The clock is ticking for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the hapless, feckless leader of the Shiite fundamentalist party Al Dawa. From Washington, London, Baghdad, and other capitals come rumors that Maliki's government will soon be overthrown by a nationalist general or colonel or that he will resign in favor of an emergency "government of national salvation."
A coup d'état in Iraq would put a period -- or rather an exclamation point -- at the end of the Bush administration's bungled experiment with democracy there. And it would open an entirely new phase in that country's post-2003 national nightmare. Would it result in the creation of a Saddam-like strongman to rule Iraq with a heavy hand? Or would it force the warring parties (Sunni insurgents, Iranian-backed Shiite militias, and Kurdish warlords) to intensify the bloody civil war that is tearing Iraq apart? No one knows.
As the carnage in Iraq reaches new heights of barbarism, what's clear is the utter uselessness of Maliki's government. It is simply incapable of staunching the bloodletting. Despite weeks of blunt warnings from U.S. officials that time was running out for him, on Sunday the Prime Minister announced yet again that efforts to disarm Iraq's militias would be postponed. "The initial date we've set for disbanding the militias is the end of this year or the beginning of next year," he said, according to USA Today. Still, whatever form it might take, a coup d'état stands an excellent chance of making a horrible situation worse. Rather than toy with yet another misstep, the capstone in a seemingly endless series of errors in Iraq, the Bush administration -- including the increasingly powerful "realist," anti-neoconservative policy types now emerging in Washington -- would do far better to start planning for a quick exit.
Despite the bloodbath fears that are constantly raised about an Iraq without American troops, a U.S. exit need not consign that country to years of Rwanda-style ethnic slaughter or a Congo-style civil war. Even as it leaves, there are plenty of things the United States could do to ameliorate the state of post-occupation Iraq, including beginning real negotiations with the Iraqi resistance and launching diplomatic efforts to get neighboring countries, especially Iran and Syria, to stay out of the conflict.
Even though a military coup might seem to some desperate policymakers a tempting option, it's one of those quicksand ideas. In a paper just written for the Middle East Institute, the sagacious Wayne White -- who headed the State Department's intelligence effort on Iraq until last year -- specifically warns that it's time for the United States to "back off" in Iraq:
"A series of apparent U.S. ultimatums and veiled political threats aimed at the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in recent weeks -- especially Maliki himself -- is but the latest example of excessive U.S. involvement in the Iraqi political process.
"[But] it is time that setting the overall direction of Iraqi politics must be left to Iraqis, for better or worse. Washington must recognize that it cannot orchestrate political success in that tortured land through still more heavy-handed political tampering. And stepping back from the Iraqi political fray is a prerequisite for any overall exit strategy."
Is a Coup in the Cards?
I first raised the possibility of a coup d'etat in an October 6 column, "Coup in Iraq?" for TomPaine.com. It followed a drumbeat of comments and statements from Bush administration officials, U.S. military officers, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, and former Rep. Lee Hamilton -- co-chairman with James A. Baker III of the Iraq Study Group -- all of whom warned Maliki ominously that he had only a matter or weeks or months to get a handle on Iraq's paramilitary armies, militias, and death squads. The consequences for the Prime Minister of failing to do so were left unsaid, but the warnings were so explicit that Maliki spoke to George W. Bush this week about how he should interpret the barrage of deadline-like statements, and the President replied, according to spokesman Tony Snow, "Don't worry, you have our full support." (Think: Heck of a job, Maliki!) In fact, whatever consoling words the President might have had for him, the Iraqi Prime Minister has almost no reservoir of support left either in Washington or among U.S. military commanders in Iraq.
Over the weekend, rumors began to fly thick and fast. In a piece headlined "Iraqis Call for Five-Man Junta to End the Anarchy," Marie Colvin wrote in the Sunday Times of London:
"Iraq's fragile democracy, weakened by mounting chaos and a rapidly rising death toll, is being challenged by calls for the formation of a hard-line ‘government of national salvation.'
