Saturday, August 18, 2007

Maliki Tries to Change the Game

As we approach the September progress report on Iraq -- whoever delivers it -- there are signals that leaders in Iraq recognize the importance of signaling to the American people that things have changed. To that end, we got the report the other day that General Petraeus may be prepared to recommend the drawdown of US forces in areas of Iraq where violence has been suppressed. Now comes the world that Nuri Al Maliki has flown to the hometown of the late Saddam Hussein to make a personal appeal for unity to Sunni leaders. Ed Morrissey has the story:

Maliki didn't stop there. He made what looks to be a clean break with Moqtada al-Sadr yesterday, signing an accord with the Kurds and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. The coucil commands the Badr Brigade, which has fought Sadr's forces in the south for control. Maliki apparently has co-opted them into the government, isolating Sadr even further than ever after the radical cleric pulled his ministers from Maliki's government.

Opposing Sadr will help build trust with Sunni leadership. They have bitterly complained about security efforts being focused on Sunnis while Sadr's Mahdi Army continues to operate against Sunnis in mixed sectarian populations. If Maliki has broken with Sadr, then the Sunnis will have an opening to flex some political muscle. And with the effort of General Petraeus and the American forces in western and central Iraq, the unity and purpose of those Sunni tribes can work to Maliki's benefit with recalcitrant Shi'ites.

The personal appeal, coming directly to the heart of Saddam's former power base, is a spectacular move by Maliki. Up to now, he's mostly been known as a sectarian forced to deal with Sunnis and Kurds by circumstance. He may have finally taken the necessary steps to become the statesman Iraq needs, and the father of their liberated national unity most of them desire.

It's tough to flip from partisan to statesman overnight, and feelings have been pretty well hardened among Sunnis and Shia over the last few years. At the same time, there seems to be a sense of urgency among those Iraqis who want to see the US mission continue. They recognize that the US is coming to a crossroads on Iraq. And while these changes won't lead to a change of heart by Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid, their positions are irrelevant if a significant chunk of the American public can be swayed to back more time.

One thing that could affect the perception is if Maliki is able to re-enlist support among some of the Sunnis in Parliament:

Mr. Maliki's trip to Tikrit came under heavy security a day after announcing a new Shiite-Kurdish coalition that he said was a first step toward unblocking the paralysis that has gripped his Shiite-dominated government since it took power in May 2006. But the reshaped power bloc included no Sunnis and immediately raised questions about its legitimacy as a unifying force.

Let's see if Maliki's move to change the game bears fruit.

No comments: