How the Lebanon Crisis Complicates U.S. Prospects in Iraq

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In spite of the escalating carnage and instability in Baghdad, the Bush Administration continues to view the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki as the best hope for achieving an acceptable outcome in Iraq. But that doesn't appear to be getting any closer:  Sectarian violence continues at a steady clip, and the Bush administration appears to have acknowledged the failure of its recent crackdown in Baghdad by announcing  that U.S. troops will be moved from outlying provinces to the bloody streets of the capital.

But if U.S. congressional leaders have learned not to expect quick fixes in Iraq, many were shocked that Maliki, in the course of a visit to Washington seeking greater assistance, publicly broke with the Administration's position on Lebanon. Maliki, addressing the media, was very clear that he blamed the crisis on "Israeli aggression," and he declined to criticize Hizballah.

Maliki's stance highlighted a major problem facing the Bush Administration's  Middle East crisis: The U.S. has viewed Israel's fight with Hizballah as an opportunity to rally Arab support against growing Iranian influence in the Middle East. But  it is not even able to rally the support of Iraq, an Arab government dependent for its security on U.S. troops.

In truth, anyone paying attention to the Middle East these days ought not to have  been surprised by Maliki's remarks. No democratically elected Arab leader is likely to criticize Hizballah while Lebanese Arabs are under Israeli attack. The prime minister's coalition, in fact, made a pre-election pledge, at the behest of radical cleric Moqtada Sadr, to refrain from recognizing Israel.

But his differences with Washington over Lebanon may be more than simply symbolic: Maliki heads a  Shi'ite coalition dominated by three radical Islamist groupings — SCIRI, his own Dawa Party and the Sadrist movement — all of which have ties to Iran. And even as they sit in the cabinet, SCIRI and the Sadrists maintain powerful militias outside of government control.  Leading elements of the new Iraqi government, in other words, share an ideological and geopolitical orientation with Hizballah.

The emergence of a Shi'ite government in Baghdad riled pro-U.S. Sunni Arab regimes such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia for just that reason, and Iraq's mounting sectarian conflict has stoked sectarian tensions elsewhere in the region. Perhaps reflecting those mounting tensions, Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak caused an uproar when he recently said, "Most of the Shi'ites are loyal to Iran, and not to the countries they are living in."

Mubarak's comment was widely condemned, and he later backed away from it. But there's no question that the dominant element of the Iraqi government sees Iran as a close friend and ally, and they're not likely to turn against Tehran at the behest of Washington. In his speech to Congress,  Maliki said many things that will have pleased the Administration about Iraq as a front in the war on terrorism. But he also mentioned the 1991 Shi'ite uprising that ended in a bloodbath at the hands of Saddam's troops: "In 1991, when Iraqis tried to capitalize on the regime's momentary weakness and rose up, we were alone again," Maliki said. "The people of Iraq will not forget your continued support as we establish a secure, liberal democracy. Let 1991 never be repeated, for history will be most unforgiving."

This was a coded message. The 1991 uprising had initially been encouraged by Washington as Saddam's troops fled Kuwait, but the U.S. — suddenly aware that Iran would be the biggest beneficiary from Saddam's ouster — then sat back and allowed the regime to massacre the Shi'ites. In Iraqi Shi'ite political folklore, 1991 is remembered as America's great betrayal. Nor have the Shi'ite parties forgotten that the only country that came to their aid was Iran. And Iraq's new government is not in any rush to fall into line with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, who they see as having done nothing to help them against Saddam.

Disagreement between Maliki and the Bush Administration over who is at fault in Lebanon may prove to be more than just a foreign policy difference among friends. To prevent Iraq from breaking apart, the U.S. needs Maliki's government to do two things: Grant a greater share of power to the Sunnis (many of whom were supporters or officials of Saddam's regime) in the hope of defusing the insurgency; and disarm and dissolve the Shi'ite militias that are daily unleashing their own terror in retribution against Sunni communities.

Some components of the Shi'ite alliance have pushed back against U.S. demands for more political concessions to the Sunnis, while the prospects for disarming the Shi'ite militias continue to recede as the sectarian slaughter spins out of control; even though the militias are an integral part of the cycle of sectarian violence, many Shi'ite communities tend to see them as their only defense against Sunni terror. Maliki on Wednesday again vowed to dismantle them, but serious doubts persist over whether he can muster the political will or ability to make good on that promise.

If the Bush Administration hopes to encourage a realignment of Middle East politics along a dividing line between Iran's friends and its enemies, the already dim prospects for the U.S. stabilizing and securing Iraq may further diminish. The new government in Iraq may be democratic and representative, but it is hardly an enemy of Iran.