Iyad Allawi and Muqtada al-Sadr.

Coups and counter-coups in Iraq

Amid all the political confusion in Iraq, Baghdad is swirling with rumors that former prime minister Iyad Allawi is planning a military coup to end the gridlock over the choice of Ibrahim al-Jaafari as prime minister-designate.

Allawi’s group currently has 25 seats in the 275-seat parliament – not enough to realize the former prime minister’s ambitions through democratic and legal means, justifying, perhaps, a military coup to achieve them by force.

The speculation is that Allawi will use the armed forces to seize power and topple the stubborn Jaafari, who insists on staying in power (he was premier in the previous administration) although he has lost support of everybody around him, including the Americans, the British, the Sunnis, the Kurds, the seculars and some of the Shi’ites in his own United Iraqi Alliance (UIA). His only remaining supporters are the Da’wa Party, which he heads, and the rebel-cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

With strong American support, Allawi would prop himself up as prime minister, and probably take over the Ministry of Defense or Interior as well, then create a mini-dictatorship where he would unleash hell on his enemies: the former Ba’athists, the Sunni insurgency of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the pro-Iran officials of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution of Iraq (SCIRI), the Badr Brigade and Muqtada al-Sadr.

Allawi said last month that the sectarian killing in the country amounted to a “civil war.”

US President George W Bush warned on Wednesday that Iraqis must move quickly to form a new government as the “vacuum in the political process” would produce further instability and violence in the country.

Negotiations to form a government headed by Jaafari have been in a stalemate for four months since elections for the country’s first full-term parliament after the US-led invasion in 2003.

A coup is undemocratic of course, but it is one way to bring order to a war-torn country. Allawi would pledge to restore Iraq’s parliament, which is packed with pro-Iran politicians and clerics, but not before Iraqi society was pulled back together – with force and determination. “Security first, democracy second” would be his motto.

Allawi has naturally denied rumors of a coup. In an interview with the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper on Wednesday he said, “I never had faith in coups, which brought nothing but catastrophes to our people (in reference to the military coups that have rocked Iraq since the revolution of 1958).”

He dropped a confusing remark, however, saying that although he would not support a military putsch, he nevertheless did not believe that pure democracy was compatible with Iraqi politics. Allawi noted, “One cannot bring American democracy to a country that is occupied like Iraq, and whose infrastructure, as well as military and governmental institutions, have been destroyed.”

He added, “I warned the Americans repeatedly from trying to model Iraq on the social and administrative system in the United States.” Allawi was saying that a military coup was not desirable, but neither was the chaos existing in Iraq today. This chaos under Jaafari, he said, “where the government turns a blind eye to the militias … has led Iraq to a disaster”.

At first glance, the idea of a coup seems very ugly. It was the coups, after all, and ambitious and power-crazy officers who led them in the 1960s that paved the way for Saddam Hussein to take power in 1979.

But a coup – or some kind of coup, not necessarily military – is needed to end the almost comical political gridlock and which shows no signs of being resolved.

Despite the clamor for him to step down, Jaafari, acting in a manner well known in the Arab world, stubbornly insists on clinging to power, claiming that he is the choice of the Iraqi people. He was chosen by the Shi’ite bloc that won the most votes in the December elections, although not enough to form a government without support from the Kurds or the Sunnis, hence the impasse.

Meanwhile, everybody is meddling in Iraq affairs: the Iranians, the Syrians, the Americans and the British. While the politicians bicker, about 25 people are dying each day. Death squads such as the Mehdi Army and the Badr Organization roam the streets, killing innocent Shi’ites and Sunnis at will.

Jaafari has done nothing to end the violence. The Sunnis don’t want him because he failed to protect their leaders and places of worships after sectarian violence hit Iraq in February. At that time a terrorist bombing targeted a holy Shi’ite shrine in Samarra. Without a shred of evidence, Shi’ite leaders called for reprisal attacks against Sunnis. Jaafari did nothing to stop them.

His allies at the Ministry of Interior continue to stall proper patrolling of the streets, and accusations are mounting in Baghdad that Shi’ite officials at the ministry are still using their posts to persecute, arrest and torture traditional enemies in the Sunni community. Allawi claimed that from day one of Jaafari’s term as prime minister, his loyalists fired some of Iraq’s best troops at the Ministry of Interior because they were not sectarian.

Allawi revealed in Al-Hayat that Jaafari had sacked “170 of the finest officers specialized in security affairs”. Some of them, he added, had been replaced by clerics. Allawi asked, “Is it possible to give a senior military rank to a turbaned sheikh only because he is a sheikh?” He pointing out, “With all our respect for religious figures, such a post requires specialists.” He wrapped up describing the situation under Jaafari by saying, “Loyalty to the nation in the armed forces has dropped in favor of loyalty to a political group inside a certain sect [the pro-Iran religious Shi’ites]), and not the sect in general.”

The Kurds also support Allawi and don’t want to work with Jaafari because he is allied to Muqtada, who in turn is opposed to any kind of federalism in Iraq, including that of Iraqi Kurdistan. The Kurds, along with secular allies like Allawi, don’t want Jaafari to give government posts to clerics or members of Islamic groups who would be sectarian in their approach, as the case with current Minister of Interior Bayan Jabr. Jaafari, who is allied to Muqtada because the cleric helped secure Jaafari’s selection as premier-designate, insists on giving the Ministry of Interior and Defense to sectarian politicians, mainly Sadrists, despite strong US reservations.

Because of all this political uncertainty, none of the Iraqi ministries or officials, not even Jaafari, is working to full capacity. They are more concerned with the talks on who the new prime minister should be than with carrying out their duties to provide services, security and reforms to the Iraqi people.

