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The Battle for Baghdad

Kenneth M Pollack

The scheming had gone on for hours. The Iraqis were from a half dozen different political groupings, some sectarian, some secular. It was Baghdad, it was February 2009 and it was less than a month after Iraq’s provincial elections. For our hosts, the purpose of the dinner was to assure me and a colleague that their coalition had enough people on its side to oust Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki in a vote of no confidence. It was one of many such meals we attended on that trip with Iraqi friends determined to prevent Maliki from spinning his recent electoral victories into absolute power.

That night our hosts were hoping to convince us of the strength of their position, but as the evening dragged on, assurances were forgotten. The scheming turned desperate. A little longer and any remaining vestige of confidence was gone altogether. The Iraqis began to reveal, to each other as much as to us, the problems they faced. This party boss would only join if he were named defense minister, but he brought too few votes to justify it. Another group would only join if still another party were excluded. But they would not give up on their dream of ousting Maliki, and their machinations turned to ways of getting around those obstacles.

Finally, the conversation reached its climax. The Iraqis managed to convince themselves they would have the votes they needed. They had convinced themselves that they had ways—tenuous ways, but ways—to overcome their problems. The somber mood of concern that had hung in the room seemed like it was about to lift. They had successfully built a Rube Goldberg machine that would oust the prime minister. Then, at that moment, one member of the group dispelled the whole fantastic edifice: “But Hakim [leader of the most important Shia party] won’t agree to a vote of no confidence,” he pointed out glumly. “He says it would look like we were trying to overturn the will of the people. And without ISCI [the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, Hakim’s party] we don’t have the votes.”

The dream was over. The desperate confidence evaporated. The circle of conversation splintered as some went to get more coffee or tea or sweets; others simply rose to give physical manifestation to their frustration. They fell to complaining about Sa’id Abdul Aziz al-Hakim’s unwillingness to join a vote of no confidence and to warning us that if the United States did not do something about Prime Minister Maliki we would be facing either a new Saddam or a new civil war. And as the evening faded, their warnings wasted away into plaintive questions about the new Obama administration’s willingness to oust Maliki since they could not do it themselves.

America is still all that stands between stability and anarchy in Iraq.

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