Maliki in damage-control mode

By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS – “Never mention defeat.” These were the wise words of British prime minister Winston Churchill during World War II. Throughout the war, he always told the people of Great Britain to never mention the word “surrender” and he always tried to hold back bad news.

With little success, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is trying to do the same in Iraq. Apart from basically uncontrollable news, such as a spreading cholera epidemic which is claiming lives almost as fast as the terrorists, Iraq is saturated with bad news and its increasingly difficult to quell.

Maliki’s office ignored, for example, news that yet another mass grave had been discovered in Karbala. Pro-Maliki dailies turned a blind eye to the fact that a grave – with 22 bodies – was found this

week, with corpses all murdered in the summer of 2008. Twenty-one bodies were identified as male, while one remained “unknown” because of its mutilation.

For long in private and public discourse, Maliki and his team claimed that this kind of brutality only happened under Saddam Hussein; only in the “previous era”. Never after 2003 – never under Maliki. The premier himself refused to comment, troubled by yet another reality coming out of Iraq, being the displacement of 1,600 Christian families from Mosul.

Ever since the occupation of Iraq in 2003, Iraqi Christians have complained that they are being persecuted by Islamic militias. In some cases, many Christians were killed, churches attacked and women raped for walking outdoors without wearing headscarves.

Over the past 10 days, 12 Iraqi Christians have been found dead in Iraq, angering the prime minister, who created a senior ministerial delegation to investigate the crimes. The group is composed of the ministers of defense, industry, planning and refugees.

The depiction of Maliki’s Iraq as a theocracy where freedom of religion is not tolerated is a terrible setback for Maliki, and is tarnishing his image in the United States and Europe. Ordinary Iraqis – mainly Christian – cannot but compare him with Saddam Hussein, who despite all the faults of his dictatorship, upheld religious diversity in Iraq and protected Iraqi Christians from fundamentalist threats.

The “good news” doesn’t end there. While Maliki was meeting with President Jalal Talabani this week to place the final touches on a proposed long-term military treaty with the US, missiles were landing on Baghdad International Airport.

Although nobody has claimed responsibility, they are believed to be in response to the landing of an Iranian civilian airplane in Iraq – the first in 30 years. The strikes have been seen as a message from Sunni fundamentalists to the prime minister to break away from Iranian influence.

Less than 24 hours later, another five missiles landed on the Green Zone, where Maliki’s office, and the embassies of both the US and Great Britain, are located. The Americans announced, against his wishes, the arrest of a senior officer in the Iraqi army on charges of channeling funds from Tehran to radical groups inside Iraq.

The funds were to be used to buy the loyalty of certain Iraqi parliamentarians in order to sink the proposed treaty with the US. Maliki never wanted the much-loathed treaty with Washington, and neither did Tehran. To keep his post, however, he had to go on with American requests to ratify the pact before the end of 2008.

Meanwhile, he turned a blind eye to all those opposing it. In fact, he encouraged them at times because this echoed his own personal beliefs and what he felt best served the interests of both Iraq and Iran. Among other things, the treaty calls for the withdrawal of all US troops from Iraqi cities by June 2009, and from all of Iraq by 2011, “unless requested otherwise by the Iraqi government”.

The proposed treaty has raised eyebrows in both Baghdad and Tehran. For one thing, it protects American troops from Iraqi laws if they commit a crime on Iraqi soil, yet gives the Americans the right to long-term military bases in Iraq, and the ability to prosecute Iraqi nationals for crimes committed against the US. According to John Negroponte, the deputy secretary of state and former US ambassador to Baghdad, talks are progressing with the Iraqis and a treaty will be signed before the end of 2008.

Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd who advocates signing of the treaty (especially after the Kurdish row with Iraqi Shi’ites), called on all parties to have “courage” when signing the treaty, claiming that it served the interests of Iraq.

Within the political system, Maliki remains at odds with the Sadrists, although the tension is low nowadays because of mutual distrust of the American treaty. Maliki is mildly trying – again – to win the favors of Iraqi Sunnis as his relationship remains strained with the two Kurdish heavyweight parties. He wants the Sunnis to oppose the treaty as well, and then cite their opposition with US decision-makers.

He has sent off positive messages to Sunni countries that have sent or are going to send ambassadors to Iraq (to legitimize Maliki’s government in the eyes of the Arab street) such as Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Syria. Last week, he received Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed, the deputy commander of the Emirates Armed Forces and Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, treating him with the maximum royal respect after the Emirates decided to cancel Iraq’s $7 billion debt (and $6 billion of accumulated interest).

He also instructed his advisors to mend bridges with the Fadila Party, a Shi’ite bloc that holds 15 seats in parliament (out of a total of 275) asking them to return to the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) which is co-headed by his own Da’wa Party. Hashem al-Hashemi, the new secretary general of al-Fadila, met with Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, Maliki’s ally from the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC), to reach a compromise to save the UIA, which holds 83 seats in parliament. The meeting failed, and Maliki distanced himself from it after Hashemi came out with a thundering criticism of the prime minister, accusing him of “conspiracy” and of destroying the Arab identity of Iraq.

Relations with the Kurds remain at an all-time low, as a result of the Turkish operations in northern Iraq, aimed at rooting out the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK). The Kurds blame Maliki – among other factors – of doing nothing to protect their territory from the Turks. Mohammad Othman, a prominent Kurdish politician, claimed that the Turkish military operation “coincides with the objectives of the Iraqi government in weakening the [Kurdish] region’s government”. The Kurds feel betrayed by Maliki, who used them when his ratings were low with Sunnis and Shi’ites, and promised to implement the annexation of oil-rich Kirkuk into Iraqi Kurdistan by the end of 2007. One year later, that remains nothing but an empty promise, as far as the Kurds are concerned.
Instead of trying to curb the press, which is pointing to all of these shortcomings, Maliki should look to Churchill for more inspiring words of wisdom. Among other things, the British leader once advised that in hard times, leaders should come up with innovative ideas to ease hardships. This will endear a leader to the masses he is ruling. When the US stopped exporting steel to Great Britain during World War II, Churchill thought of everything to solve the crisis – from collecting iron railings from public parks and streets, to removing steel from unfinished buildings, to gathering shells from the battlefield.

During the early years of the war, Churchill refused complete blackouts in Britain’s main cities, arguing that this would demoralize the people. He proposed switching electricity on during certain hours so that people could still go to cinemas and theaters to keep their spirits up. No similar morale-boosting moves have occurred in Maliki’s Iraq since 2006. Iraqis should be able to still go to the movies, theaters and public parks. People should never lose the right to relax, live, love and enjoy entertainment without being afraid of being ripped apart by a terrorist bombing.

Churchill left behind one great legacy from World War II: leaders lead. It’s that simple – they lead, manage, inspire and motivate people by leaping into action – and danger – themselves. He created hope in people who had every reason in the world to be miserable and defeated. Maliki should also do just that.

Churchill also advised that revenge is sweet, but too expensive for a nation wanting to end its strife and turn a new page in its history. Maliki should implement this advice if he wants domestic progress in Iraq. This can only be done by giving the Sunnis what they want in terms of greater influence within the government, namely a curb on Shi’ite militias, a general amnesty, and more freedoms.

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst