the U.S. risks consolidating Shiite political forces around him if the U.S. is perceived to be tilting too far toward the Sunnis.

The U.S. is trying to buy time to reorganize its military presence with a new focus on small-scale counterinsurgency warfare--death-squad tactics carried out by U.S. special forces and Iraqi puppets--backed by an escalation in the air war. The U.S. established the model for this in Iraq months ago, using Iraqi commandos as part of the so-called "Salvador option"--death squads like those used by El Salvador's U.S.-backed government during that country's civil war in the 1980s.

An Iraqi Interior Ministry run by Allawi would still run death squads--only the target list would be drawn up by the U.S. occupation forces.

Essentially, the U.S. is carrying out what it accuses Iraqi sectarian forces of doing--killing more people in the streets to improve its bargaining power at the negotiating table. The U.S. plan for a "national unity" government in Iraq won't prevent a civil war. It is stoking the conflicts that are pulling Iraqi society apart.

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