Friday, May 23, 2008

What happened in Najaf

Prime Minister Maliki paid a surprise visit to Najaf on Thursday, where the two big events were: first, a speech to members of the provincial council, including the governor and other local officials, and secondly his interview with Ayatollah Sistani and the subsequent spin.

(1) What Maliki said to the Najaf council

In his speech, Maliki could not have been more clear on the theme that Iraq is on the brink of a boom in foreign investment. Aswat al Iraq begins its summary of the visit this way:
[Maliki] stressed, on Thursday, that all the energies of the state have been exhausted for the purpose of bringing about security over the past several years, at the expense of investment and construction, and he indicated that Iraq needs big global corporations for investment and the improvement of services, and it was this that he promised to focus on in the coming period of time.
And Maliki went on to say that security will continue to be the top priority and the top challenge for his government, assuring his Najaf audience that his government will not take their eyes off this issue for even an instant. The reporter says Maliki continued:
"And we are not suffering from any shortage of finance for electricity or water or other services. Rather, this [lack of progress in these areas] is owing to the fact that foreign governments have barred their corporations from coming into Iraq on account of the lack of security, and the lack of financial guarantees. Now, however, a flood of global corporations in a variety of sectors is starting to pour into the country for the purpose of construction and investment in the country."
On the issue of financial guarantees and the need to satisfy the requirements of the foreign corporations, Maliki was quite clear, according to this account, adding:
He explained that "the government has decided to deposit money to the account of a number of large global corporations, to guarantee their work in a number of service projects in the country which they are undertaking", indicating that "Iraq is in need of big foreign global corporations for development [projects]."
This was not the first indication that Maliki and his people are beating the drum for foreign investment (see for instance this grandiose speech by deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh at Sharm-el-Sheikh last week), but so far as I know it was the first explicit reference to this idea of a division of tasks: Namely that the government will continue to focus on security, a task which has been "exhausting all of the energy of the state", while using its financial resources to attract foreign corporations to undertake "development and investment" projects, including "services".

(2) What Sistani said to Maliki, and the spin

Naturally we do not know that was said in the meeting between Maliki and the Ayatollah Sistani, but we do know how this was spun by Maliki's people to make it appear that Sistani agreement with extending the rule of law implied specific approval for what the Maliki government has been doing by way of security operations. Here's how Aswat al Iraq described the spin:
[Maliki] said on Thursday that [Sistani] and the Najaf authorities in general expressed support for the government's measures to extend the rule of law, and limiting weapons to the hands of the state, and the efforts to make the political process in Iraq succeed.
And he quotes from the Maliki press-release:
"The religious authorities generally support the government in the extension of the rule of law", and the statement added that his conversation with Sistani "focused on topics which serve Iraq".
So while Maliki's account of the talks was in the most general terms possible, still as far as possible he tried to highlight the theme of "weapons only in the hands of the state" as if this was an endorsement of his recent campaigns.

Nahrainnet spells out the implication, first quoting Maliki, then indicating what "observers" think:
[Maliki said] "Our conversation focused on issues that serve Iraq, and the religious authority in general supports the government in extending the rule of law." Observers think this support is tantamount to support for the military operations that the government has been carrying out with the support of the coalition forces in Basra, Baghdad, and Mosul.
In other words, it almost seemed possible to spin Sistani's position as being in favor of weapons exclusively in the hands of the government and in the hands of the foreign military forces that it relies on for support. So there was a need to reply to that (see the remarks below on the AP story).

As noted here earlier, the Maliki government is in the process of trying to announce the inauguration of a new phase in Iraqi development: Following supposed improvements in security, and in the political process, the theme now is that while the government continues to focus on these two themes, it is time to inaugurate the new phase, which will be characterized by Iraq using its financial clout to attract foreign corporations to carry out the tasks connected with economic development.

And the key point is that the promise of this brave new world of foreign investment is being rolled out against a background of continuing reliance on foreign military power in the country. A "bold vision", you might say.

There is a lot that could be said about the AP yesterday that said:
Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric has been quietly issuing religious edicts declaring that armed resistance against U.S.-led foreign troops is permissible — a potentially significant shift by a key supporter of the Washington-backed government in Baghdad....So far, al-Sistani's fatwas have been limited to a handful of people. They also were issued verbally and in private — rather than a blanket proclamation to the general Shiite population — according to three prominent Shiite officials in regular contact with al-Sistani as well as two followers who received the edicts in Najaf.
Most likely the "edicts" themselves were not that controversial, having apparently been issued to members of his protective agency and thus not outside of his own circle. The news is in the touting of them by AP and their sources. And the disclosures were made to an English-language news agency, not to an Arabic-language one, suggesting the message, it that is what this is, is to the Americans.

And that is where the context comes in. Maliki, with his speech on the new era of foreign investment, and then his implication at the same time that Sistani agrees with continued foreign military involvement, was very boldly outlining a vision for the future of Iraq that went beyond anything that had been made public up to then, and obviously it was a vision not acceptable to the Ayatollah. Or, some would say, to any decent Iraqi for that matter. And I think that is the point of all of this: Not that the Ayatollah is against the occupation, something everyone already knew, but rather that Maliki and his American sponsors have for some reason made a point of touting a foreign-investment-first policy, against a background of foreign military involvement, that they would have been better off continuing to keep under wraps. (And probably, if you had to come up with a reason for rolling out the foreign-investment-first policy at this particular time, the answer would be that this was seen as necessary in order to foster an atmosphere of "investor confidence").


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