WASHINGTON, Aug. 7 (UPI) -- Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is now "hunkered down with a small group of sycophantic cronies, increasingly detached from the business of running a government." Speaking not for attribution, this was the message conveyed by a former ranking Iraqi government official in London over the weekend. The current drift at the top, he said, could only be reversed by "a strongman at the top."
Asked if there was such a potential pro-Western leader in the military, he said, "One can always be found. All it would require is a wink and a nod from Washington." But he conceded this was highly unlikely as the Bush administration's objective in toppling Saddam Hussein was to establish democracy.
Maliki has little contact with his Cabinet ministers. Half of them are now off the job. The six Sunni ministers who resigned from Maliki's government last week -- and five independents who walked out this week -- concluded the prime minister is not serious about reconciliation and national unity. They say he sees Iran, where he spent a few years in exile during the Saddam regime, as "more relevant to Iraq's future than the United States." Iran is here to stay as our neighbor, says Maliki's entourage. And Maliki remains close to Moqtada Sadr, the fiery young anti-U.S. cleric who heads the 15,000-strong Mahdi Army militia and also enjoys close relations with Tehran.
With electricity down to an hour or two a day in Baghdad last week when temperatures hit a scorching 134 degrees, and much of the city without running water, Maliki and his cronies, with the benefit of generators and air-conditioning, seem far removed from the urgent and monumental task of rebuilding the country. They gave their visitors the impression of being overwhelmed by the challenge. They don't want the U.S. military to abandon them, but at the same time they wish them gone, a syndrome that borders on paralysis. Meanwhile, Parliament gave itself a month off, and many members went to European destinations to cool off.
The Non-Governmental Organization Coordination Committee in Iraq says violence masks a humanitarian crisis that has grown steadily worse since the 2003 invasion: Eight million people are in urgent need of emergency aid, including 2 million who are displaced within Iraq, and more than 2 million refugees in Jordan and Syria. Many more, said the NGOCC report, are living in abject poverty, without basic services, and threatened by disease and malnutrition. Forty-three percent endure "absolute poverty," and more than 50 percent are jobless. Most of those with marketable skills have joined the refugee exodus abroad.
The major powers, especially France under President Nicolas Sarkozy, who did not inherit his predecessor's anti-American bitterness over the Iraqi disaster, now see a role for the United Nations, with full backing from the 27-nation European Union, that would enable the United States to phase out. This would involve giving Iraq a similar status to Kosovo pending its graduation to full-fledged independence. Thus, Iraq's sovereignty would be held in abeyance pending a new post-Saddam political settlement. But this would require a major increment of peacekeepers, preferably from Arab and other Muslim countries. But none of them is about to volunteer.
Iraq now runs the danger of drifting back into a violent quagmire after the current U.S. military surge in Baghdad is declared a success, sometime before year's end. The 190,000 weapons the U.S. admitted were missing, including 110,000 AK-47 assault rifles and 80,000 pistols assigned to the Iraqi armed forces and police, did not bode well for a less belligerent, post-surge future. The U.S. Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, reported 30 percent of the weapons distributed by the United States in Iraq over the last three years could not be traced.
Britain under Gordon Brown is closer to the EU consensus on Iraq than it was under Tony Blair. Temporary international tutelage could also undermine Iran's strategy in Iraq, which is to dominate the internal political process through weak pro-Iranian Shiite Islamist leaders, like Maliki. Think-tank strategists say this gives Iran control of Iraq through pliable friends who are also acceptable to Washington.
Iranian diplomacy has been diligent in laying the groundwork for an Iraqi satellite, or client state. After the Maliki government was sworn in May 2006, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki led a delegation to Baghdad. The diplomatic pump had been primed, and Iraq's foreign minister was quick to support Iran's right to pursue nuclear technology "for peaceful purposes." Maliki's Dawa party is closely aligned with Tehran.
Four months after he took office, Maliki led a delegation of his ministers to Tehran, where they met with all the major Iranian leaders and signed several agreements, including border immigration controls and intelligence sharing. Maliki also agreed to deport 3,400 anti-Iranian guerrilla fighters of the Iranian opposition group People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran, authorized by Saddam and based on their common border.
Maliki reiterated his pledge to kick them out, but the United States insisted on keeping them as long as it remains responsible for Iraqi security. Maliki will make his second official visit to Iran next weekend.
President Bush has repeated time and again U.S. forces are in Iraq to defeat al-Qaida terrorists to make sure we don't have to fight them "over here." On that front, the news from Iraq was good. Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar province, with some 25,000 armed followers, have cut their ties with al-Qaida in Iraq and aligned with U.S. forces -- against al-Qaida fighters. But al-Qaida is now a global phenomenon, with like-minded extremists and terrorist cells from Mindanao in the Philippines to Morocco. Its support group, ranging from university graduates to middle-class professionals, circles the globe.
In London last weekend, a radical Islamist group that calls itself the Party of Liberation staged a noisy demonstration attended by several thousand well-dressed professional Muslims who advocate a global "caliphate" with shariah law for all. The chairman of the party, Abdul Wahid, a medical doctor in Harrow, attacked Britain's political leadership: "They say, 'You preach hate.' I preach a hatred of the lies of people in this country that send soldiers to Iraq. I preach a hatred of torture."
Conference-goers included computer engineers and scientists, IT managers, bankers and teachers. They all seem to know how far they can push under the new 2006 anti-terrorism law that prohibits the glorification of terrorism. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has asked London to ban Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Party of Liberation. But as long as they don't openly condone suicide bombings, they can proselytize for radical Islam.