Will yesterday's in-your-face decision by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, Iraq's most influential Shiite leader, to renege on his pledge to amend the new Constitution in a manner acceptable to Sunnis be the shove in the back that sends Iraq over the brink into all-out civil war?
It certainly has that potential.
Before the constitution was put to a vote in October, Sunnis were threatening to boycott the referendum. The problem? The charter contains provisions that decentralize political power in the country in a way that leaves the vast majority of Iraqi oil under the control of Kurds and Shiites -- and the Sunnis facing an impoverished future. See Juan Cole for more on this.
Desperate to avoid a Sunni boycott, the Bush administration twisted every Shiite arm it could find. U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad ultimately brokered a last-minute deal that would make it possible for Sunnis to substantially amend the constitution once the newly elected Parliament is seated.
That deal allowed the December elections to proceed -- and the Bush administration to use Sunni participation in those elections as a major PR talking point. (See this bloggingheads.tv debate between Mickey Kaus and Robert Wright about whether there's still a good chance that democracy will catch on in Iraq.)
Indeed, in his town-hall appearance yesterday, the president cited Sunni involvement as evidence of the "remarkable" political progress in Iraq: "In the last election, the rejectionists who had sat out the first couple of elections -- many Sunnis sat out; they said, we're not going to be involved in the political process -- got involved. Slowly but surely, those who were trying to stop the advance of democracy are becoming marginalized."
And, in previous speeches, he has described the agreement to allow changes to the constitution as a key element in keeping the political process moving forward. "Thanks to last-minute changes, including a new procedure for considering amendments to the constitution," he said on the eve of the December vote, "the revised constitution was endorsed by Iraq's largest Sunni party... Sunnis voted in large numbers for the first time. They joined the political process. And by doing so, they reject the violence of the Saddamists and rejectionists. Through hard work and compromise, Iraqis adopted the most progressive, democratic constitution in the Arab world."
Now it is clear that the Shiites were just saying what the Bush administration wanted to hear, never meant it, and never intended to follow through. "We will stop anyone who tries to change the Constitution," said al-Hakim yesterday.
This belligerent stance could easily drive Iraqi Sunnis (in the words of today's New York Times) "into the arms of radical Sunni groups in neighboring lands" and "leave the Shiites even more dependent than they are now on Iran and American troops."
Sounds like a recipe for endless civil war -- and a foreign policy debacle of unimaginable proportions for America.
But, despite this looming disaster, with the exception of the Times' powerful editorial, the mainstream media are giving this major development hardly any play. Even the New York Times has its news story on al-Hakim's statements on page A-10 -- and at the very bottom of the page at that. In the Washington Post, the story appears on A-14, while the Los Angeles Times and USA Today do not cover the story at all! And a LexisNexis search didn't yield a single mention of the story on any of the broadcast or cable news shows.
So the match that could ignite an all-out civil war in Iraq was just lit and the U.S. media can barely muster a yawn.