More Questions For Petraeus

[ Posted Monday, April 7th, 2008 – 14:35 UTC ]

Last Wednesday I wrote an article called "Questions For Petraeus," which I thought would be adequate to begin discussion of how to approach the upcoming congressional testimony by General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker -- in particular, what Democrats on the committees should be asking them. But events in Iraq have been moving quickly, so I offer this column as an addendum to the earlier one. Because after what happened in the past few days, more questions need to be asked.

Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki has just made a bold move, which needs to be addressed, as it could have far-reaching consequences in Iraq and in the region. A lot depends on just what Maliki is up to, and what the consequences will be within the power structure (such as it is) in Iraq.

Maliki, with the apparent support of other factions in the Iraqi government, has announced that any group which has its own militia who does not lay down their arms (handing them over to the central government) will not be eligible to run in the upcoming Iraqi elections.

On the face of it, it seems like a pretty reasonable idea. If parties and factions (for instance) were allowed to have armed militias in the United States during our elections, we would most likely currently be watching the second battle of Gettysburg as the Pennsylvania primaries approach. Not exactly the right way to run elections, or a democracy.

So, on a basic level, getting rid of armed groups and denying them the right to participate in elections sounds like a reasonable goal. But, as I said, it's a little more complicated than that. Consider for a moment the complexity of the Iraqi situation as it now stands. There are seven major players in the game: Maliki and the central government, the (Shi'ite) Badr Brigade militia and the Supreme Council (their political wing), Moqtada al-Sadr and his (Shi'ite) Mahdi Army, the (Sunni) "Awakening" groups, the (Sunni) Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia or Al Qaeda in Iraq, the Kurdish political groups, and the (Kurdish) PKK militia.

That's a lot to keep track of, but bear with me here. The key question for Maliki is: will he apply the new rules equally to all these groups, or just those he is trying to defeat in the elections?

Looking at each group, and watching which ones are affected, will answer this question. Al Qaeda in Iraq doesn't even have a political party, they are the "terrorists" that the United States has labeled Enemy Number One, and they have shown no interest in participating in elections anyway, so it's easy to see that they'll be outside the process.

The Kurds have already distanced themselves from the Kurdish militia (the PKK), so they can reasonably be expected to give lip service to the new rules and participate in the elections. They're not Maliki's chief rivals anyway, so they'll probably be let alone. Iraq and the U.S. are turning a blind eye to Turkey's attempt to wipe out the PKK already, so Kurds will likely be allowed in the voting process.

This leaves three main groups, and Maliki's government itself, which doesn't have "a militia" -- instead they have "the Iraq Army" and the "national police" force. Who they target among the other three groups is where the power play will happen.

The Badr Brigade seems to be Maliki's supporters for the moment. Will Maliki insist that they turn in all weapons? Or will they just be conveniently absorbed into the Army and police? The police, and to a lesser extent the Army, are already riddled with Badr Brigade and Supreme Council members anyway, so this wouldn't be much of a change.

The Mahdi Army is obviously Maliki's main target. Disarming Sadr would be an enormous victory for Maliki, and for the central government in general. But, even if Sadr himself went along with the idea, is it all a cover for Maliki barring Sadr's party from the elections anyway? Are the Iraqi elections going to look more like American elections, or more like Russian elections where candidates are conveniently jailed before the election?

And the final sticking point is the Sunni "Awakening" groups which are currently being supported by the U.S. with money and (it is rumored) weapons. This is our big "success story" in al-Anbar province, remember. And the Sunnis have the most to gain from these elections, since they boycotted the previous ones. So they are looking for a voice in the government this time around. The only problem is, it is in Maliki's best interest not to let them in. He has already shut the door in the face of letting the "Awakening" groups join the Iraqi national forces, and so he could use his new pronouncement to bar the Sunnis from participating in the elections as well.

If Maliki bars both the Sunni groups and Sadr's group from the election, then the only candidates on the ballot (other than in the Kurdish north) will be his own Dawa party and his allies from the (Iranian-backed) Supreme Council.

Which is why, on the face of it his action may look like a reasonable law, but in the execution it could become a political tool to win the elections before they even happen -- by barring his political rivals (both Sunni and Shi'ite) from even appearing on the ballot. And the United States military would be helping him execute this political coup.

Which is why I have a few more questions for Petraeus and Crocker:


What do you think of Maliki's new order which will ban any Iraqi group tied to a militia who has not disarmed from participating in their upcoming election? Does he even have the power to do so under Iraqi law, or is this a power grab by Maliki?


If this new order is used in an unbalanced way, to disarm some militias but not certain ones who support Maliki; will the United States military still participate and help Maliki achieve his political goals?


To what extent is the Iraq Army comprised of people whose first loyalty is to the Supreme Council or Dawa party? Fifty percent? Seventy-five percent? Ninety percent? What about the national police force? Please give both answers as numerical percentages.


Will the Sunni Awakening groups that the United States is currently supporting monetarily have to give up their weapons? Wouldn't they be considered "militias" by Maliki's definition? Do you think they are going to willingly turn over their arms to the central government? What do you see happening if they don't?


If the Awakening groups do not give up their arms, and Maliki orders the Iraqi Army to start an offensive against them, which side will the United States be on? Will we give support to the Iraqi Army the way we did in Basra, or will we support the Awakening groups as we have been doing up until this point? Or will we just stand back and not support either one?


What would it take for America to tell Maliki that we aren't going to support the Iraqi Army in any military offensive? What evidence would you need to decide that Maliki is using the Iraqi Army to crush his political rivals before the election? What chance do you see of that happening? Would it become part of the American military mission to help him succeed in doing so, or at some point would we step aside, or even fight against Maliki's forces? In short, what is the contingency plan if this does indeed happen?


Cross-posted at The Huffington Post


-- Chris Weigant


One Comment on “More Questions For Petraeus”

  1. [1] 
    fstanley wrote:

    I guess bringing "Democracy" to a country for this administration has a different meaning to them than to me.

    I know Petraeus and Crocker don't make the policy but I would ask them why they have not resigned yet.


Comments for this article are closed.