Chimpy’s man in Iraq has a mind of his own.
Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq on Wednesday forcefully denounced the Israeli attacks on Lebanon, marking a sharp break with President Bush’s position and highlighting the growing power of a Shiite Muslim identity across the Middle East.
“The Israeli attacks and airstrikes are completely destroying Lebanon’s infrastructure,” Mr. Maliki said at an afternoon news conference inside the fortified Green Zone, which houses the American Embassy and the seat of the Iraqi government. “I condemn these aggressions and call on the Arab League foreign ministers’ meeting in Cairo to take quick action to stop these aggressions. We call on the world to take quick stands to stop the Israeli aggression.”
The American Embassy did not provide an immediate response.
The comments by Mr. Maliki, a Shiite Arab whose party has close ties to Iran, were noticeably stronger than those made by Sunni Arab governments in recent days. Those governments have refused to take an unequivocal stand on Lebanon, reflecting their concern about the growing influence of Iran, which has a Shiite majority and has been accused by Israel of providing weapons to Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant group.
[Maliki’s] stance is noteworthy because it is a significant split with American policy toward Israel. It has been the Americans’ hope that Iraq would become President Bush’s staunchest ally among Arab nations. The Americans arranged a series of elections that ended up putting Shiite parties in power, and the White House helped boost Mr. Maliki by pushing last spring for the ouster of the prime minister at the time, Ibrahim al-Jaafari. Mr. Maliki relies on the presence of 134,000 American troops in Iraq to stave off the insurgency led by Sunni Arabs, who ruled over the majority Shiite Arabs for decades.
The resentment of the Iraqi government toward Israel calls into question one of the rationales among some conservatives for the American invasion of Iraq — that an American-backed democratic state here would inevitably become an ally of Israel and, by doing so, catalyze a change of attitude across the rest of the Arab world.
A growing number of Iraqi officials have stepped forward in recent days to condemn Israel. On Sunday, in a rare show of unity, the 275-member Parliament issued a statement calling the Israeli strikes an act of “criminal aggression.” The militant Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, whose followers play a crucial role in the government, said last Friday that Iraqis would not “sit by with folded hands” while the violence in Lebanon raged. Mr. Sadr commands a powerful militia, the Mahdi Army.
So far, the most prominent Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has remained silent. But another Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ahmad al-Husseini al-Baghdadi, of Najaf, in an Internet posting on Wednesday accused the “international arrogant forces, especially America” of igniting conflict between Shiite and Sunni Arabs in Iraq and provoking Israel to attack the Palestinian territories and Lebanon. The ayatollah has relatives in Lebanon.
The Israeli assault is bringing to the fore one of the unintended consequences of the American war here — the potential for what many analysts call a Shiite crescent stretching from Iran to Iraq to Lebanon. It is a phenomenon that could rewrite the political map of the Middle East, with Sunni Arab countries drawing together to oppose Shiite dominance. The lukewarm responses from Sunni countries during the Lebanon conflict, in contrast to the statements from Mr. Maliki and other Shiite leaders, are the latest manifestation of the divide.
Top Shiite politicians in Iraq have myriad connections to Iran. Many officials in Mr. Maliki’s political group, the Islamic Dawa Party, fled into exile there to escape the brutal persecution of Saddam Hussein. Mr. Maliki also has other ties to pro-Hezbollah leaders in the region. He spent most of his 23 years in exile in Syria, where he ran the Damascus branch of the Dawa party. Syria supports Hezbollah and Hamas, the militant group that now leads the Palestinian government.