By Georg Mascolo and Bernhard Zand
With such an accurate track record, who would dare to doubt that the next prophecy of Iraq's most prominent fortuneteller will come true? The country will face yet another test in February, according to Sheibani, who predicts that his fellow Iraqis will suffer "even more war, even more bloodshed."
It's a good time to be a prophet of doom in Iraq. After all, the truth can hardly be less grim than their gloomy forecasts in a country so plagued by violence. It comes as no surprise that Iraqis are paying rapt attention to everything the soothsayers and astrologists are saying about the future these days.
Sheibani's audience numbers in the hundreds of thousands. From the relative safety of Lebanon, he hosts a four-hour daily show on Scheherazade TV, in which he routinely predicts the demise of Iraq and addresses the ailments -- everything from depression to nervous breakdowns to psychosis -- of Iraqis who call into the show. This year is likely to be a busy and trying one for Sheibani. On the day of Saddam's execution, the popular television prophet said that the former dictator's death would lead to further deterioration in the situation in Iraq.
Once again, Sheibani's prediction has already been borne out by reality. Instead of marking the end of the grisliest chapter in Iraq's more recent history, the execution of the former dictator has only opened new wounds. While the Shiites compose odes to Saddam's death and the government-run television station airs an hourly re-broadcast of a children's choir from the holy Shiite city of Karbala singing a song celebrating the dictator's demise ("We want him to be dead/This is the reconciliation of the Iraqi people"), at Saddam's funeral Sunni tribal leaders removed the black band they wear over their headscarves, the Iqal, as a sign that his death would not remain unanswered.
Even more than the execution itself, Sunnis are bitter about the chaotic circumstances under which it was carried out. The shaky video from the execution chamber on the former grounds of Saddam's intelligence service in northern Baghdad, already as much a document of the times as the images of torture at Abu Ghraib prison, is yet another volatile element contributing to the tragedy of postwar Iraq -- and evidence of the weakness of the Iraqi government. Originally intended as the solemn carrying out of a court sentence, the execution turned into a spectacle in which the hangman of yesterday and the hangmen of today shouted obscenities at one another. "Go to hell," one of the witnesses called out shortly before the trapdoor was opened. His words might just as well have been directed at the entire country.
The images were "disgusting," said Iraq's national security advisor, Muwaffak al-Rubaie, one of the witnesses to the execution. For a short time last week, Rubaie was even suspected of having played a role in distributing the images, which triggered outrage worldwide. "Whoever is involved and responsible for it should be ashamed of themselves," said British Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott.
Reactions from Washington, on the other hand, have been noticeably restrained. United States President George W. Bush, who still keeps the pistol Saddam was carrying when he was captured, had already retired for the night when his archenemy mounted the gallows in Baghdad. Earlier that day, Bush had issued a statement calling the execution "an important milestone on Iraq’s course to becoming a democracy."
As a sign of the US's hesitation over the execution, US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad had desperately attempted to convince Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to cancel the execution or at least postpone it to a date following the Muslim Festival of Sacrifice. The diplomat warned Maliki that the execution could be interpreted as a Shiite vendetta.
But Maliki remained steadfast, and the Americans finally gave up seven hours before the scheduled execution. The ensuing chaos under the gallows would only serve as confirmation of their warnings.
Bush prepares Plan B
Bush's spokespeople later downplayed the incident, calling it insufficiently significant for the president to make any further statements. But the truth is that the Saddam's demise comes at the worst of times for the US government, with Bush set to unveil his plan for Iraq's future this week.
It already appears certain that the president will almost completely ignore the report presented in early December by the Iraq Study Group led by former Secretary of State James Baker. Sources say that Bush is opposed to two key proposals in the report: a diplomatic offensive that would involve Iran and Syria and Washington exerting even more pressure on the Maliki government. Instead, Bush seems determined to send even more US troops into the Iraqi civil war, despite the Pentagon's conviction that this will only increase the number of US casualties.
Bush's proposal is expected to involve deploying tens of thousands of additional troops to Iraq. Before Christmas, the White House announced plans to beef up Army and Marine presence in the country. It appears that not even the president expects to be able to bring US troops home anytime soon.
Bush is as unconcerned about criticism from the Democrats as he is about the sharp decline in support for the war in the United States, where only 11 percent of the population favors sending more troops to Iraq. On its Web site, the Democratic National Committee called the president "the most stubborn man on Earth."
Bush, for his part, apparently no longer believes in the "Strategy for Victory" he promised months ago, under which Iraqi units would gradually take over responsibility from the US military. The Iraqi security forces, trained with American assistance, are increasingly proving to be nothing but military arms of either Shiite or Sunni factions -- depending on where they happen to be deployed. Indeed, US officers have begun collecting Iraqi soldiers' mobile phones before conducting raids, to prevent the Iraqis from warning their fellow Shiites or Sunnis.
The two rebellious military leaders are being replaced. Admiral William Fallon, formerly commander of the US Pacific Command, will replace Abizaid, who was already scheduled to retire. Casey's removal will be more painful for the general, who is being replaced by Lt. General David Petraeus, the commander of the 101st Airborne Division when it liberated Mosul. "What I want to hear is how we're going to win, not how we're going to withdraw," the president recently grumbled to a group of military leaders.
In another personnel shift, US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad will be leaving Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone to succeed John Bolton as the American ambassador to the United Nations.
A Sunni exodus
The ranks of leading Sunnis, who Khalilzad had once hoped to lead into a dialogue with the Shiites, are also beginning to thin. Adnan Pachachi, the former president of the Iraqi Governing Council, Ghazi al-Yawer, the country's first postwar president, and Salih Mutlaq, the leader of the National Dialogue Front party -- all elected members of the Iraqi parliament -- have already left the country. It "doesn't make sense anymore," Mutlaq tersely said, explaining his reasons for leaving. Tariq al-Hashimi, Sunni vice-president, is also threatening to leave Iraq, saying that the daily struggles within the Shiite-dominated government leave him with no other choice.
For most Iraqis, daily life has little in common with official politics anymore. Security is what most concerns those who lack the means to leave the country. Statements issued in Washington or in the Green Zone no longer provide a measure of that security, which is instead reflected in the price of weapons. That price is currently rising.
Prime Minister Maliki, who indicated last week that he is growing weary of his office, also appears to be following the tide. Maliki told the Wall Street Journal that he had not been overly anxious to acquire his office in the first place, and that he has no intention of running for reelection. "I wish I could be done with it," he said, referring to his first term in office.
The next question, now that Saddam has been executed, is what exactly America's Plan C is. What should the country do now that all commissions have been asked, all plans have been presented and all strategies have been considered -- and still nothing seems to be working?
Washington apparently even has an agency prepared to answer that question: the CIA's Office of Terrorism Analysis. Seventy-five experts with the agency's so-called Red Team spent two days simulating the consequences of a total defeat in Iraq. According to the outcome, such defeat would mean triumph for Islamist jihadists and build support for terrorists the world over.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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