Things in Iraq took yet another wrong turn when Bush forced Maliki to meet him in Jordan. The meeting did not help Republicans in the elections and broke the Iraqi coalition. The faction of shiite cleric al-Sadr walked out of the government coalition, as he promised, because of the meeting.

No one in Iraq doubts that Maliki is an American quisling. That’s okay with the people. In Muslims countries, rulers are not expected to represent population; the US and al Qaeda try to change that. Muslims are very superficial and value façade and rituals. Maliki may be a puppet, but he should behave like a tiger – an Iraqi tiger. At least, he managed to skip the social meeting with Bush and Jordanian King Abdullah. Olmert ignored the Arab mentality and met Abdullah several times, a PR disaster.

If that attention to rituals looks silly to rational Americans, it probably is. But that’s how it works in the region. To reach an agreement with the Iraqis rather than simply punish the Baathist state US negotiators would have to sit hours and days with various Iraqis, both bureaucrats and radicals, drinking super-sweet Iranian tea, chain-smoking on a par with their opponents, and talking, talking, and talking. That might or might not bring the desired results, but no other approach could deliver a stable, moderate, US-friendly Iraq.

To please his American masters, Maliki brought together a fictitious coalition. Its shiite faction does not include al-Sadr’s group, the main shiite organization. It includes only a minor sunni party, also non-representative. The coalition is advertised as moderate, but listen to the names: Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party (sectarians), the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution (sic) in Iraq, and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (a separatist organization, as the name makes clear).

The coalition means to squeeze Sadr out of politics. He will indeed go – into the urban battlefield. Sadr can act like a good Muslim, promise to tamp down the fighting, and use the truce to train his forces. He needs time to turn the Mahdi gang into an army.

Sistani’s approval won’t cement the coalition. He is merely a religious authority. Religious power in Islam is dispersed because every cleric and theoretically every Muslim can pronounce fatwa. People go along with famous clerics insofar as they serve the opportunist mob’s wishes. Sistani cannot afford to condemn fighting the sunnis, thus his blessing of the coalition could only be half-hearted. Moreover, the shiite militia includes a few fundamentalists who blindly obey Sistani. They are common guerrillas who only subscribe to religion or ideology superficially. They fight for the sake of killing. Their loyalty is to Sadr. Iran, al-Sadr’s sponsor, does not care about Iraqi shiite bosses like Sistani. A civil war in Iraq suits Iranian national interests: a strong, hostile neighbor becomes a protectorate.

Iran, not Sadr is the problem, but Sadr contributes to the situation. Oddly, the US loses soldiers, kills Iraqis, and lets still more die in the conflict while al-Sadr, who orchestrates much of the violence, lives in safety. Why not assassinate him?

The White House PR people offended common sense when they staged Robert Gates’ meeting with a dozen handpicked soldiers who assured him the army is on the right track.