BAGHDAD // A warning by the British ambassador to Iraq that a military coup was still a "real possibility" in Baghdad has set off swirling rumours of conspiracy, and been met with wildly divergent reactions, some accusing him of scaremongering, others hoping it is a prophecy that will come true. John Jenkins told the Chilcot inquiry in London on Friday that democracy was far from assured in Iraq and the military could still overthrow an elected government.
Many in Iraq believe such a development may be welcomed. "If there is such a military coup that eliminates the current government and it ends the Iranian stranglehold over Iraq, then the tribes will support it," Sheikh Mohammad al Hamadani, a leading member of the tribal council in Maysan province, in southern Iraq, said yesterday. "There are too many people and parties in positions of power that are loyal to Tehran.
"If the way to rid ourselves of these Islamic parties that do as Iran tells them is to have a coup, then we are in favour of that. We would need to be sure that the British and the Americans supported such a coup however, in order that it can succeed." In Baghdad, Hassan Bikan, a member of parliament's security committee, said a military coup was "impossible" and that the British were "playing a political game" by mentioning it in a public forum.
"There is no way that a military takeover of Iraq is possible, not in the near term or the long term," he said. "The Iraqi people would not tolerate it, the Iraqi constitution forbids it and the Americans, who have a vested interest in seeing our democracy succeed, would not allow it." Mr Bikan was also adamant that the prime minister Nouri al Maliki had a firm grip over the military and commanded its loyalty.
"Perhaps the British have a political goal or are playing some political game in talking about this," he said. "I think their ambassador is out of touch with the reality on the ground." Mr Jenkins cited the large number of Iraqi army officers who had served under Saddam Hussein as one of the reasons not to discount a coup. "If you look at the history of Iraq, of military coups in Iraq, you have to think that it is always a real possibility in the future. But where we are at the moment is much better than we thought it would be, back in 2004-05," he said.
Mr Jenkins's remarks to the Chilcot inquiry, which is investigating Britain's role in the war, also contained elements of optimism. He pointed to high turnouts in recent elections and "remarkable" political process as reasons to be hopeful that Iraq's latest experiment in democracy would not easily fail. But those caveats were hardly noticed in Iraq, where people firmly focused on mention of a coup. "It's a real danger that the military will try to seize power again," said Adel Dewaree, a Kurdish MP. "The British warning is not without basis.
"There is still much conflict between the political parties here and Iraq's neighbours are not happy to see us with a stable, functioning democracy and they are trying to recruit army leaders in their fight against our democracy." Mr Dewaree, also a member of the parliamentary defence and security committee, said the risk of a military takeover would be at its highest after the next election, as the US military continued to withdraw its forces.
"If the next government is elected and fails to quickly deliver some real improvements, Iraqis will be sick and tired and then the conditions would be there for a coup." Dissatisfaction with the political process heightened at the end of last week, when a parliamentary committee empowered to vet prospective MPs before March's election ruled that the National Dialogue Front's list of candidates had been rejected.
The group is led by Saleh al Mutlaq, a senior Sunni politician seen as having close ties with Baathists. His proximity to the Baath Party, banned since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, was given as the committee's reason for rejection. Mr al Mutlaq, a high-profile politician in Iraq, was expected to attract a significant following in the March ballot and was tipped as being one of the major players in the next parliament and, as a result, in the next government. His exclusion from the vote, one he said he will contest in court, has sparked howls of protest and concerns of another ballot box boycott by Sunni Arabs.
"With Saleh al Mutlaq banned it is clear that Iran is running the country, so maybe the British and Americans are now thinking of supporting a military coup," said a Fallujah resident, Mohammad Abdel Rahman. "Iraq, America and Britain have a common enemy in Iran and maybe they are talking of a coup because they have realised it will be the only way to win back control of Baghdad." email@example.com