May 2, 2006


Calm at the Center of the Storm (BARTLE BREESE BULL, 5/02/06, NY Times)

Hilla, Iraq--HERE in the hometown of Iraq's prime minister-designate, Nuri al-Maliki, people are understandably excited. And not just because a local boy has done well. Rather, they hope Mr. Maliki's ascension is a sign that Iraq as a whole may emulate their province's remarkable success in combating Iraq's two main security threats: Sunni Arab terrorism and the infiltration of Shiite militias into the state security forces.

Hilla is the capital of Babil Province, 900 square miles just south of Baghdad that could well turn out to be the country's crucial province. Babil's population of 1.6 million, like that of Arab Iraq in general, is mostly Shiite with a Sunni minority. The province borders not only the capital but also the Sunni heartland, Anbar Province, to the west and the Shiite holy places Najaf and Karbala to the south. In the east, Babil's neighboring provinces stretch to Iran and feel its influence heavily.

Babil's date palm plantations, flat alluvial landscape and almost infinitely divided lattice of irrigation canals give the place a timeless and emblematic feeling. It was home to Babylon — and the Tower of Babel. Thus it was here that Iraq gave the world the "confusion of languages": what should be the blessing of diversity, now cast as the curse of identity politics.

If everything goes to pieces in Iraq, we will not hear much more about Babil. In that case it will be Anbar, Basra, Kirkuk, Sadr City and the Green Zone in Baghdad that will symbolize pessimism and disaster. But if things go well, or at least better — if Iraq still exists five years from now, and continues to be more free than all of its neighbors except Turkey and less of a threat to them than it used to be — then Babil will have been a major reason for the success. [...]

Can the new government prevent this success story at the heart of Arab Iraq from becoming yet another stronghold of theocrats, thugs and meddling neighbors? Handicapping Iraqi politics is a fool's game, of course, but if anyone can, it might well be Mr. Maliki. While he spent some years of his exile in Iran, he was the leader of the pro-Arab, rather than the pro-Iranian, wing of his party, Dawa. He has a strongly Shiite identity, yet his acceptance in his new post by Kurdish and Sunni politicians has been on surprisingly warm terms.

Undoubtedly, Mr. Maliki is less of an Iranian stooge and a far more forceful character than his predecessor, Ibrahim al-Jaafari. He also has solid anti-insurgent credentials. As chairman of the Parliament's national security committee, he was the architect of the popular new law that, among other things, attacks the economic basis of domestic insurgent support by going after the property and wealth of those convicted of abetting terrorists.

The key for the incoming government will be to apply this law vigorously in the knowledge that nonsectarian and nonpartisan control of local security forces is the key to domestic order and, ultimately, reconstruction.

Babil shows that such a thing is possible.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 2, 2006 8:54 AM

RICO law finds a new home. Late, but not too late. Good luck Mr. Maliki, you sound like a man who means business.

Posted by: Genecis at May 2, 2006 12:24 PM

RICO law finds a new home. Late, but not too late. Good luck Mr. Maliki, you sound like a man who means business.

Posted by: Genecis at May 2, 2006 12:26 PM