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Wednesday, June 14, 2006

A Matter of Fleeting Curiosity

Baghdad's Unwelcome Visitor

There are numerous explanations for President George W Bush's surprise trip to Iraq -such a surprise that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki didn't know about it until five minutes before they met.

It could be part of electioneering - an attempt to push upward Bush's standing in the opinion polls; a bid to secure the re-election of Republican legislators worried that the public anger stemming from the war in Iraq will throw them out of office come November; or it could be Bush's endeavor to maintain the momentum stemming from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's death.

It is probably a combination of all of the above, but for the Iraqi prime minister, just beginning the arduous task of establishing legitimacy for his national-unity government, Bush's trip is not likely to help at all.

During the European colonial era, political upheavals in a colony affected the colonizing power's domestic politics. Consequently, the leader of the colonial power maneuvered to improve his domestic standing or improve his chances of staying in power by influencing the domestic politics of that colony. That is what one was reminded of when watching Bush hop on to Air Force One for the five-and-a-half-hour visit.

His proffered reason was that he wanted to look Maliki in the eyes and assure him that the United States stood with Iraq. One wonders why Maliki would want to be seen in the company of Bush at a time when he is desperately trying to build his own legitimacy. Bush, after all, is as popular as the plague in Iraq.

In this technological age, Bush could just as easily have stage-managed a video-conference session with his and Maliki's cabinets at which the Iraqis could have outlined what it was they needed and wanted from the US. From a public relations angle, it could have been highly beneficial.

Instead, the US president went to Iraq. He spoke of liberty in a country where even he himself did not have the liberty to take a sneak peak at the Iraqis struggling to stay alive.

Bush's trip to Iraq - his first since 2003 - was a well-kept secret. Only Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld knew of the surprise.

He landed at Baghdad's airport and then took a helicopter to the Green Zone. If one is looking for any difference between his last trip and this visit, there certainly was one. During the previous jaunt, Bush stayed at the airport. This time, he flew to the highly fortified Green Zone. Hardly progress.

For Iraqis, Bush's trip must have been a matter of fleeting curiosity. They would have seen the image of the US president with their newly elected premier and wondered what it was all about.

Bush met with Maliki's entire cabinet, while his own cabinet was back in Washington. This was another symbolism fully aimed at capturing the attention of the US public, that he is doing something in and about Iraq.

During his meeting with Bush, Maliki announced an intense security sweep in Baghdad, where he wants to begin establishing the legitimacy of his government. Even though such attempts in the past have not borne much fruit, well-wishers hope that this time things will be different.

As Bush was meeting with elected officials and with his own troops, the insurgents issued a press release, aimed similarly at boosting the morale of their jihadis. Abu Hamza al-Muhajir was named as the successor to Zarqawi, killed in a US air strike last week.

The insurgents declared, "Coming battles will reveal the falseness of your power and the cowardliness of your soldiers. Do not rejoice that you killed [Zarqawi], he has left behind lions that ... trained under him.

"You will see what we have in store for you because of your betrayal and apostasy. Our swords are poised above your necks," the statement said of Iraqis who cooperate with US-led forces.

The US promptly announced that Muhajir would be placed on the terrorist list and would be hunted down and eliminated.

It seems that already the next installment of terror and counter-terror is being written, with a few changes in the cast of characters. Maliki wants to establish a momentum about creating the legitimacy of his government. So does Muhajir, except he wants to recapture the momentum that his side lost with the death of Zarqawi. Bush is doing his best to maintain the momentum that his forces gained by killing Zarqawi. It is hard to believe that even in death, Zarqawi maintains such a powerful presence.

Bush appears to be a man eagerly looking for a magic potion for the solution of the Iraqi malady, where death and destruction rule. Bush created the Iraqi tragedy by invading the country, and is trying desperately to get out with his head held high.

Maliki, on the other hand, is a man on whose shoulders fate has dumped the awesome responsibility of governing Iraq, a task that will take resolve and vision.

Muhajir remains a dark shadow. Yet he might be the only actor who has the upper hand over Bush and Maliki. The US president knows that. That might be why he is trying all sorts of maneuvers to figure what will work for him.

By Ehsan Ahrari

Ehsan Ahrari is the CEO of Strategic Paradigms, an Alexandria, Virginia-based defense consultancy. He can be reached at eahrari@cox.net or stratparadigms@yahoo.com. His columns appear regularly in Asia Times Online. His website: www.ehsanahrari.com.



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