According to Agence France Presse’s Arabic service, Ali Moussawi, the spokesman for the office of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, is now denying that he told the New York Times that the Iraqi government had repeatedly suggested to Syrian President Bashar al-Asad that he resign. He gave a similar interview denying the remarks to a Kurdish news service, castigating the quotes ascribed to him as “imprecise” and “fabricated.”
Moussawi said that the article misquoted him, emphasizing that “It is not the character nor the procedure of this government to intervene in the affairs of other states, in addition to which it simply has not issued to this or that quarter any requests that anyone resign.” He said that all Baghdad had done was to suggest that President al-Asad institute some reforms. Likewise, speaker of the Iraqi parliament Usamah al-Nujayfi had requested that the Syrian government cease spilling blood.
I’m sure Michael Schmidt at the Times would not have gone to press with those quotes unless Moussawi really did supply them.
But clearly Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and very possibly his Iranian backers, were dismayed to see the story on the front page of the New York Times. It is possible that al-Maliki was more critical of al-Asad last spring, but rethought his position as it became clear that a violent overthrow of the Syrian elite (drawn disproportionately from the Allawite branch of Shiite Islam) might ensconce the Muslim Brotherhood or other Sunni elements who are sympathetic to the Sunni insurgency in Iraq.
It is also possible that Moussawi himself had not gone along with the new, positive orientation toward the al-Asad government adopted by al-Maliki from mid-summer this year, apparently in part under pressure from the Iranian government and in part out of fear of a Sunni deluge in Syria. He would not be the first government spokesman to try to sabotage a policy with which he disagreed.
So maybe Moussawi is behind the curve, or maybe he is a dissident on Syria policy. But he is after all just a spokesman, and what matters is what al-Maliki says. And al-Maliki has been clear that he fears the turmoil in Syria, and he even warned that the Israelis might take advantage of it, which sounds more like an Iranian speech writer than a contemporary Iraqi one. Presumably al-Maliki called him on the mat and sent him out to retract the interview.
Iraq, of course, is being pulled in different directions over Syria by its Iranian and American allies. The Obama administration has slapped increasingly severe financial sanctions on Iran.
In other news, the Iraqi government is rejecting that idea that any US combat troops might remain in the country after December 31 of this year. But it is considering a relatively small number of trainers (the Obama administration appears to be offering 3,000 – 5,000), who will be necessary to drill Iraqi personnel on the operation of military equipment and aircraft. Most political forces in the country could live with trainers, they say. But the Muqtada al-Sadr group wants all US troops out altogether, and has threatened violence if they try to stay.