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US Changes Tune on Iraqi Government: “Slow Down!”

This is really funny: when it looked like the only option for Iraq’s government would include a role for former CIA asset Iyad Allawi, American officials urged the formation of a coalition without delay. Now that Muqtada al-Sadr has backed the Shiite Nouri al-Maliki, and the coalition could freeze out Allawi, America’s all, why hurry?

After months of pressuring Iraqis to form a new government quickly, the U.S. is now urging them to slow down rather than rush into a deal that would run counter to U.S. interests and risk further destabilizing the country.

The turnabout in the U.S. approach came after anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr’s political faction agreed to support Prime Minister Nouri Maliki for a second term, propelling the incumbent close to the parliamentary majority he needs to keep his job.

If Maliki can strike a deal with Iraq’s Kurds, he will have enough support to form a government. But such a government would contradict goals the U.S. has been working toward since the March elections.

A Shiite government would have Iran as a main sponsor. Allawi’s secular list in a coalition would have more support from the Sunni population. The US wants a power-sharing agreement, which Shiites (and possibly Kurds) resist. The Shiites have a bargaining chip with the Kurds – control of Kirkuk, which is generally a fight between Kurds and Sunnis.

Many of those Sunnis, by the way, who supported a list which won the most votes in the elections, but which may not be a part of the final government, are returning to the insurgency, because they have been fired from the Iraqi security forces by a Maliki-led coalition who basically lied to them.

Members of United States-allied Awakening Councils have quit or been dismissed from their positions in significant numbers in recent months, prey to an intensive recruitment campaign by the Sunni insurgency, according to government officials, current and former members of the Awakening and insurgents.

Although there are no firm figures, security and political officials say hundreds of the well-disciplined fighters — many of whom have gained extensive knowledge about the American military — appear to have rejoined Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. Beyond that, officials say that even many of the Awakening fighters still on the Iraqi government payroll, possibly thousands of them, covertly aid the insurgency.

Iraq has somehow become “the good war” over the past several months, as the United States declares victory and gets out. But practically nothing has changed there. The Shiites, by force of numbers, still dominate the politics, and move it into Iran’s sphere of influence. The Sunnis are alienated and, seeing little way to influence the country through the electoral process, have returned gradually to violence. This was inevitable with or without a US military presence after the initial invasion that set off sectarian violence and a civil war, so I’m glad we’re withdrawing. But let’s not pretend that the surge pacified anything.

Maliki is in Tehran today.

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David Dayen

David Dayen