The murder of the governor of Muthana Province in the Shiite-dominated south of Iraq on Monday has highlighted the growing political tensions between Iraq's competing religious factions. As British forces begin their withdrawal from the increasingly restive south, Shiites may be using violence to better position themselves in coming elections. Amid the infighting, observers worry that the Iraqi government looks "doomed."
The Associated Press reports the governor was murdered on his way to work.
The blast struck the SUV carrying Gov. Mohammed Ali al-Hassani about 9 a.m., shortly after his convoy departed from his home in Rumaitha en route to his office in the provincial capital of Samawah, about 230 miles southeast of Baghdad.
On Aug. 11, the governor and police chief of another southern province, Qadasiyah, also were killed in a roadside bombing attack. Gov. Khalil Jalil Hamza and the police chief Maj. Gen. Khalid Hassan were killed as they returned to the provincial capital of Diwaniyah from a funeral for a tribal sheik.
Both governors were members of the influential Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, a group led by Shiite politician Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim whose loyalists have been fighting the Mahdi Army militia for control of the oil-rich south as British-led forces gradually withdraw from the area.
The council, formerly known as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, has been one of the dominant forces in Iraqi politics since US-sponsored elections. It has a powerful militia of its own. But the Mahdi Army of the young Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has consistently sought to challenge the older and more established group for control of Shiite-dominated areas. Reuters reports that the violence is perhaps being spurred as Shiite political groups with powerful militias position themselves for provincial elections scheduled for next year.
This is part of a settling of scores prior to the elections next year," said a senior Shi'ite official who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the subject.
"I don't think there will be a Shi'ite bloodbath because a decision has been taken to act with restraint. But more assassinations of some figures are expected," he told Reuters.
He said Hassani had played a "key role" in facing elements which had taken up arms against the government, an apparent reference to rogue elements of the Mehdi Army.
Control of Muthana, a mostly desert province along Iraq's southern border with Saudi Arabia, was handed to the Iraqi government by the British last year. It was viewed by the US and Britain at the time as a sign of improving stability and security there.
The key city in the south is Basra, home to the country's only port, through which most of its oil exports flow. With Britain edging towards an eventual pullout from the city, where Shiite gangs have held sway for almost two years now, an adviser to Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of US forces in Iraq, is warning of chaos, The Times of London reported.
Some British officers believe they are facing a "humiliating" retreat under fire to Kuwait or the southern Iraqi port of Umm Qasr.
"I regret to say that the Basra experience is set to become a major blunder in terms of military history," said a senior officer. "The insurgents are calling the shots ... and in a worst-case scenario will chase us out of southern Iraq."
Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who advised Bush on the troop surge, said Iran would use its influence with the Shi'ite Mahdi Army to exploit the situation.
"It will be a hard withdrawal. They want the image of a British defeat ... It will be ugly and embarrassing," he said.
Meanwhile Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, whose coalition government is under severe strain, arrived on his first official visit to Syria on Monday, reports the Associated Press. He is conducting joint security talks with the state that the US has alleged as playing a role in Iraq's violence. Maliki found shelter in Syria after he fled a death sentence from Saddam Hussein's Iraq in the 1980s.
This visit is to implement the government's policy that depends on the basis of security, economic and political relations with the neighboring countries and ways to enhance these relations," al-Maliki told reporters accompanying him on the trip.
"We will discuss the serious security file and its challenges, which concern not only Iraq but the whole region," al-Maliki said. "We will discuss the Iraqi community and immigrants in Syria and the ways to provide them with services."
Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani told The Associated Press that Iraq and Syria have signed a note pledging to exchange information. Also, Syria has handed over 13 suspects sought by Baghdad, he said, but did not provide details about the suspects.
Maliki has been desperately trying to keep his coalition government from collapse, but with most Sunni Arabs in parliament having abandoned his coalition, Iraq's political situation looks as unsettled as its security situation. George Washington University political scientist Marc Lynch, on his blog Abu Ardvark, says the government now looks doomed.
Al-Arabiya is reporting that the emergency political summit of Iraq's leaders has failed to produce even nominal political reconciliation. This is a devastating outcome for the Maliki government and for those Americans who hoped to have some political progress to show in the upcoming Crocker/Petraeus report. There's no other way to spin this: this summit was billed as the last chance, and it has failed.
I thought there was at least a chance that they would cobble something together out of desperation and find ways to lure the Sunni parties back in - if for no other reason than that, by the accounts I've seen, American officials on the sidelines were heavily pressuring them to come back with something ... Instead, Talabani announced the formation of a new four party coalition in support of the current government without any Sunni representation. What's left is a government stripped to its sectarian base - the two Kurdish parties and the two major Shia parties - and a world of political hurt.
Iyad Allawi, a former Iraqi prime minister who pulled his coalition of secular leaning Shiites and Sunnis from Maliki's government recently, argues in a weekend op-ed for The Washington Post that the current prime minister is a failure and declared that he's putting together a new coalition that he hopes will take over Iraq's government by "democratic means."
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has failed to take advantage of the Iraqi people's desire for peaceful and productive lives and of the enormous commitment and sacrifices made by the United States and other nations. The expected "crisis summit" in Baghdad is further evidence of the near-complete collapse of the Iraqi government. The best outcome of the summit is perhaps a renewed effort or commitment for the participants to work together, which may buy a few more weeks or months of cosmetic political activity. But there will be no lasting political reconciliation under Maliki's sectarian regime.
It is past time for change at the top of the Iraqi government. Without that, no American military strategy or orderly withdrawal will succeed, and Iraq and the region will be left in chaos.
Atlantic Monthly columnist and blogger Andrew Sullivan, who supported the invasion of Iraq and is now generally critical of the venture, had this to say about Mr. Allawi, a secular strongman that the US hoped would take the reins of government after the country's last elections: "Allawi asks Bush for a coup to put him in charge of what's left of Iraq. And by pledging to remove US troops within two years, he's also pitching the idea to the Democrats. That's my best interpretation of the op-ed today in the WaPo [Washington Post]."