March 30, 2010

Iyad 'Alawi - the right choice for Iraq

The recent election of Iyad 'Alawi's al-'Iraqiyah bloc is a significant step in Iraq's move to a more representative and hopefully more stable government. It is also a rejection - albeit by the slimmest of margins - of the almost theocratic Shi'a domination of the Iraqi government under current Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. 'Alawi's alliance includes both Arab Sunnis and Shi'as.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have ties to Iyad 'Alawi. In 1996, after the United States government began to distance itself from the Iraqi National Congress led by prominent Shi'a banker Ahmad Chalabi, the Central Intelligence Agency started to work closely with Iyad 'Alawi's British-supported Iraq National Accord (the "Wifaq") to try to effect the overthrow of the Saddam Husayn regime. I was part of that effort, codenamed DBACHILLES.

In 1996, I was part of the CIA team that deployed to the region to work with "Dr Iyad," as we called him, and his group of exiled Iraqi military officers and other leaders. In the end, the effort failed, but I developed great respect for the physician turned politician and opposition leader. I think 'Alawi possesses the traits necessary to unify Iraq's Arab population, which up until now has been split into distrusting Sunni and Shi'a camps. This is in stark contrast to the divisive current al-Maliki government which has alienated the Sunnis.

Of course, 'Alawi's first challenge will be to form a government, not an easy task with such a small margin of victory. Al-Maliki will not quietly depart the scene - he is too fond of what he believes is his rightful place in Iraqi politics, and he has allies. Since the adage "politics makes strange bedfellows" certainly applies to Iraq, there are rumors that the third-place group, the Iraq National Alliance, will ally with al-Maliki's party to challenge an 'Alawi government.

There are also supporters of radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in the INA, once again making al-Sadr a power player in Iraqi politics. Although 'Alawi has expressed a willingness to continue to improve relations with neighboring Iran, Iran would clearly prefer an Iraqi government headed by al-Maliki, or even better, al-Sadr. Al-Sadr has been in Iran studying to acquire the title of ayatollah to better improve his chances to emerge as the future leader of Iraq.

Iyad 'Alawi is the right choice for Iraq at this time. I hope he is able to form a coalition government that does not include the likes of Nuri al-Maliki. It is the only way to bridge the divide between the Sunnis and Shi'a in the country. Unless that happens, the internal dispute will continue and possibly expand. If the Sunnis do not feel invested, they will work against the government, not with it.