Maliki, Hakim, and Iran’s role in the Basra fighting

One week after the upsurge of violence in Basra, questions about the motives and the implications of the fighting still linger. The issue of Iran’s involvement remains especially obscure.

A recurrent explanation suggests that the operations were an attempt by Nuri al-Maliki and Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim to weaken the Sadrists ahead of October’s provincial elections, and perhaps to also further Hakim’s scheme of a single Shiite federal entity, which many Sadrists have resisted. On the surface this seems plausible. This has clearly been a political operation and not a purely security-guided one: Many militia forces in Basra unaffiliated with the Sadrists were left untouched. Also, the Maliki-Hakim axis is the sole remnant of the United Iraqi Alliance; to its backers it would be prudent to stick together and guard against encroachments on their local power bases. As for the United States, as long as it policy remains tied to Hakim’s Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) it can perhaps make sense to give the green light to operations against the Sadrists, even if the timing (on the eve of the Crocker/Petraeus hearings) and the scale of the attack (after one year of trying to differentiate between “moderate” and “hardliner” Sadrists) may not have been of its choosing.

However, the theory of a stable Maliki-Hakim alliance overlooks disagreement between the two on key issues. Crucially, Maliki disagrees with ISCI on federalism, both with regard to the South of Baghdad Region (the proposed nine-governorate Shiite federal entity), and with respect to federalism as a more general principle of government.

The Iran problem

The Iranians have fixed the political game. They are on all sides at once. They have links to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his Dawa party; they funnel money to the Badr organization of Shiite cleric Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, which is a key recruiting ground for the Iraqi army; they provide weapons, training and command and control for the most extreme factions of the Mahdi Army. Moqtada al-Sadr, the Mahdi Army’s nominal leader, is actually living in the Iranian holy city of Qom, suffering from what intelligence sources believe may be clinical depression. A useful ploy would be to invite him to come home and see if he can be drawn into negotiations.

The Iranians were able to start the recent trouble in Basra and Baghdad through one set of operatives, then negotiate a cease-fire through another. In short, they play the Iraqi lyre on all its strings.

Stonewall Petraeus

Judging from Gen. David Petraeus’ Senate testimony today, our military commitment to Iraq is open-ended and unconditional.

The “pause” in troop withdrawals, after the surge brigades go home this July, will not be “brief”—as some officials have hoped—but indefinite.

The way that Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker formulated the problem, cutting troops below the current level of 140,000 is not even a conceivable option. They laid out a Catch-22: If things in Iraq get worse, we can’t cut back, lest things get worse still; if things get better, we can’t cut back, lest we risk reversing all our gains.

Finding a way to bring Hamas in

It’s becoming increasingly clearer that reaching an Israeli-Palestinian agreement requires finding a way to bring Hamas into the process. This must be done without compromising Israeli or American interests.

Many respected Israeli security officials, including two former heads of Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, arrived at that conclusion some time ago. So have 64 percent of Israelis, who said, according to a Haaretz-Dialog poll taken in February, that they would negotiate directly with Hamas to end the rocket attacks from Gaza, controlled by Hamas since June 2007, and to secure the release of the captive Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who returned to Israel last week to prod Israelis and Palestinians to make progress toward an agreement, seems to have recently made this same determination.

Sources: Top Bush advisors approved ‘enhanced interrogation’

In dozens of top-secret talks and meetings in the White House, the most senior Bush administration officials discussed and approved specific details of how high-value al Qaeda suspects would be interrogated by the Central Intelligence Agency, sources tell ABC News.

The so-called Principals who participated in the meetings also approved the use of “combined” interrogation techniques — using different techniques during interrogations, instead of using one method at a time — on terrorist suspects who proved difficult to break, sources said.

Highly placed sources said a handful of top advisers signed off on how the CIA would interrogate top al Qaeda suspects — whether they would be slapped, pushed, deprived of sleep or subjected to simulated drowning, called waterboarding.

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