Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, the head of Iraq's ruling Shiite coalition and of the country's most pro-Iranian Shiite Islamist group, met Monday with U.S. President George W. Bush at the White House-just days after Bush met with another senior Iraqi Shiite leader, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, in Amman, Jordan. The meeting also took place two days before the much-anticipated release of a report from the Iraq Study Group (ISG), which has put forth the view that Washington should seek Iranian assistance in order to extricate itself from the crisis in Iraq.
Iran's clerical regime in the past several weeks has openly said that it would be willing to help the Bush administration stabilize Iraq if Washington altered its behavior toward Tehran-a euphemism for acknowledging Iran's dominant position in Iraq and the region. This is something that the Bush administration has been reluctant to do, because it would empower Tehran and create major problems for Washington and its Arab allies in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the Persian Gulf Arab states. Iran is also trying to use its position in Iraq as leverage on the nuclear issue, which is of most concern to another U.S. ally in the region, Israel.
Therefore, the United States has been trying to figure out a way to avoid having to deal with Iran over Iraq, or at least limit its dealings with the Iranians. This would explain Bush's meeting with al-Maliki-which, however, did not go well. Indeed, a memo from Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, was leaked to the media last week in which Hadley questioned al-Maliki's ability to pacify Iraq's raging sectarian violence, especially the need to contain the attacks perpetrated against Sunnis by Shiite death squads.
Given that the Bush administration is desperately in search of options on Iraq, Bush was advised (likely by U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad) that the best go-to person is not the prime minister but al-Hakim, who wields more power. Al-Hakim's party-the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), is more powerful than al-Maliki's Hizb al-Dawah, and its military wing, the Badr Organization, is the country's largest and most well-organized Shiite militia.
Al-Hakim's greatest asset is that he is the most pro-Iranian Shiite leader in the country. SCIRI was founded in Tehran in 1982 and its military wing was trained by Iran's elite military unit, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. Normally Washington would have a problem with this, but SCIRI was the principal Shiite group that the Americans relied on in toppling the Saddam Hussein regime. Washington has maintained close ties with SCIRI-and thus with al-Hakim-ever since.
This peculiar triangular relationship works well for all involved. The Iranians can use al-Hakim to get the United States to deal with them on Iraq. Conversely, Washington feels it can work with al-Hakim to secure its objectives in Iraq without having to deal directly with Tehran or acknowledge it as a player. For al-Hakim, he has the best of both worlds, and sees it in his interest to bring Washington and Tehran to some form of an accommodation.
Both the Iranians and the Americans want to reach a settlement. Tehran wants a broad one that acknowledges Iranian hegemony in the region but also gives Iran room to maneuver on the nuclear issue. Washington wants to limit the scope of such a deal to Iraqi security.
Ultimately, however, al-Hakim and SCIRI are closer to Iran than to the United States. This is most obvious from the fact that the Bush administration opposes the idea of creating a Shiite autonomous region in southern Iraq-while al-Hakim is the architect of that plan. So, no matter how much Washington tries to limit Iranian influence in Iraq, it is not likely to work-a conclusion the ISG has already reached.
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