In December 2011, Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki decided to pick a fight with his main rival, the Iraqi National Movement (INM). The INM won the most seats in the 2010 parliamentary elections, but was out maneuvered by Maliki to hold onto power. Since then the two sides have been in a constant war of words over a power sharing deal negotiated by the Kurds known as the Irbil agreement that has never been fully implemented. In December, Maliki escalated that situation by calling for a no confidence vote against Deputy Premier Saleh al-Mutlaq, and issuing an arrest warrant for Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi on terrorism charges. Both are leading members of the INM. The premier then tried to raise the stakes by going after the National Movement’s ministers and lawmakers who were boycotting the government, because of the current crisis. All of this now appears to be winding down, as almost all the other major lists are trying to mediate, and a national conference is to be held soon to try to bring a negotiated settlement to this latest blow-up between the ruling parties.
Maliki’s attempts to escalate the on-going political crisis have failed. First, the Kurds have stood by Vice President Hashemi who is currently in Kurdistan avoiding his arrest warrant. He is under the protection of Iraq’s President Jalal Talabani. The Supreme Judicial Council also announced on December 25, 2011, that it was going to re-investigate Hashemi. When the Interior Ministry, which is controlled by Maliki, originally announced his warrant it claimed that it had been issued by a five judge panel. The Council later revealed that only one judge looked at the matter, which is why it is being reconsidered. Second, the prime minister was thwarted in his attempt to replace the Iraqi National Movement’s (INM) boycotting ministers. Maliki cited Article 78 of the constitution, which states that the premier can replace ministers, but it says that it must be approved by the parliament as well. During a cabinet meeting on December 27, he tried to find substitutes for absent members. He offered Finance Minister Rafi Issawi’s position to the Sadrist Communication Minister Mohammed Tawafak Allawi, and the Education Minister Mohammed Tamim’s spot to Higher Education Minister Ali al-Adeeb of the prime minister’s own State of Law list. That move was rejected by the attending ministers. Third, Maliki’s attempt to hold a no confidence vote and replace Deputy Premier Mutlaq has also been blocked. Maliki charged Mutlaq with leading the boycott of the cabinet and neglecting his duties, and claimed the right to appoint an alternative in his place. The Deputy Premier has said that Maliki does not have the power to do so, and the Sadrists, who have been the prime minister’s staunchest allies, told the press they opposed the move against Mutlaq. Finally, a member of the National Alliance, which is the other major Shiite party in government, and allied with Maliki, said that they wanted the National Movement in the government rather than having them kicked out as the prime minister has also hinted at. On all fronts then, Maliki has been stymied. He has found little to no support for his attacks upon the INM, and the other parties have called for calm instead. That’s because they want to maintain the status quo, rather than upset the fragile balance between the major lists. They also do not want Maliki to gain more power as many of them feel threatened by his increasingly autocratic ways. These have all put limits on what Maliki can do.
The Kurds and the United States have been trying to play the role of moderators during this current blow-up, and are organizing a meeting of the major parties. On December 27, Speaker of Parliament Osama Nujafi and President of Iraq Jamal Talabani met in Sulaymaniya. The next day, they called for a national conference on January 3, 2012 to resolve the government crisis. The United States has been pushing Talabani to play this role of middle-man. Vice President Joe Biden has called Maliki, Speaker Nujafi, and President Talabani about this matter, and CIA Director David Petraeus and the U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno both went to Baghdad as well. So far it appears that the major lists will attend. A State of Law parliamentarian said that it and the National Alliance will both go. The INM does not want Hashemi’s case to be discussed however, as they are insisting that it go to court. On the other hand, it is demanding a set of principles be agreed upon before hand. So far, the attempts at coming up with some kind of talks look to be successful. Both the INM and Maliki have been hearing it from all sides to come together, rather than continue their rhetorical clashes with each other. As with so many issues that arise in Iraqi politics, leaders play brinkmanship with one another until everything looks like it will collapse, and then at the last minute some kind of deal is struck. That’s where the current events appear to be heading.
To add pressure upon the leaders, there has been talk about new parliamentary elections as well. The head of the Sadrist bloc in parliament Bahaa Hussein Ali Kamal Araji first voiced the idea to the press, but then quickly reversed himself claiming that it was just his own personal opinion. It then took on a life of its own as other parties including the National Movement and Kurdish President Barzani both said that new balloting might benecessary if negotiations didn’t work out. Actually following through on this would be disastrous. The last time there was voting it took nine months to put together a partial government, and how to complete it has led to the current crisis. A new round of balloting would not resolve these problems as the same major parties would still end up winning. Rather, this idea appears to be floating around to press the politicians to understand what chaos could come from a continuation or escalation of the current crisis.
The remaining issue now is whether Maliki and the National Movement can come to a compromise from this national conference. On one hand, a Kurdish lawmaker said that the prime minister’s State of Law has been unwilling to budge on any issue in talks with other parties. That’s shown in Maliki’s hardball stance with his opponents. The INM on the other hand, has demanded that all of Iraq’s major leaders attend the meeting, that a committee be formed to look into any court that deals with Hashemi’s case, that the vice president’s bodyguards be released, and that the no confidence vote against Mutlaq be withdrawn. That’s a haughty list to be asking in return for them showing up at the conference. They’ve already had talks with State of Law and the National Alliance about some of these, and been rejected. In fact, their list of items should be the basis for the up coming talks, not a requirement before they begin. State of Law also needs to show more flexibility instead of rejecting everything. So far, Maliki has been able to play divide and conquer to great success with the INM, and looks to be doing the same now. With all the ruling parties at the meet, perhaps he will be convinced to give a little, but nothing is assured.
Iraq’s current government is just a year old, but it is completely dysfunctional. All the leading politicians distrust each other, and tend to see everything as a zero sum game. Maliki has been able to use these divisions to maintain his power, and played the parties off of each other. In December however, he decided to go on the attack, trying to replace two of his major opponents the vice president, and one of his deputies. That united most of the other lists, and led to the planned national conference to air all of these differences, and hopefully end the current crisis. Some kind of deal is most likely to come about as that’s how Iraqi politics operates. At the same time, the prime minister is likely to come out feeling the victor, because he was able to show off his strength. That means this will not be the last blow up between these parties as any talks will not solve the root problems of power sharing nor address the mistrust. They will simply lead to the continued factionalism within the government with each official running his own part of the bureaucracy, while very little gets done nationally.
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