Working Towards Replacing Shiite Maliki

The sudden decision by President George W. Bush to spend next Wednesday and Thursday – Nov. 29-30 – in Amman and send Vice President Dick Cheney to Saudi Arabia Friday, Nov. 23, has three purposes.

They are revealed here by DEBKA-Net-Weekly. But don’t expect the administration to admit to any of them:

1. The pace of events in Iraq has substantially overtaken the decision-making process on Iraq and the Middle East in Washington. Bush and Cheney understand that time has run out and they had better get cracking on their revised strategy for Iraq now. Waiting for the Iraq Study Team to submit its final report on Dec. 10 is a luxury they cannot afford.

2. Washington must have a fast response in hand for the summit president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has convened to bring Syrian and Iraqi presidents to Tehran this coming weekend. Iran’s president is resolved to draw Syrian president Bashar Asad away from the temptation to play ball with the Americans and into Tehran’s policy orbit on Iraq.

If Ahmadinejad pulls this off, he will have robbed the administration’s new Iraq strategy of its keystone and the Baker-Hamilton commission of the grounding for its Iraq and Middle East recommendations.

The White House has been working on the premise that Damascus and Tehran are divided on Iraq. They rely on the report filed by British prime minister Tony Blair’s senior political adviser Nigel Sheinwald on his talks with Asad in late October. He quoted the Syrian ruler as asserting that he and the Iranian government do not share an identity of political and military interests in Iraq.

This was the lead that Washington had been waiting for since the US invasion of Iraq nearly four years ago. (DEBKA-Net-Weekly 276 covered the Sheinwald mission on Nov. 3, 2006.) It has raised US hopes for new horizons and solutions opening up for solving the Iraq crisis – if indeed Syria proves willing to go along with the United States and break ranks with Iran.


Cheney as repairman for fractured inter-Arab relations


3. Even if Syria does climb on board, an Iraq solution remains nebulous without co-opting the dominant Sunni Arab insurgent groups in Iraq. This is perhaps the most radical switch in the minds of Bush and his advisers: The Shiite-Kurdish solution for Iraq must now be jettisoned in favor of a Sunni Arab formula.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Middle East sources add that before reaching the finishing line of Iraqi Sunni and Syrian collaboration on Iraq, US leaders will have to climb over some lofty hurdles:

First: Saudi King Abdullah and the Syrian president have been at daggers drawn for two months. This is where Cheney comes in. His must persuade the two rulers to bury the hatchet. His next task will be to rescue from the dustbin the Mecca Document which leading Iraqi Shiite and Sunni figures signed on October 22. This document consists of 10 items formulated in the hope of a sectarian reconciliation that would stem the violence in Iraq.

It has fallen by the wayside since then, because both signatories have not only given up on the effort to carry it through but are sunk deep in unimaginable reciprocal butchery. Shiite death squads are escalating the slaughter and abductions in and outside Baghdad. The Sunnis are matching the carnage, recruiting manpower across the Arab world to fight in a confrontation which regional Sunni Muslim Brotherhood clerics are calling the decisive Sunni Muslim battle for Iraq.

The Bush administration has come to accept that the Sunni Arab minority has nothing to lose by insurgency because of the way power is stacked in Baghdad. Therefore for a breakthrough, Iraqi Sunni Arabs must first regain top jobs in central government, the army, police and intelligence, together with influence and budgets.

For such US pledges to be credible in Sunni eyes, Bush and Cheney need guarantees that they seriously mean to follow through to be signed by the two Kings Abdullah in Amman and Riyadh, Syria’s Assad and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.

Second: To bring the four rulers together, Cheney will have to perform a second piece of fence-mending surgery on the fractured Mubarak-Asad relationship.

Damascus took the first tentative step Thursday, Nov. 23, by telling Khaled Meshaal, the hardline Hamas leader who operates out of Damascus, to get himself over to Cairo and talk to Egyptian officials about a Palestinian unity government after months of obstructing Cairo’s efforts.


Turkey is roped in to bring Asad round


This unity government, a Hamas-Fatah coalition, is the prerequisite for the international conference proposed by the Iraq Study Group to have any chance of success. (More about this conference proposal in the next article) The road to pan-Arab cooperation on Iraq, say Baker and Hamilton, is contingent on Western recognition of the Palestinian government leading to a reactivated Palestinian-Israeli peace process.

(This issue is also discussed in a separate article on the Baker-Hamilton draft.)

Third: Accepting the British reading of the division between Damascus and Tehran on Iraq as correct, Washington sees Turkey as the Sunni-dominated country closest to Syria. This premise brought Brent Scowcroft, former national security adviser to the first President Bush and an influential figure behind the Iraqi Study group, to Ankara to ask prime minister Tayyep Erdogan to persuade Assad to throw his weight behind the new American strategy for Iraq.

This approach restored Turkey to its former central role in determining US Middle East policy, three and-a-half years after being sidelined by the US invasion of Iraq, and placed Scowcroft at the hub of a pivotal US foreign policy gambit.

It is too soon to say how the former official’s rise will affect the standing of secretary of state Condoleezza Rice.

Fourth: The US president has saddled himself with a task at least as arduous as that of the vice president in Riyadh: In the talks he plans to hold with the Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki in Amman, he must let it be known – without saying so explicitly – that Washington is preparing the way for his exit from government.

Bush has concluded that any new momentum on Iraq is foredoomed to failure so long as government in Baghdad is ruled by a Shiite prime minister whom the Sunnis do not trust.

According to our sources in the US and Iraqi capitals, the two frontrunners for the premiership are former prime minister, Iyad Allawi, who officiated in 2004, and the deputy Iraqi president, Abdul Mahdi.

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