After months of wrangling and getting the Americans to make all sorts of compromises on the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), Iraq's Shia Islamists suddenly found that they are unable to agree to the very same terms that they themselves had negotiated. This conundrum became abundantly clear on Sunday, October 19th, when the luminaries of the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) parliamentary bloc--much diminished by sizable defections--met and failed to sign onto the agreement as presented to them by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose Da'awa Party is a leading component of the UIA.
The Iraqi political class is adrift as it tries to find its political center, delaying an agreement with the United States about when and how to pull its forces out of Iraq.
This has much less to with the Americans than it does with local politics. The Islamists, both Sunni and Shia, are at a grave disadvantage as Iraq's political discourse turns patriotic, rather than sectarian. In an odd twist, secular Shias have adopted the talking points of Sunnis when denouncing Islamist Shias, namely that they are agents of Iran, while secular Sunnis have adopted the talking points of Shias when denouncing Islamist Sunnis--they're too close to the terrorists.
To confuse matters further, America's top general in Iraq has recently accused Iran of sabotaging the SOFA agreement, provoking a sharp rebuke from Maliki who is at pains to demonstrate, to his detractors among the secular opposition, that he is not an Iranian stooge.
Everyone seems to be angling to portray himself as an Iraqi 'patriot', something that the secular opposition groups can easily do by crossing sectarian and ethnic lines.
But Islamist parties do not have that luxury, for they are by their very nature sectarian even though some of them, such as the Sadrist bloc attempts to portray itself as above the sectarianism fray. But such claims ring hollow, especially when considering that the military arm of the Sadrists, the Mahdi Army, was probably responsible for the abduction and murder of 20,000 military-age young Sunni males in Baghdad alone during the years 2006 and 2007. The Sadrists today are trying to polish their 'patriotic' image by posing as the protectors of Iraq's Christian community from Al-Qaeda's attacks, but such antics only make for some interesting photo-ops juxtaposing turbans with crucifixes--the Christians certainly don't see the Sadrists as an improvement on Al-Qaeda.
So the only seat left for the Islamists on the patriotic bandwagon is to harp on about Iraq's sovereignty and the need to eject U.S. forces. The Sadrists, now fully outside of the government and with a long track record of violent anti-Americanism, can pull something like this off, but what about the Sunni and Shia Islamist government officials inhabiting the Green Zone who are the first and foremost beneficiaries of America's protection?
These Islamists find themselves in a classic political dead-end: damned if you do and damned if you don't.