April 11, 2007

LINE DRAWING:

Iraq in the Balance: In Washington, panic. In Baghdad, cautious optimism (FOUAD AJAMI, April 11, 2007, Opinion Journal)

A traveler who moves between Baghdad and Washington is struck by the gloomy despair in Washington and the cautious sense of optimism in Baghdad. Baghdad has not been prettified; its streets remain a sore to the eye, its government still hunkered down in the Green Zone, and violence is never far. But the sense of deliverance, and the hopes invested in this new security plan, are palpable. I crisscrossed the city--always with armed protection--making my way to Sunni and Shia politicians and clerics alike. The Sunni and Shia versions of political things--of reality itself--remain at odds. But there can be discerned, through the acrimony, the emergence of a fragile consensus.

Some months back, the Bush administration had called into question both the intentions and capabilities of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. But this modest and earnest man, born in 1950, a child of the Shia mainstream in the Middle Euphrates, has come into his own. He had not been a figure of the American regency in Baghdad. Steeped entirely in the Arabic language and culture, he had a been a stranger to the Americans; fate cast him on the scene when the Americans pushed aside Mr. Maliki's colleague in the Daawa Party, Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari.

There had been rumors that the Americans could strike again in their search for a leader who would give the American presence better cover. There had been steady talk that the old CIA standby, former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, could make his way back to power. Mr. Allawi himself had fed these speculations, but this is fantasy. Mr. Allawi circles Arab capitals and is rarely at home in his country. Mr. Maliki meanwhile has settled into his role.

In retrospect, the defining moment for Mr. Maliki had been those early hours of Dec. 30, when Saddam Hussein was sent to the gallows. He had not flinched, the decision was his, and he assumed it. Beyond the sound and fury of the controversy that greeted the execution, Mr. Maliki had taken the execution as a warrant for a new accommodation with the Sunni political class. A lifelong opponent of the Baath, he had come to the judgment that the back of the apparatus of the old regime had been broken, and that the time had come for an olive branch to those ready to accept the new political rules. [...]

In the long scheme of history, the Shia Arabs had never governed--and Mr. Maliki and the coalition arrayed around him know their isolation in the region. This Iraqi state of which they had become the principal inheritors will have to make its way in a hostile regional landscape. Set aside Turkey's Islamist government, with its avowedly Sunni mindset and its sense of itself as a claimant to an older Ottoman tradition; the Arab order of power is yet to make room for this Iraqi state. Mr. Maliki's first trip beyond Iraq's borders had been to Saudi Arabia. He had meant that visit as a message that Iraq's "Arab identity" will trump all other orientations. It had been a message that the Arab world's Shia stepchildren were ready to come into the fold. But a huge historical contest had erupted in Baghdad, the seat of the Abbasid caliphate had fallen to new Shia inheritors, and the custodians of Arab power were not yet ready for this new history.

For one, the "Sunni street"--the Islamists, the pan-Arabists who hid their anti-Shia animus underneath a secular cover, the intellectual class that had been invested in the ideology of the Baath party--remained unalterably opposed to this new Iraq. The Shia could offer the Arab rulers the promise that their new state would refrain from regional adventures, but it would not be easy for these rulers to come to this accommodation.

A worldly Shia cleric, the legislator Humam Hamoudi who had headed the constitutional drafting committee, told me that he had laid out to interlocutors from the House of Saud the case that this new Iraqi state would be a better neighbor than the Sunni-based state of Saddam Hussein had been. "We would not be given to military adventures beyond our borders, what wealth we have at our disposal would have to go to repairing our homeland, for you we would be easier to fend off for we are Shiites and would be cognizant and respectful of the differences between us," Mr. Hamoudi had said. "You had a fellow Sunni in Baghdad for more than three decades, and look what terrible harvest, what wreckage, he left behind." This sort of appeal is yet to be heard, for this change in Baghdad is a break with a long millennium of Sunni Arab primacy.

The blunt truth of this new phase in the fight for Iraq is that the Sunnis have lost the battle for Baghdad. The great flight from Baghdad to Jordan, to Syria, to other Arab destinations, has been the flight of Baghdad's Sunni middle-class. It is they who had the means of escape, and the savings.

Whole mixed districts in the city--Rasafa, Karkh--have been emptied of their Sunni populations. Even the old Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiyyah is embattled and besieged. What remains for the Sunnis are the western outskirts. This was the tragic logic of the campaign of terror waged by the Baathists and the jihadists against the Shia; this was what played out in the terrible year that followed the attack on the Askariya shrine of Samarra in February 2006. Possessed of an old notion of their own dominion, and of Shia passivity and quiescence, the Sunni Arabs waged a war they were destined to lose.

No one knows with any precision the sectarian composition of today's Baghdad, but there are estimates that the Sunnis may now account for 15% of the city's population. Behind closed doors, Sunni leaders speak of the great calamity that befell their community.


And if that 15% can't accept the political rules they'll have to go too.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 11, 2007 2:30 PM
Comments

One way or another. Their choice.

Posted by: ghostcat at April 11, 2007 8:24 PM

Vae victis !

Posted by: Peter at April 12, 2007 2:47 PM
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