Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Will Bush Rehabilitate the Baathists?

By Juan Cole

"Al-Zaman [in Arabic] is under the impression that Bush's talks with al-Maliki in Amman will aim in part at politically rehabilitating members of the Baath Party. The "Debaathification Commission" of Ahmad Chalabi (who anyway lives in London) will be abolished, it says. Discussions will be held with the neo-Baathist leadership (grouped politically as the al-`Awdah or Return Party) of the armed resistance. The resistance cells will be offered amnesty if they come in from the cold. Their enemies, the Mahdi Army and the Badr Corps, among the Shiites will be dissolved. And Sheikh Harith al-Dhari, in Amman, will be deployed to make these contacts and concessions, along with reaching out presumably to the Salafi Sunni revivalists, as well.

I am paraphasing the article even though I don't think it sounds plausible. Al-Dhari, a wanted man, is calling on the Arab League to turn against the al-Maliki government. Though Jordanian King Abdullah II is said by al-Hayat to be conducting a furious round of meetings with expatriate Iraqis in Jordan, including al-Dhari, in preparation for Bush's summit on Wednesday. [Link below in Arabic].

And Nuri al-Maliki, head of the al-Da`wa al-Islamiyah Party (Islamic Call [Shiite]) will make all those concessions to the Baathists over his own dead body. (Remember he is already being stoned when he goes to Sadr City; what do you think the Shiite masses will do to him if he kisses and makes up with the remnants of the Baath officer corps?)

On the other hand, I have long argued that the neo-Baathist and Baathist-cum-Salafi guerrilla movements are the central political actors in Sunni Iraq, and something like the process described by al-Zaman will have sooner or later to be attempted.

This political negotiation with the Sunni Arab guerrillas would be one point of involving Syria, since elements of the Syrian Baath might still have credibility with the `Awdah Party, which is reportedly strong along the Syrian border.

Likewise, President Jalal Talabani's discussions in Tehran may be aimed at convincing them to help convince the Shiite militias to lay down their arms. Since the major Shiite militia is the Sadr Movement's Mahdi Army, though, and since a lot of Sadrists don't like or trust Iran, I'm not sure that is going to work. And, Time magazine is reporting that VP Richard Bruce Cheney and NSC adviser Stephen Hadley oppose greater Iranian involvement, according to al-Hayat (I'm traveling and don't have time to look up the English.)

This process sounds so muddled because Washington is flailing around without the slightest idea of what could be done, practically speaking, in Iraq, according to Time: "Several officials who are in touch with commission members said that with violence appearing to spiral out of control in Iraq, the group has been flummoxed about finding a solution. "There's complete bewilderment as to what to do," one official said. "They're very frustrated. They can't come up with anything. For the last couple months, they've been thrashing around, calling people, trying to find ideas."

The real reason for the muddle is, as I said yesterday, that the Bush administration has not defined a realistic and achievable set of military goals in Iraq. Its original political goal of establishing a unified Iraq with a pro-US government that would let oil contracts on a favorable basis for Houston, would ally with Israel, and would form a springboard for further US pressure on Iran and Syria, is completely unrealistic. Cheney's inability to let go of those objectives is the biggest problem we have in Iraq. Move on."

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