Friday, December 1, 2006

The Bush-Maliki Summit and the New Middle East Cold War

By Juan Cole

"Al-Hayat writing in Arabic sums up the results of the Bush-Maliki Summit:

1. The US and its Arab allies rejected the notion of making any concessions to Iran in return for Tehran's help in calming the situation in Iraq.

2. The al-Maliki government would be given "another chance" to crack down on Shiite militias such as the Mahdi Army and would be given greater freedom of movement in confronting them militarily.

In other words, Bush is trying to set al-Maliki up for a confrontation with the Sadr Movement and is trying to keep the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad from too openly embracing Iran. (That cow is already out of the barn, of course).

Al-Hayat sees the influence of Arab allies of the US on Bush's policy as decisive. It says that informed sources in Amman report that the Arab diplomats warned Bush against giving Iran nuclear privileges and against giving Syria "Lebanese" privileges, in return for their help in Iraq. These Arab countries likely include Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait and Egypt. That is, there is a new Middle Eastern Cold War between the pro-Western Arab states (Riyadh-Amman-Cairo-Kuwait City) and the Tehran-Damascus axis. The pro-Western Arabs fear the Iranian nuclear program, and they generally support Saad Hariri, Fouad Seniora, and the 14 March Movement in Lebanon against Hizbullah, which is backed by Syria and Iran.

This Middle Eastern Cold War is pushing Washington, allied with the Arab conservatives, into a contradictory stance in Iraq, having installed a Shiite, pro-Iranian government there but remaining unable to work with this new reality on a geopolitical level. The Middle Eastern Cold War pitting the Saudis and Egyptians against the Iranians and Syrians is reinforced by Washington's other major ally in the region, Israel, which also wants to contain or roll back Syria and Iran. As is often the case, despite their rhetoric of seeming enmity, the pro-Western Arab regimes and the Israelis have not so dissimilar geopolitical aims in the region, with the disposition of the Palestine Authority really the only major dispute between them. Iraq is caught in the middle of this new Cold War and seems likely to be the major victim of it.

If Bush gets his way, we could see substantial Shiite on Shiite violence in the coming months, of which it is likely the Sunni Arab guerrilla movement will take advantage.

The Sadr Movement representatives in parliament and on the Iraqi cabinet announced that the setting of a timetable for US military withdrawal from Iraq is the minimum condition for their return to al-Maliki's coalition. They also said that they would work toward the creation of a parliamentary front that would demand a US withdrawal. Over 100 out of 275 members of parliament have already voted for the US to set a timetable and leave, but rather than let the whole parliament vote a resolution, the al-Maliki government sent the issue to committee, from which it may never emerge or not for months."

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