Iraq: The New Regional Broker?

by editor | 21st December 2011 8:52 am

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A member of the Iraqi Army waves an Iraqi flag after a ceremony signing over Camp Adder, the last United States base in the country, to the Iraqi Air Force near Nasiriyah 16 December 2011. (Photo: REUTERS – Lucas Jackson)

By: Elie Chalhoub

The dramatic fallout between Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki and his VP Tariq al-Hashemi in the wake of US withdrawal from the country is part of a larger regional power struggle over Iraq’s emerging role in the Syrian crisis, US-Iran relations, and vis a vis the Gulf monarchies.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s announcement following his return Thursday from Washington that his efforts to end the Syrian crisis received a green light from US President Barack Obama was not received well in Doha or Riyadh.
The Iraqi initiative and the proposed Russian UN resolution to resolve the Syrian crisis are being interpreted by Saudi Arabia and Qatar as an attempt to forcibly remove the Syria file from their hands.
Arab diplomatic sources said Qatar and Saudi Arabia feared “a US and European retreat after the US withdrawal from Iraq will have a negative effect on them, especially since the axis backed by Iran has grown stronger.”
Iraqi sources close to Damascus say the Saudis and Qataris tried hard to secure some gains before the US withdrawal, but failed. Then they tried to impede this withdrawal, and again, they failed. It seems they have now opted for an alternative plan of shuffling the region’s cards, and to try undermine Iraq from within.
In reference to the December 17 Doha meeting on Syria, which issued a statement threatening to take matters concerning Syria to the Security Council, the sources said Saudi Arabia and Qatar will not accept an Iraq governed by a Shia figure with such a regional role and weight. Particularly because “the Emir of Qatar knows that US support for Maliki’s initiative means pulling the rug out from under his feet on the Syrian issue.”

That is why, the source argued, the emir decided to hold the Arab committee meeting and issue a decision the same day that Maliki sent his delegate to Damascus to propose the Iraqi initiative to the Syrian authorities.

The same sources asserted that Maliki’s Washington visit made headway on three fronts: “One, he affirmed his independence from the US, which was evident in the joint press conference with Obama, when they discussed the Syrian issue. Two, he won Obama’s approval to implement the Arab initiative on Syria through an amicable solution that would be managed by Iraq without the hostility that has been adopted by Qatar. And three, and most importantly, al-Maliki accepted Obama’s request to be the channel of communication between Washington and Tehran.”

As such, Maliki left Iraq as the leader of a troubled and fragile country only to return as a figure with regional weight. This role comes from being asked by the leader of the biggest power in the world to help in two of the most sensitive and important issues for the US in the region – Iran and Syria. In return, Maliki promised to secure US investments in Iraq.

On his way to Baghdad, the Iraqi PM told the press about the dispatch of a delegation headed by the Iraqi national security advisor Faleh al-Fayyad to Damascus last Saturday.

Information from Baghdad indicates that Fayyad “listened to President Bashar Assad’s reading of what is taking place in Syria. The delegation also discussed with the Syrian president the terms of the Arab initiative and procured his approval to sign the disputed protocol as soon as the amendments demanded by Damascus are included in it.”

Sources within the Iraqi delegation, which will be visiting Damascus again soon and include Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, said Assad was told that Maliki made it clear to Obama that Iraq could not support international or Arab sanctions on Syria. The sources added that Maliki “would prefer for the US to support dialogue between the regime and the opposition in Syria.”

An Iraqi man in Baghdad reads a local newspaper, featuring a front page picture of Vice-President Tareq al-Hashemi with the word “wanted” above his face, on 20 December 2011. (Photo: AFP – Ahmad al-Rubaye)

In its prior visit to Syria, the Iraqi delegation also reportedly discussed with Assad “the possibility of Baghdad taking on the role of reconciliation between Damascus and the Arab League, a move that Assad welcomed,” according to these sources.

While Fayyad’s group was on its way to Cairo to inform Arab League Secretary General Nabil al-Arabi of the outcome of the meeting with Assad, problems were escalating in Iraq. Maliki had fired back at his political adversaries, who have accused him of being a dictator and assailing his support for Syria.

Sources close to Maliki say that the prime minister “has had, for over two months now, intelligence information about Saudi plans and money being distributed to destabilize Iraq, with no reference to a specific time or place. The goal was to impede the US withdrawal and if it happens, to unleash chaos afterwards.”

They added that the head of the Iraqiya List “Ayad Allawi and Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, who are known for their Turkish and Saudi relations, presided over the execution of these plans. However, their colleague Saleh al-Mutlaq (one of the deputy prime ministers), who did not read the regional messages well, exposed them and will likely be the fall guy.”

The sources said that “there are confessions by detained Baathist officers stating that Mutlaq was aware of the coup attempt planned against Maliki.”

Information coming out of Baghdad indicates that Mutlaq — who left last Sunday night to Amman, Jordan — visited US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman asking for his help in resolving the dispute with Maliki.

The Iraqi prime minister had been threatening to broadcast videos which Iraqi authorities said included proof that Hashimi was involved in last month’s bombing of the parliament building and in the assassination attempt on Maliki’s life. He pointed out that there are three detainees who confessed to these accusations, including Hashimi’s son in law.

On Monday, state television did in fact air footage showing what the interior ministry said were Hashimi’s bodyguards confessing to planning and carrying out terror attacks, and receiving funding and support from Hashimi. At least 13 of Hashimi’s bodyguards have been detained in recent weeks, though it is unclear how many were still being held.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani has tried to mediate a reconciliation. And former Iraqi prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and Iraqi politician Mahmoud al-Mashhadani also tried to stop the interior ministry from issuing an arrest warrant for the VP, who fled at night to Arbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.

It was leaked from a meeting of the National Iraqi Alliance on Friday that Maliki is intent on striking his opponents. The Kurdish bloc and the liberal bloc, led by Bahaa al-Araji, announced on Saturday a mediation to convince the Iraqiya List to retract its decision to suspend its participation in parliament.

The bloc’s MPs and ministers offered their resignations and put themselves at the disposal of their leadership to do whatever is necessary.

Maliki and other Iraqi leaders have called for talks to head off the crisis after a warrant was issued for Mutaq on Monday night. “Maliki is calling for a conference of heads of political blocs and political leaders to discuss their differences, and to sort out the current security and political crisis,” Ali Mussawi, media adviser to the premier, said on Tuesday.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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