The Telegraph reports that 59 persons are dead and 120 wounded in a suicide bombing attack on potential army recruits in Baghdad. There may have been two perpetrators, presumably with bomb belts. Those volunteering for the Iraqi army were gathered in a large crowd outside a government building and being allowed in in groups of 250.
The news came just as Iraq’s political impasse worsened. The two biggest political lists said that they entertained the most severe reservations about a proposal brought to Baghdad by State Department official Jeffrey Feltman that the two attempt to find a formula for power sharing, according to al-Hayat writing in Arabic.
Washington’s goal is presumably to put the secular Iyad Allawi in ultimate charge of Iraq’s security forces. He is an old-time CIA asset and relatively anti-Iranian and so is trusted by the US political establishment. The old-time Shiite activist Nuri al-Maliki is not considered very close to Iran, but he has correct relations with that country and Iran has made it clear that it wants al-Maliki to remain in power. Al-Maliki has been accused of using the prime minister’s office to build up direct control of the army and to establish Shiite tribal militias loyal to his person.
With regard to the security situation, the new Iraqi army does militia smackdown well, at least in Shiite areas. It patrols urban areas o.k. It has significant flaws, though. The soldiers are not good at checkpoint inspection, not good at preventing bombings of major public sites, and still have poor logistics capabilities and few helicopters or other aircraft.
This bombing of a recruitment station, as Richard Spencer of the Telegraph says, is a revival of a Sunni Arab guerrilla tactic, of attempting to forestall the formation of a new Iraqi army and government.
But the sad thing is that this guerrilla tactic, which might have had some effect in Sunni Arab areas at the height of the war, is now being applied long past the date at which it makes any strategic sense. There already is a new Iraqi army. It is increasingly better trained and equipped over time. And, in a country with high unemployment and relatively few opportunities still in the small private sector, an army job is going to remain sufficiently attractive to young men that they will risk trying to join regardless of a few bombings here and there. And, of course, all the clans of all those killed and injured now have a growing feud with the Sunni fundamentalist vigilantes or Baath remnants who were likely behind the attack.
So this bloodshed is the result of a failed guerrilla movement going on as though it still has hope of taking over. It does not. All it can do is retard somewhat Iraq’s economic and political process.
The inevitable meme in the press, that such bombings and instability raise questions about Iraq’s ability to go it alone as the last of the designated US military combat units leaves the country by the end of August is misplaced. The US military was never able to prevent massive bombings when it was in charge. It is not now independently and actively patrolling major urban areas and so could not have forestalled Tuesday’s attack. And, there is no obvious immediate political fallout from random terrorism like that today. It might make caretaker prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, who is still trying to remain in power, look bad. It might make Iraqis even more fed up with their political class. But it won’t make the largely secular Sunni Arabs suddenly swing around and support the fundamentalists, whom the Shiites and Kurds hate with a passion. It won’t rehabilitate Baathism. It is the equivalent of the way a chicken runs frantically about after its head is cut off (my maternal grandfather raised chickens, and I’ve witnessed the phenomenon). The guerrillas, once having had a serious political agenda, have become nothing more than serial killers taking revenge on reality for their irrelevance.
All this time after the March 7 election, Iraqi parties have still not put together a governing coalition. (In parliamentary systems like that of Iraq, a multi-party election can result in a ‘hung parliament’ where no party has a majority– in contrast to the two-party system in the US, where the political constituents, such as urban liberals or the Christian Right, decide beforehand which party to support and there is always a majority of the one or the other in Congress).
In regard to the latest American proposal, Jamal Batikh of the secular, now largely Sunni Arab Iraqiya list headed by former interim prime minister Iyad Allawi, described the suggestions brought to Baghdad on behalf of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and said that his party was preparing a response that would “forcefully reject” power sharing of the sort suggested. The Americans are now saying that Nuri al-Maliki should remain prime minister and that Allawi should become head of the national security council. A spokesman for one of the parties in the State of Law coalition, Abd al-Hadi al-Hassani, said that the Americans appeared to be attempting to build up the national security council so that it has greater powers than the constitution envisages for it, so as to reduce the power of the prime minister’s office and make the leadership fo the NSC attractive to Allawi. He said any such step would require an act of parliament, which in his view would be difficult to obtain.
As for Allawi’s intransigence about power sharing, all the Iraqi constitution stipulates is that the the party with the biggest number of seats have the first crack at forming a government, which would require finding allies to put together 163 seats or a majority in parliament that would vote for the government’s positions. The Iraqiya list received 91 seats in the March 7 election, out of 325 (the largest of any single party or pre-election coalition), and insists that it is therefore owed the prime ministership. That is, the Iraqi constitution envisages a British-style parliamentary system, but Allawi’s list is imagining that it is more presidential (which it is not). Like David Cameron in the UK, the party that gets the prime ministership would have to find even odd political bedfellows (such as the Tory alliance with the LibDems) to put together a majority in parliament. Allawi has not been able to do so and in my view is far less likely to succeed in doing so than al-Maliki or at least al-Maliki’s coalition. Allawi therefore does not automatically deserve the prime ministership in a parliamentary system, only the right to attempt to convince coalition parties to give it to him, in which he has consistently failed (as have all the other plausible prime ministers).
The constitutional crisis that Ms. Clinton is attempting to resolve is in my view far more deadly for Iraq than these occasional big bombings, however tragic the loss of life that they cause and however severe the impact on the daily psychology of Iraqis they are. If Iraq cannot form a government, then what is left but a coup? And if large numbers of Iraqis feel disenfranchised by a coup, which they likely would, would not such an event threaten return to civil war?