Calculating Iran’s Iraq Impact: “It’s too late to switch sides” a Sunni leader argues

Baghdad Correspondent

Condoleezza Rice’s recent visit to Iraq was intended to show support for the battered government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, but it was clear from the moment the Secretary of State arrived that the US was beginning to shift its political stance. A senior member of the al-Tawafuq Bloc told this reporter that during her visit, Rice met the notable Sunni politicians and national leaders and “stressed that the United Sates feels that America’s support for the Shias has encouraged them to follow an Iranian strategy.” This senior al-Tawafuq political leader added that Rice specifically said that the US “is fearful that there is an Iranian strategy that aims to take over the middle and south of the country.”

These fears, I was told, mean that the US is strongly considering giving the Sunni’s an enhanced position in Iraq’s current political structure. Rice’s strong message contained a veiled formula: if the Sunni community helps to end the insurgency, the United States will work to give it a larger role in future governments -- at the expense of pro-Iranian Shias. As this political leader then noted: “We told the Secretary of State that we are ready to cooperate with the United States and we would even welcome a decision on their part to keep US forces in the country, as a counter-weight to growing Iranian influence. We told her that we were particularly concerned about the growing power of SCIRI -- the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.”

The most important political circles in Baghdad were aware of Rice’s flirtation with the Sunnis, even as it was happening, as American officials agree that they too believe that SCIRI plans to establish an independent pro-Iranian state in a large part of the country.

The Maliki government, for instance, supported a parliamentary bill allowing for increased autonomy as a way of promoting their unity program, current government officials note. But even the Sunnis are worried about US plans to confront Iran over its nuclear file: “An American attack on Iran puts us in the middle. Sooner or later, if there is a confrontation between the two countries, we will feel its effects,” one Sunni leader told our correspondent in Baghdad.

The Rice visit was followed by a major conference of Sunni parties and resistance currents in Amman. Delegates to the meeting -- some 300 in all -- represented a broad spectrum of Sunni movements, including the Islamic Party and officials of the Muslim Ulama Council. The meeting produced a startling consensus. For the first time, the majority of Sunni representatives said they believed that the US should remain in Iraq as a counter-balance to growing Iranian influence. One Sunni spokesman told our correspondent that some parts of the Sunni resistance would be willing to “make a political arrangement with the Americans” to keep them in the country on a temporary basis. Such an agreement, this spokesman said, would include “a date for American withdrawal from our country with the retention of some forces in the country to protect us from the Shia militias.” In return there would be “an end to the Sunni resistance.”

The Sunni conference and the Rice visit reflect a growing shift in Bush Administration perceptions about the country’s political crisis, even as American public opinion is turning against the continued occupation. But even with all the manoeuvrings during the last month in Baghdad, most Iraqi political observers are sceptical that the US can so openly “switch sides” against the Shias. “The Shia militias are a problem and the US wants to take care of that problem,” one Sunni political leader said, “but the Sunni resistance is also a problem. It would be hard for the US to stop fighting one and start fighting the other. It’s too late for that.” A Shia leader offered this counterpoint: “We have to stop acting as if the US can provide a solution. This is our country, and the Shias are the majority. It’s too bad if the US doesn’t like that, but it’s no longer up to them. It’s only a matter of time before they get out.”