The return of Saddam without the moustache
18 January 2011
As the US moves inexorably towards the exit in Iraq the signs are everywhere that the rival religious and secular factions are jocking for positions of power in preparation for a trial of strength that may lead to civil war, or, if the country’s lucky, merely a creeping coup d’etat and a new authoritarian regime.
Baghdad has been hit by a wave of mysterious assassinations of police and army officers. It’s usually blamed on an extremist Sunni group known as the Iraqi Islamic State which is usually credited with being a branch of al-Qaeda in Iraq, but nobody knows for sure and the Iraqi Islamic State may in fact be a front name for somebody else.
Last week, there was a curious incident that hinted that the declining US presence is emboldening those Iraqis who’d like to avenge the years of humiliating US occupation – two American soldiers were shot at an Iraqi army training camp near Mosul.
An Iraqi army officer said two Iraqi soldiers opened fire on their American counterparts while a US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said just one gunman was involved.
The shooting was intentional but it was unclear what provoked the incident said an Iraqi army officer, adding that two Iraqi soldiers who carried out the shooting were arrested.
Then there’s been a series of attacks on Baghdad alcohol retailers – who are typically Christian – and even on venues that just serve alcohol.
The raiders, who smash whatever supplies they can find, are men dressed as civilians, who don’t claim to be police, but it seems they’re always accompanied by uniformed cops who close off the area before the raiders arrive.
Again it’s not entirely clear if those responsible are Shiite or Sunni fanatics targeting Christians for purely religious reasons but the crackdown follows the return to Iraq of Moqtada al-Sadr, the fiery anti-American Shiite cleric who has spent the last five years in exile in Iran. It looks awfully like Moqtada al-Sadr’s movement, which tended to represent the poorest section of the Shiite masses, is flexing its muscles. The target of its intimidation is twofold: on the one hand the shaky Maliki government that’s currently wielding whatever power can be wrung out of its uncertain relationship with the Iraqi police and army and the 50,000 US troops remaining in the country and on the other, the parliamentary and military supporters of Iyad Allawi, the secular Shiite would-be strongman, long favoured by the US, who, like Moqtada al-Sadr, has been waiting impatiently in the wings for years.
The neoconservative vision of an American-style liberal free-market capitalist democracy uniting Iraqis in the aftermath of the Saddam Hussein regime’s 2003 demise has turned out to be the dumb illusion that all sensible people always knew it was. Within days of the invasion, as Iraq descended into anarchy, the Bush administration was desperately trying to agree on a viable secular Shiite strongman to replace Saddam. Dick Cheney’s people favoured the dodgy businessman Ahmad Chalabi, the CIA and the State Department leaned towards the British-trained neurosurgeon and exiled former Baathist, Iyad Allawi, sometimes called “Saddam without the moustache”. It was Allawi who passed on to MI6 the infamous “intelligence” that Iraq could deploy weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes.
Washington made Allawi provisional Iraqi prime minister in 2004, but he did little to stop Iraq sliding into sectarian conflict in that year and he lost power in 2005 when his Iraqi National List ran a poor third in the elections.
Allawi wasn’t seen much in Iraq for the next four years but in 2009 his secular al-Iraqiya bloc won 91 of the 325 seats in the Iraqi Parliament, making it the biggest single party, but that was insufficient to allow him to become prime minister by right.
He now has the endorsement of the exiled Baath Party whose leaders have declared him “the best person at this time to be given the task of ruling Iraq”. Their spokesman hoped that Allawi would pave the way for the Baath Party to “return to the political life of Iraq, where we rightfully belong”.
Right after the US Army reached Baghdad in 2003, there was a joke doing the rounds to the effect that “The Iraq war is over and the winner is … Iran”. Not yet, perhaps. Coming together is an alliance of the US, secular Shiites, and the Baath Party that might yet sweep away the pro-Iranian forces of Maliki and al-Sadr and return Iraq to pretty much the sort of regime it had before the US invasion … but without the moustache. After the years of blockade, the invasion, the insurgency, civil strife, parliamentary deadlock and the death of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, that would be a cruel irony indeed.