"The proposal, which is being widely discussed in political and intelligence circles in Baghdad, is to replace the Shi'ite-led government of Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, with a regime capable of imposing order and confronting the sectarian militias leading the country to the brink of civil war. Dr. Saleh al-Mutlaq, a prominent Sunni politician, traveled to Arab capitals last week seeking support for the replacement of the present government with a group of five strongmen who would impose martial law and either dissolve parliament or halt its participation in day-to-day government."
Mutlaq, who is sympathetic to, if not affiliated with, the Iraqi resistance and its former Baathist leaders, explicitly called for Maliki to step down.
Colvin quoted Anthony Cordesman, an uber-realist, conservative U.S. military analyst, claiming that there is a "very real possibility" Maliki will be toppled. "There could be a change in government, done in a backroom, which could see a general brought in to run the ministry of defense or the interior."
David Ignatius -- an exceedingly well-connected reporter at the Washington Post -- wrote a column on October 13 citing Mutlaq as well, and suggesting that Iraq's own intelligence service (created, funded, and run by the CIA) is involved:
"The coup rumors come from several directions. U.S. officials have received reports that a prominent Sunni politician, Saleh al-Mutlaq, visited Arab capitals over the summer and promoted the idea of a national salvation government, suggesting, erroneously, that it would have American support. Meanwhile, top officials of the Iraqi intelligence service have discussed a plan in which Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would step aside in favor of a five-man ruling commission that would suspend parliament, declare martial law and call back some officers of the old Iraqi army.
"Frustration with Maliki's Shiite-led government is strongest among Iraq's Sunni minority, which dominated the old regime of Saddam Hussein. But as sectarian violence has increased, the disillusionment has spread to some prominent Shiite and Kurdish politicians as well. Some are said to support the junta-like commission, which would represent the country's main factions and include former interim prime minister Iyad Allawi -- still seen by some Iraqis as a potential ‘strongman' who could pull the country back from the brink."
To be sure, Allawi -- in London -- denied any reports in an interview with Newsweek that he is involved in plotting a coup d'état. "Total nonsense. To plot a coup, I don't sit in London," huffed Allawi, a long-time asset of the CIA and British intelligence. "I would be sitting in Baghdad trying to make a coup."
Allawi's denials aside, when I spoke to a former CIA officer with wide experience in the Middle East, far from pooh-poohing the idea he had this to say:
"It's being talked about in Washington. One scenario is, the Iraqis do it themselves, some Iraqi colonel who's fed up with the whole thing, who takes over the country. And it would take the United States forty-eight hours to figure out how to respond, and meanwhile he's taken over everything. The other side of the coin is, we do it ourselves. Find some general up in Ramadi or somewhere, and help him take over. And he'd declare a state of emergency and crack down. And he'd ask us to leave -- that would be our exit strategy. It's a distinct possibility. I've raised this with a number of foreign service and intelligence people, and most of them -- remembering the days of the coups d'état in the Middle East -- say, ‘Hear, hear!'
"And you know what? I think Rumsfeld would jump on this idea in five minutes."
Of course, no coup will happen at all -- no general or colonel would dare try -– without, at the very least, a wink and a nod from the CIA, the U.S. military, or Ambassador Khalilzad. And most likely, it would take significantly more than a wink, something like explicit support and promises of assistance.
But, according to my reporting, that is precisely what is being discussed in Washington, even among the inner councils of James Baker's Iraq Study Group, the realist (that is, anti-neoconservative) commission set up last spring to figure out what to do about Iraq.
