On his first full day as the Iraqi prime minister, al-Maliki promised “maximum levels of force in confronting terrorists and killers”. But if tough words alone could reverse Iraq’s continuing slide into chaos, the country would by now be a haven of peace and tranquillity.
After the bombing of the al-Askari Shia shrine in Samarra in February, the Sunni defence minister, Saadoun al Dulaimi, a former Iraq military officer who fled to Saudi Arabia in 1986, issued a dire warning to the men of violence: “We are ready to fill the streets with armoured vehicles if the protest and killings continue.”
There was no end to the violence by the Shia militias and the Shia-dominated interior ministry’s death squads against the Sunnis, yet the promised armoured vehicles failed to appear in the streets.
Al-Dulaimi is not the only one issuing headline-grabbing threats or slogans that turn out to be hollow, though. Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador in Baghdad, declared 2006 “the year of the police”. Half of that year is almost over, and there is no sign that the Iraqi police is now more efficient or less corrupt than before, or that it has been cleansed of the partisan Shia militants who have infiltrated it.
Throughout 2006, Bayan Jaber has remained the interior minister. A leader of the supreme council of Islamic revolution in Iraq (Sicri), whose Badr brigade militia was trained in Iran, Bayan Jaber was widely accused of turning a blind eye to the violence perpetrated by the brigade, as well as to the infiltration of the police force by Shia militants. Though Jaber failed to keep his old post in the new cabinet, he is now in charge of the finance ministry, a powerful instrument.
With the popularly elected government installed in office, hopes have risen that the national assembly will “review” the constitution within the next four months to address the Sunni community’s objections to the federal provisions in the basic law.
Sunnis fear that the existing Kurdistan autonomous region (KAR) in the north-east and the incipient Shia autonomous region in the south and south-east will garner the revenue from the oilfields existing in these areas and leave the oil-less, Sunni-dominated central and western Iraq penurious.
It is unlikely that the Shia United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), with 130 seats in the 275-member parliament, will overturn the federal provisions in the constitution.
The Iraqi Kurds are the originators of the federal concept. They have refused to compromise their quasi-independence to the extent that it is the Kurdish militia that guards Iraq’s border with Iran and Turkey while their government refuses to let central troops enter the three provinces constituting the Kurdistan autonomous region.
As long-time favourites of Washington and London, the Kurdish leaders are confident of continuing to consolidate their autonomy. What is more, they are intent on expanding the KAR by incorporating the oil-rich Tamim province (capital, Kirkuk) as a step towards full independence backed almost universally by the Kurdish public.
So it is unrealistic to expect the Shia, who are in the majority in 10 of the 18 provinces, to abjure federalism. For the present, al-Maliki has yet to announce the defence, interior and national security ministers.
Meanwhile, how united is his 37-member “national unity” cabinet? One of its important constituents is the Iraqi Accord Front, a Sunni religious party with five ministers. “The front has reservations about the programme of the Maliki government,” said Nour al-Din al-Hayali, a leading front MP, “about the laws relating to fighting terror, which do not distinguish between the resistance, which is playing a heroic role for the sake of liberating Iraq, and acts of violence that all reject”.
Hardly a promising augury for Bush and Blair as they desperately grab at any straw to illustrate an ever-elusive sunny scenario in Iraq.