Laying the Groundwork for a "Cabinet Reshuffle" in Iraq

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U.S. President George W. Bush (R) meets with Iraqi Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, December 12, 2006.

Regardless of whether President Bush is more inclined to heed the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group or to listen to its skeptics, Iraqi politicians clearly sense that change is coming. And their frenzied jockeying for position suggests that power in Baghdad may soon once again be up for grabs — and the smart politicians are hedging their bets. The President's White House meeting with Sunni leader Tariq al-Hashemi on Tuesday will certainly add fuel to the speculation. Al-Hashemi, one of Iraq's two Vice Presidents, leads the Iraqi Islamic Party, the largest Sunni group in parliament. The White House was part of an ongoing effort to support the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. But al-Hashemi has been a sharp critic of al-Maliki's government. His visit follows one last week from another sometime Maliki rival, the Shi'ite leader Abdulaziz al-Hakim, and has fueled speculation that Washington may be hedging its bets on Iraqi political leaders. Speculation will be intensified by the announcement that the speech in which Bush will outline his new thinking on Iraq, originally scheduled to be delivered before Christmas, will now be delayed until sometime in January.

It would certainly come as no surprise if, between now and that time, Iraq experienced its own traumatic version of what is known in the U.S. as a cabinet reshuffle. Despite being dubbed by Bush "the right guy for Iraq" after their meeting in Jordan two weeks ago, al-Maliki is plainly not delivering the progress Washington demands; there are doubts among Bush's top advisers over whether Maliki can disband the Shi'ite militias, rehabilitate former Baathists, indemnify insurgents and make other related concessions to give Sunnis a greater stake in power. A memo by National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley, reported by the New York Times two weeks ago, suggested that Maliki remains beholden to the radical Shi'ite leader Moqtada Sadr, whose Mahdi Army remains the largest of the militias and is involved in much of the sectarian killing of Sunnis. Hadley recommended trying to separate Maliki from the Shi'ite bloc and isolate Sadr, by building a rival coalition in parliament that could allow him to govern without Sadr's backing.

Enter Abdulaziz al-Hakim, leader of the Iran-backed Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the largest of the Shi'ite parties, whose own Badr Corps militia is also allegedly involved in sectarian killings. The turbaned cleric and Iran ally may seem an unlikely partner for President Bush, but his White House visit last week at Bush's invitation signaled that the U.S. may see him as a key element of a change in political tactics. Hakim is locked in a fierce and potentially deadly rivalry with Moqtada Sadr (their militias have been known to exchange fire), and his closeness to the regime in Tehran did not prevent him from serving on the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, before two democratic elections cemented his place at the head of the largest single party in Iraq.

Skeptics of the Baker-Hamilton recommendation that the U.S. talk to Iran ask why anyone thinks Tehran would be inclined to help Washington, and the same question could just as easily be asked of Hakim. But the real question to ask is how that cooperation might help further his own ambitions.

Right now, Hakim plays the lesser role in the Shi'ite coalition in which the Maliki-Sadr alliance holds sway. But Maliki's paralysis and the U.S. desire to isolate Sadr presents Hakim with an opportunity: he has the parliamentary muscle, potentially, to help install a new governing coalition. And a reported flurry of meetings in Baghdad between representatives of SCIRI with Sunni and Kurdish parties, as well as Hashemi's White House visit, suggest a political shift may indeed be under way. But if Hakim has no use for Sadr, he has no use for Maliki either — it was only Sadr's backing that gave Maliki the prime minister's job at the expense of Hakim's own candidate, current vice president Adel Abdul-Mahdi. If the object is to be rid of Sadr, then there may be no need to retain Maliki.

So what will happen next? The Prime Minister is expected to fiercely oppose whatever shift Bush's two most recent Iraqi visitors are cooking up, and so, obviously, will Sadr — and they will both work hard to get the leading Shi'ite religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, to remind Hakim that Shi'ite unity is sacrosanct. Sadr could also be tempted to prevent such a power grab by launching a new confrontation with U.S. forces, in the hope that the heavy hand of a U.S. military crackdown in Shi'ite communities would undermine those, like Hakim, who may be ready to cooperate with the U.S. for their own reasons.

But even if the attempt to create a new ruling coalition with or without Maliki did succeed, it may amount to little more than a reassigning of roles among a cast of players who have — by the sum total of their own sectarian and ethnic political instincts — created Iraq's catastrophic political paralysis. Instead, the moves are more likely to reinforce an unprecedented air of political instability hanging over the Green Zone. In that respect, the more the U.S. tries to find a "way forward" in Iraq, the more it will be taking a step back.