US realignment with Iraqi Sunnis

Two major revelations this past week show how far the Bush administration has already shifted its policy toward realignment with Sunni forces to balance the influence of pro-Iranian Shiites in Iraq.

US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad revealed in an interview with Washington Post columnist David Ignatius that he has put the future of military assistance to a Shiite-dominated government on the table in the high-stakes US effort to force Shiite party leaders to give up control over key security ministries. Khalilzad told Ignatius that, unless the “security ministries” in the new Iraqi government are allocated to candidates who are “not regarded as sectarian”, the US would be forced to re-evaluate its assistance to the government.

Khalilzad had previously demanded that the Interior Ministry be given to a non-sectarian candidate, but he had not backed up those demands with the threat of withdrawal of assistance. Implied in Khalilzad’s position is the threat to stop funding units that are identified as sectarian Shiite in their orientation. That could affect the bulk of the Iraqi army as well as the elite Shiite police commando units which are highly regarded by the US military command.

Khalilzad’s decision to make the US threat public was followed by the revelation by Newsweek in its February 6 issue that talks between the US and “high level” Sunni insurgent leaders have already begun at a US military base in Anbar province and in Jordan and Syria. Khalilzad told Newsweek, “Now we have won over the Sunni leadership. The next step is to win over the insurgents.” As this sweeping definition of the US political objective indicates, these talks are no longer aimed at splitting off groups that are less committed to the aim of US withdrawal, as the Pentagon has favoured since last summer. Instead, the administration now appears to be prepared to make some kind of deal with all the major insurgent groups.

Even the possibility of a separate peace between the US and the Sunni insurgency, which is inherent in these negotiations, signals to the Shiites that the US is no longer wedded to the option of supporting Shiite military and police. The US position and that of Sunni politicians toward the new government are now fully aligned. On January 28, Sunni political groups and secular political parties announced a new political bloc to demand that the Interior Ministry not be in the hands of “people related to political parties”.

The Bush administration has been trying to find ways to counterbalance the influence of the pro-Iranian Shiite faction since mid-2004, especially by keeping control of paramilitary forces and secret police out of the hands of the militant Shiites. But until recently, those efforts have been constrained by the political imperative to prevail in the war against the Sunnis.

Shiite leaders have been convinced since last year’s parliamentary election campaigns that Washington has been conspiring with their enemies to undo the political power the Shiites had gained in 2005. Everyone is now waiting to see how far the Bush administration will carry its political realignment. These new moves suggest that the administration may have redefined its interests in Iraq to downgrade the importance of the fight against insurgency there in light of the larger conflict with Iran. — IPS