Iraq's crisis entered its final quarter this week with unnerving clarity, thanks to Prime Minister al-Maliki. His shenanigans in Jordan, in full view of the world, left little doubt that he is an Iranian-Syrian operative.
The tragedy of 2006, however, may be that America once again is choosing to ignore the obvious in the same way we neglected to consider the aftermath of Saddam Hussein after rushing to topple him in 2003.
At Amman, where his antics scuttled important talks with President Bush and King Abdullah II of Jordan, Mr. Maliki's duplicitous nature was so evident that he might as well have posted an announcement saying, "Mr. President, my mission is to deliver Iraq to my patrons in Tehran and Damascus."
For those who are not paying close attention to the picture evolving on the ground in Iraq, the 57-year-old Mr. Maliki served as no. 2 in the fundamentalist, jihadist Shiite Dawa Party before becoming prime minister earlier this year.
As the man in charge of the security committee in the last Parliament, he busily stacked the Iraqi police and intelligence forces with Shiite militias — the same folks who are doing much of the killing of Sunnis in Iraq today and who will eventually turn against American troops. It may seem ironic, therefore, that Mr. Bush expects him to rein in an insurgency he is sponsoring.
Wait, this gets a lot worse. Like most activist exiles, Mr. Maliki fled Iraq in 1980, but while others headed to Britain, Jordan, Egypt, and America, he opted to split his time for some 23 years between Iran and Syria, the two regimes seeking to dominate the region.
At the moment, Mr. Maliki's power rests on another Iranian-Syrian protégé, the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who controls a chunk of the Iraqi Parliament and the largest Shiite militia in Iraq — and who is also an avowed enemy of America and a diehard Shiite trained in Iran.
Need I say more about which way Mr. Maliki is tilting the future of Iraq? With friends like these, America's attempts to finesse an exit from Iraq that leaves the country intact are doomed. Policymakers had better take a sharp look before embarking on the next phase of military and political engineering.
If the Sadr-Maliki-Iranian axis weren't bad enough, there is another dormant but lethal Shiite militia sitting in the south, where the British are in charge. This is the Iranian-trained, -financed, and -led Badr Brigades, with an estimated troop level of 20,000 or more. This militia was created by Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer al-Hakim inside Iran and is made up of former Shiite Iraqi prisoners of war taken during the Iran-Iraq conflict of 1980–88. The boss, Hakim, is another Iraqi exile who also lived — you guessed it — in Iran for the better part of 23 years. Amazing, isn't it, how all these strings end up in Tehran or Damascus?
The religious dynasties of Mr. Sadr and Hakim hate each other. In fact, Hakim was killed in September 2003, after his return to Iraq, by a car bomb planted by Mr. Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army. His son took over.
But before hastening to predict that the two Shiite rivals will cancel each other out, remember that they both work, consult, and obey the supreme Shiite leader of Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, whose religious status and authority make him the final arbiter of power. Mr. Maliki, like the others, defers to him, and the supreme leader has decreed that all Shiites will stick together instead of partitioning power.
As we approach the final stages in Iraq, Democrats, Republicans, the American command, and Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad in Baghdad cannot afford to be swindled in a con game. Those on the other side include a duplicitous prime minister, two rival but cooperative clerics, and the grand master of them all, the Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Sistani (yes, he is Iranian).
Unless it is clearly understood that this crowd is one team, America risks once again appearing amateurish, played like a yoyo — just as the crowd of Iraqi exiles played it before the invasion.
Alas, the meetings in Amman this week gave every signal of déjà vu.