Salah Mukhtar, a former top Iraqi official who served as Iraq's ambassador to India and then Vietnam in the period just before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, is not a spokesman for the Iraqi resistance. But he is very well plugged in to the thinking of that country's insurgent leaders. When I spoke to him this week by telephone, he assured me the resistance is well aware that elements in the Bush administration might be planning a coup. According to him, the main focus of such a coup -- even one fostered by the United States -- would be to mobilize the Iraqi Army against the Shiite militias:
"The increase in the volume of mass killing in Iraq is creating a willingness among the people to accept a military coup. I would say that 80% of Iraqis are willing to accept it, to accept anything that would help to crush the Iranian gangs [i.e., the militias of the Shiite religious parties, such as the Badr Brigade and the Mahdi Army].
"The United States is making contacts with some old Iraqi generals in Jordan. They are former Baathists. The United States is looking for people to topple the government of Maliki. Some of them are in Iraq, and some of them are based in Jordan. Some of them turned down the U.S. offers, but some of them accepted.
"If there is a military coup in Iraq, that coup will be [sympathetic to] the Baathists. If its leader is not pro-Baathist, there will be a second coup against that leader. So either way, it will result in a pro-Baathist government… It would be a crazy move by the United States. It shows that they don't understand Iraq."
The Unraveling of Iraq?
What does all this mean? As a start, it probably represents a belated Washington wish-list that contains quite a disparate, if not conflicting, set of ideas about the American future in Iraq. Some top officials are surely eyeing the possibility of a last-ditch effort to establish a government that would stabilize the country, put down the resistance, and create a secure environment for President Bush's "victory" strategy in Iraq -- even though that victory would have nothing to do with democracy. Others in or around the administration are undoubtedly drawn to the idea of a coup, or at least of the forced removal of Prime Minister Maliki in some fashion because it would present a fig leaf for an American "redeployment" (read: withdrawal from Iraq). Under this scenario, the United States could exit as gracefully as circumstances allow, leaving behind a strong Iraqi central government that might still be an ally of some sort.
Indeed, as early as mid-August, a New York Times piece suggested that at least some officials in the White House had given up on the idea of democracy in Iraq and were ready to look at "alternatives":
"Some outside experts who have recently visited the White House said Bush administration officials were beginning to plan for the possibility that Iraq's democratically elected government might not survive.
"'Senior administration officials have acknowledged to me that they are considering alternatives other than democracy,' said one military affairs expert who received an Iraq briefing at the White House last month and agreed to speak only on condition of anonymity."
Whatever fantasies officials in Washington or Iraq may harbor, however, a coup d'état in Baghdad would by no means be a silver bullet to end Iraq's anarchy. Quite the opposite, it might just add to the bloody unraveling of the country. The problem is, as one experienced Middle East hand told me, "In order to mount a coup, you have to have a state. And there is no state in Iraq."
Iraq is utterly anarchic, a Mad Max world of clashing paramilitaries, gangs, warlords, sectarian fighters, death squads, criminal enterprises, government-backed mafias, and several hundred thousand Army men, police, Interior Ministry commandos, and special units like the Facilities Protection Service that are only loosely under the control of the central government. So how would a prospective coup-maker, even with Washington's fervent backing, impose his will on all that?
The answer is: He couldn't. If a coup happens, it will likely signal that the center of gravity inside Baghdad's Green Zone has shifted from the Shiite majority (and its religious parties, such as Al Dawa and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq) to a more centrist, more pro-Sunni, less sectarian, less religious, and less ideological bloc. It might be seen as an attempt by the CIA and the U.S. military to re-install a more Saddam-like regime in Baghdad, perhaps with the intent of undoing the damage that has been done to Iraq's unity and stability by the neoconservatives. But like all too-clever-by-half strategies, this one would probably make things not better but a lot worse in a country that has already been torn to shreds by the U.S. invasion and occupation.
Robert Dreyfuss is the author of Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam. He covers national security for Rolling Stone and writes frequently for The American Prospect, Mother Jones, and the Nation. He is also a regular contributor to TomPaine.com, the Huffington Post, Tomdispatch, and other sites, and writes the blog, The Dreyfuss Report, at his website.
Copyright 2006 Robert Dreyfuss