How Long Will a Billion Saudi Dollars Last in Baghdad?
Late Report: Shortly before closing this issue, DEBKA-Net-Weekly learned that secret Saudi-Iranian-Syrian discussions are close to an agreement confirming Iyad Allawi as prime minister with the support of Shiite INA party votes in parliament. They expect Nouri al-Maliki's State of the Law party to break up ahead of his eclipse from Iraq's political stage.
Former Iraqi prime minister (2004-2005) Iyad Allawi and his al-Iraqiya list were elected by a narrow majority of 91seats over the 89 won by the incumbent Nouri al-Maliki's State of the Law party – a victory tight enough to point up the high risk of using cash to buy an election.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources reveal that the Saudi royal kingdom spent a billion dollars, and possibly more, to guarantee Allawi's victory and unseat the Shiite Maliki in the March 7 poll.
In mid-March, when ballot-counting was still in progress and Allawi was not sure of his win, his security people, some of them former Ba'athists from Saddam Hussein's personal guard, conspired with Saudi General Intelligence agents to assassinate their chief rival. Al Maliki survived the attempt with injured hands.
In the end, to their surprise, the billion dollars of Saudi cash did the trick and went one better. The Saudi candidate not only won the race, but he also carried the northern oil-producing city of Kirkuk.
In terms of Riyadh's control of the world oil market, this victory alone was worth every dollar the Saudis spent on bringing Allawi to power.
It transpired that around a quarter of their investment bought the votes of Sunni Muslims, Turkomen, Assyrians and secular Kurds, thereby undermining the established Kurdish leadership's grip on power.
Iraq's president, the Kurdish Jalal Talabani fared worse than Kurdistan's regional president Massoud Barzani.
Gaining Kirkuk – and an oil bonanza
Gaining Kirkuk, deemed by Kurds the Jerusalem of Iraq, was more than Riyadh dreamed off. If Allawi can build a coalition administration in Baghdad, central government will be able to wrest control of Iraq's northern oil fields from Kurdish control, together with the main pipelines carrying Iraqi oil from the north and the south out to world markets via Turkey.
The Obama administration miscalculated when it backed Nouri al-Maliki to win the election. However, for now, all's well for Washington: The Saudi outlay on Iraq's election has paid off for American interests.
There is still a way to go before Allawi is installed as prime minister, but he would be the best bet for averting the immediate danger of civil war among the Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites, at a time that US troops are poised to exit Iraq.
Kurdish leaders are well aware of Allawi's close ties with US intelligence. They go back 32 years from when he fled the country after organizing a failed conspiracy by Iraqi generals to assassinate Saddam Hussein. Their best line of retreat from their election defeat is to shelter under the American military aegis. This can work well because important US bases remaining in Iraq after the soldiers pull out in the summer of 2011 are located in Kurdistan.
Barzani and Talabani expect Washington to make sure the new prime minister in Baghdad maintains good relations with them for the sake of those bases, as does Gorran, the rising Kurdish Movement for Change party, which netted 10 seats in the new parliament.
Allawi in Baghdad means US can keep its air bases
Maliki won the southern Shiite regions, where Saudi cash was less effective, by a handy 50-60 percent of the vote. But Allawi's election as prime minister in Baghdad will ensure government control of the southern as well as the northern oil fields.
This prospect is another net gain for Washington, because it dashes the secret ambitions entertained by the Shiite tribal leaders of Basra of winning an independent state based on the rich revenues of fields that hold roughly 20 percent of the world's oil reserves.
In the south, as in Kurdistan, Allawi's election victory guarantees the United States can keep its big air bases in the country after the US troop withdrawal. The most important are the Taji air base at Baghdad's international airport, the Tallil facility near Nasiriya in the south, and the H-1 Al Asad, which is the largest in all Iraq and is situated in the Sunni-dominated western province of Al Anbar.
So it should come as no surprise that, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in Washington, US Ambassador in Iraq Christopher R. Hill received an urgent directive in the first week of March to shift Washington's support, which had been firmly behind Nouri al-Maliki throughout the election campaign, to Iyad Allawi.
Reading the writing on the wall, al-Maliki instantly sent secret messengers to Tehran with an offer to back out from under American patronage and return to the Iranian fold.
But Tehran decided to hold its horses and wait and see which of the candidates was able to put together a coalition government before committing itself to a policy for Iraq.
Saudis may rue installing a new strongman in Baghdad
One Saudi motive for its massive investment in an election upset in Baghdad was the fear that Nouri al-Maliki would be a Shiite prime minister but also a Saddam Hussein-style strongman to boot.
Now, Riyadh is not too sure that its man, who helped build Saddam's dreaded security apparatus, might not outdo Maliki and make himself one of the most powerful rulers in the region. The Saudi royals invested a billion dollars in Allawi to make him dependent on them, not to build a new power center.
Syrian president Bashar Assad was King Abdullah's partner in the scheme to unseat Maliki through the ballot box. He too was concerned to prevent an overly powerful regime rising in Baghdad and is not entirely happy with the result. Assad is now waiting to see whether Allawi makes it to the prime minister's office and, if so, what sort of administration he builds before deciding where Damascus stands.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in Iraq and the Persian Gulf note that for his Iraqi project with the Saudis, the Syrian president broke away from his close bond with Tehran and acted separately, a departure welcomed in Washington. But if Assad does not approve of the new prime minister installed in Baghdad, he may turn tail and run back to the Iranian fold.
This would set back the Obama administration's hopes of a lasting breach between Damascus and Tehran.