He Spreads a Welcome Home Mat for the ex-Baath Sunni Elite

Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki's political antennae were quick to sense the tectonic shift shaking the ground in the Middle East. He saw it as a rare opportunity to shed some of his dependence on America and Iran alike. With some fine-tuning, he managed to accentuate his character as an Arab ruler – and not merely an Iraqi Shiite – in time to capitalize on the reconciliation summit celebrated in Riyadh on March 10 between the Saudi king Abdullah, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and the recalcitrant Syrian ruler Bashar Assad.

The Iraqi prime minister is the first Shiite ruler to bid for and win the concerted support of a broad Sunni Arab front for his government and policies. It was the second time he had flouted Iranian interests in Iraq; last November, he helped encompass the downfall of pro-Iranian parties in Iraq's provincial elections.

He has benefited from his new orientation.

Before Maliki jumped sides, the US-backed Baghdad government was only grudgingly accepted by Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Conservative Arab rulers mistrusted the ties maintained by the various Iraqi prime ministers with Tehran and resented the Shiite-dominated Baghdad government's treatment of Iraq's Sunni minority.

Historically hostile Syria actively aided the Iraqi insurgency's efforts to destabilize central government and fight its American backers.

Now, since the Saudi-Syria detente was ushered in, all three are willing to join hands and receive their Iraqi colleague as a substantial asset to boost their all-Arab club – a development which defied the Bush administration's best efforts for seven years.


Maliki's welcome to ex-Baathists wins the two Abdullahs round


Maliki won Abdullah over with a sweeping proposal, disclosed here by DEBK-Net-Weekly's Iraq sources, to personally guarantee the restoration of Saddam Hussein's old stalwarts, politicians, senior officials, generals, intelligence officers and ex-Baathists, to positions of influence in civilian government and the security services in Baghdad.

The agenda was first put before Saudi intelligence chief Prince Moqrin Bin Abdul Aziz, Riyadh's live-wire negotiator with Damascus and Cairo, who agreed to bring it to Mubarak and Assad.

The Syrian ruler was more than willing to give it a try. So too was the Hashemite King Abdullah II of Jordan. Together, they are encumbered with 1.8 million Iraqi refugees, many of them ex-Baathists, who fled in waves to Syria and Jordan to escape the violence and terror engulfing their country. Their exodus will relieve Damascus and Amman of a heavy economic burden.

The Iraqi prime minister explained to the Saudi monarch in one of their telephone conversations that his program was synchronized with US president Barack Obama's decision to withdraw the US army from Iraq in the shortest time possible. (This week, Obama announced 12,000 troops would be out by September 2009). It reached Washington through Saudi and Egyptian intelligence channels and won endorsement.

Only unlike the Americans, said Maliki, his government was now prepared to forgive “the Saddamists.”


Iraq's Shiites dismayed


He was quick to translate his intention into action.

He convened a large conference of Arab, Kurdish and Turkmen tribal leaders Saturday, March 7 and told them to embrace change.

All the rival factions and tribes in Iraq must support his government, he said, and act on the waning violence to welcome home “the factions who boycotted Iraq because of [sectarian] strife.”

That same day, the US envoys, Jeffrey Feltman, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs and National Security Council official Daniel Shapiro, sat down with Syrian foreign minister Walid Moalem in Damascus. They explored at length the ways in which Damascus could help restore large numbers of Iraqi ex-Baathists to their homes and enhance Maliki's standing in Baghdad and in the Iraqi Sunni community.

Three days later, the long moribund Egyptian-Iraqi joint committee dusted itself off and reconvened in Cairo for the first time in twenty years.

The Egyptian assistant foreign minister for Arab affairs Abdel Rahman Salah Eddin could hardly contain his enthusiasm when he declared that the revived mechanism would provide “a new horizon” for bilateral cooperation to the benefit of the Egyptian and Iraqi peoples.”

DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iraq sources report that their prime minister's new orientation has struck his fellow Shiites with dismay, whether politicians, religious circles or even liberals. They believe Maliki was put up to opening the country's door wide to rival Sunni elements by the Americans. The Shiites, who make up an estimated 65 percent of the population, feel they have been betrayed by an ungrateful Obama administration after years of struggling against Saddam Hussein and suffering from the violent Sunni insurgency and al Qaeda terror from the time of the US invasion in 2003.


Maliki accused of strong-arm repression of opponents


Iran is unlikely to take its loss of face in Baghdad lying down, any more than the other setbacks described in this issue. Tehran is highly respected and influential in many Iraqi Shiite circles, including the partisan militias and terrorist elements. If unleashed, they are quite capable of sowing mayhem in the country.

This week, in the space of 48 hours, two deadly terrorist attacks in Baghdad left 61 dead and double that number injured.

No party has so far claimed responsibility. But no one in Baghdad is ruling out the possibility that they are the first stirrings of a pro-Iranian backlash.

This may not be far-fetched given the broad circles in the country, especially among Shiites, and in the Middle East intelligence community, who are beginning to depict Maliki as a new Saddam Hussein in terms of his obsessive self-aggrandizement and increasing resort to strong-arm tactics by security services to repress his opponents.

They claim he has shed his former allegiances and political alliances along with his pro-Iranian Shiite image.

Some offer a sinister explanation for his invitation to the Shiites' hated Baathist enemies to return home: Saddam's thugs kept him alive and in power year after year; Maliki is relying on them to provide him with the same protection.

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