Passiveness, negligence, nepotism and corruption are reaching alarmingly dangerous levels. As a result, legislation is not being passed. Laws are not being implemented and security is completely lacking.

In his interview with Al-Hayat, Allawi predicted that even if Jaafari stayed in power, with such a poor government policy (which he claims is a “no policy”), his cabinet “will not last for long”. Allawi commented that the prime minister must leave because he, and his entire team, were sectarian politicians governed by pan-Shi’ite sectarian policies, rather than Iraqi nationalism. Allawi claimed that he had received several death threats for his views, and messages conveyed through Arab channels saying: “Be sectarian – or leave!”

Allawi’s official demands include crushing the insurgency, disarming the Shi’ite militias, bringing secular people to power and rotating the presidency and Ministry of Foreign Affairs between Arabs and Kurds. Currently, both posts are occupied by Kurds. This, however, is a debatable issue that could be settled with his friend, President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd.

But the real problem remains the crisis over the premiership.

Last week it was reported from Baghdad that Jaafari’s Da’wa Party had come up with four names as possible replacements for Jaafari: Ali al-Adib, Jawad al-Malki, Haydar Abadi and Abdul Falah al-Sudani, all members of the political bureau of Da’wa.

They are all creations of political Islam and all were linked to Iran at one point in their history of underground activity under Saddam. Although they may be opposed to the carving up of Iraq and the creation of an autonomous Shi’ite regime in the south, all of them are strong allies of Muqtada and believe in pan-Shi’ite loyalties more than Iraqi nationalism.

If any one of them is seriously put forward as a candidate, he would be viewed as a proxy for Jaafari, and would most likely be vetoed by the secularists, the Sunnis, the Kurds and other Shi’ites.

These men simply do not have the ability to end Iranian meddling in Iraqi politics. They cannot bring the security services to order. Nor can they halt the death squads. Abdul Razzak al-Kazimi, the official spokesman for the prime minister, gave a contradictory story to the daily newspaper Al-Zaman, insisting that Jaafari was the only candidate for the job. All talk about the nomination of others from the Da’wa Party were “rumors”, he said. He also denied that Jaafari had received notice from the influential Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to step down from office, saying, “Sistani does not interfere in these things.” All members of the UIA, he added, were holding on to Jaafari.

Adding confusion to the already complex world of Iraqi politics is a new demand by Allawi, put forward by one of his top allies, Rassim al-Awadi. Through Awadi, Allawi expressed his desire to become a vice president. Currently, the job is held by one Sunni and one Shi’ite from the UIA. The new names – much to Allawi’s displeasure – were announced on Thursday: Abdul Mehdi (Shi’ite) and Tarek al-Hashemi (Sunni).

Allawi is a member of neither bloc, and his proposal infuriated the Sunnis, to whom he is allied in trying to bring down Jaafari. The Sunni leaders expressed reservations over his desire, claiming that the job was allocated to a Sunni, but Awadi replied, “We do not agree with such sectarian sharing. Nothing in the constitution says that the posts should be shared like this. We are Iraq, not Lebanon.”

Meanwhile, Sunnis are facing heat more from the religious Shi’ites, who vetoed the Sunni candidate, Hashemi (who was just named vice president), for the post of parliament Speaker.

Hashemi is leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party and the job is reserved for the Sunni community, but the UIA is opposed to him “as a reaction to the Sunni opposition to Jaafari”. The most likely candidate for Speaker, therefore, is Adnan al-Dulaimi, a prominent leader of the Sunni bloc. Allawi has not taken sides on the issue of Speaker, but he is likely to back the Sunnis against the UIA.

Allawi is a heavyweight in Iraqi politics who must be reckoned with, whether he is with the government or in the opposition. He is currently angry for being passed over as prime minister, and, more recently on Thursday, as vice president.

He has intensified his war of words against Jaafari, and all indicators from Baghdad show that the current prime minister’s regime is falling apart. But what if it holds together? What if Jaafari manages to stay in power, through some sort of deal between Iran, the UIA and the Americans, who are due to hold negotiations over Iraq with the Tehran regime. How many Iraqis would want to live until 2011 under a sectarian government like that of Jaafari?

This is where the idea of a coup starts to sound not so alien. It would not be a coup against democracy, as some would claim, but rather, a coup against a man who came to power because of his sectarian origins, rather than his political program.

And as Arab coup history shows, Allawi would not necessarily stage a coup to become prime minister himself. He might launch his putsch, then set up a puppet regime to implement his political program, in order not to alienate other players in the Iraqi political arena.

But two factors make this idea unlikely. One is that Allawi, no matter how strong he may be, is not an officer in the army. Few officers would risk their necks for a civilian – again, as Arab coup history has shown since 1949. As long as he is not a member of the Army, his chances of a successful coup are limited.

A second reason why his coup would be difficult is that although the Americans might allow or facilitate it, Iran would never be so obliging toward a coup against its allies in Baghdad.

Thus, if one pro-American coup took place by Allawi, a counter pro-Iranian coup would would take place a few months later, headed by someone like Abdul Aziz al-Hakim of the SCIRI.

The situation in Iraq could slide into one similar to the struggle over Syria in the 1950s, where every regional player was trying to pull the weak democracy into its camp. The Syrians badly wanted democracy, but were unable to maintain it because of the meddling of so many outside players, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq, Israel and the United States. The title of British journalist Patrick Seale’s classic book, The Struggle for Syria, summed up the situation well.

Today, this term applies equally to Iraq. It is truly a struggle for Iraq between Allawi, Jaafari, Muqtada, Hakim, Talabani, the Americans, the British and the Iranians.

Asia Times Online, 21 April 2006