The Supreme Federal Court of Iraq threw out all charges against MP Mithal al-Alusi on Monday, November 24, 2008, and restored the parliamentary privileges that had been stripped away from him by a majority vote in parliament back in September for publicly visiting Israel, thus marking another improbable comeback for Iraq’s most iconic and controversial maverick.

To my mind, there’s nothing comparable to the phenomenon of Mr. Alusi anywhere in the Middle East.  Notwithstanding his personal sacrifices — easily discovered through a cursory Google search — what is most remarkable about Alusi is what he stands for, and the promise he represents as the region’s best secular and democratic hope for a breakthrough to the highest rungs of power.

It is almost impossible to conduct credible opinion polling in Iraq, a ‘science’ that remains flawed even in the world’s most stable democracies.  But I’d wager that Alusi enjoys unparalleled positive name recognition, much so that previously regarded heresies such as calling for normalization with Israel, as Alusi does, are forgiven and even accepted by those Iraqis impressed by his dogged fight for the principles of liberalism and independence.

Yet even though life’s heavy blows haven’t broken Alusi, the fact is he’s broke; his coffers are empty, his fight is running on fumes.

Any nascent political movement, even one that enjoys the odds that Alusi brings to the game, needs plenty of cash to compete, cash that will be spent in ways that receipts and spread sheets were never conceived for.  For example, let’s say that there is a rising star in Basra, who is yet to be ideologically aligned.  Alusi can sign him on to a great cause, but Alusi’s rivals can provide the neophyte with cars, bodyguards, media coverage, advertizing, patronage networks for hiring cousins and retinue, and the kind of uninhibited cash that works well in the Iraqi version of philanthropy: building schools and clinics, doling out scholarships, all these are things that the faux-socialist government provides, while the local kid who made good is supposed to defray the costs of social rituals such as weddings, funerals, and the occasional tribal blood tax.  The rising star, if he’s a smart politician, will choose status over dignity, turning Alusi down.

Alusi’s rivals are bankrolled by regional states and intelligence services.  Alusi, who makes a habit of bad-mouthing Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf dynasties in equal measure, is seen to be a loose cannon by the external forces that meddle in Iraqi politics. However, his diatribes are a calibrated barrage of populist fireworks that appeals to the average, angry Iraqi, and hence his popularity.  The only branch of the US government that can deliver bushels of cash is the Central Intelligence Agency, but the ethos of this institution is to cut deals with regional intelligence services who track down terrorists (sometimes by enabling them), and who crack down on democratic dissenters.  A man like Alusi stands to unravel the status quo, which makes him as dangerous for the Agency as he is to the regimes he fights against.

Even so, Alusi’s rivals no longer need support of these external patrons as they have managed to tap into Iraq’s multi-billion dollar budgets to ‘spread the wealth around’ and garner gratitude, through votes and kickbacks.  Once on top, they can control the purse strings, and those who invested early on in their careers can rest assured that Iraq’s monies won’t be used to empower Syrian, Iranian or Saudi democrats — something that Alusi would likely do if he gets his hands on the till.

So without the cash Alusi, for all his strengths, is the man who brought a ping-pong paddle to a chess match, caught in a vicious circle of not having the initial resources needed to propel him upwards to a position from which he can empower secular liberals like him across the Middle East.  For all his well-wishers around the world, none has come forward with a checkbook in hand.

Iraq will hold parliamentary elections at the end of 2009.  As of now, there’s no law prohibiting foreign financial speculation on Iraq’s political bourse.  The political picture looks murky and fragmented, but this means that a party that manages to win 10-15 seats may count itself influential in 2010.  That’s only 500,000 votes, a goal Mr. Alusi can reach in my opinion. Price tag?  Five million dollars for a twelve month campaign.  The opportunity to reshape Iraq, and consequently the whole region?  Priceless.

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