In December 2011, the Kurds came up with the idea of a national conference to be attended by all of Iraq’s ruling parties to resolve the country’s political problems. These disputes have been going on since the March 2010 elections, and have only gotten worse since then with various provinces calling for autonomy, a wave of detentions of alleged Baathists, an arrest warrant for Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, and an attempt to unseat Deputy Premier Saleh al-Mutlaq, amongst other events. Within days however, the idea of actually pulling off a meaningful meeting seemed dim, and has only gotten worse with the passage of time. With Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki continually outplaying his rivals the Iraqi National Movement there is no reason for him to compromise, meaning there is little chance for a substantive meeting to happen.
In April 2012, the realization that a meaningful national conference could be pulled off was apparent to all the major parties in Iraq. On April 23, the Iraqi National Movement (INM) announced that it would not attend the preparatory meetings for the conference on the grounds that it would be a waste of time. The lists could not agree upon an agenda, so the meetings were going nowhere. The Kurds held the same view with Parliamentarian Mahmoud Othman telling the press that it wasn’t a good time to hold the conference due to the lack of consensus, and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani questioning whether the conference could achieve anything even if it was ever held. Barzani blamed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for the impasse. He was correct. Since the March 2010 parliamentary elections, the premier has been able to consistently out maneuver his rivals in the INM. He got a second term in office, while his competitor for prime minister Iyad Allawi was shut out of government. He was able to split the National Movement during its boycott of the cabinet that started in December 2011, and has been able to put off almost all of the Kurdish demands like resolution of the disputed territories and a new oil law. Being in such a strong position means that there is no reason for the premier to compromise with any of the other parties, let alone hold the national conference.
The idea for a national conference originated with the Kurds in December 2011. President Jalal Talabani and KRG President Barzani originally made the suggestion during the latest blow up between the INM and Maliki’s State of Law. At the time, Maliki was attempting to remove Deputy Premier Saleh al-Mutlaq from office, and an arrest warrant had been issued for Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi on terrorism charges, and he had fled to Kurdistan as a result. The two Kurdish leaders had been trying to mediate the crisis, and came up with the idea of a gathering of all of Iraq’s parties as a way to solve the latest problem. The INM was the first to support the idea, saying that all of the national leaders should attend as well such as President Barzani, Moqtada al-Sadr, and Ammar al-Hakim from the Supreme Council. It also demanded a set of principals be developed beforehand. The conference was originally supposed to happen in January 2012, but it never did. That’s because the negotiations over the meeting have been just as contested as everything else in Iraqi politics. The various parties have made demand after demand of each other, traded accusations, which has led to deadlock, a problem the conference was supposed to solve.
There are various examples of why the conference has not happened so far. The INM for one, has flip flopped on some issues, and made impossible demands at other times. One lawmaker from the list said in January that the Hashemi case would not be included, only to have another member demand that it should be in February. The list then called for an end to random arrests, the cessation of tensions in Diyala where the provincial council was under siege for attempting to declare itself an autonomous region, and the removal of security forces from outside the homes of the party’s leaders. The conference was supposed to be a place where these issues would be brought up and discussed, but the INM was trying to get parts of its agenda fulfilled before it even occurred when there was absolutely no reason for the prime minister to do so. Then President Barzani began calling for the meeting to occur in Kurdistan, nominally so that Vice President Hashemi could attend since he was residing there and wanted in the rest of the country. Allawi threw his support behind the change in location, but again, Maliki would not agree and there was nothing the INM nor Kurdish Coalition could do about it since the meeting would be meaningless without the prime minister. Around the same time, Moqtada al-Sadr said he would not attend, because he was not a politician, again putting a damper on things. The only positive event to come out of the new year was Maliki and Speaker Osama Nujafi who is from the National Movement agreeing upon creating a joint committee of all the leading parties that would go over the issues before the national conference occurred, and try to set the agenda. These initial moves were signs that the meeting would never come off, and if it did, nothing substantive would come of it. The INM has a bad tendency to overplay or mishandle its strategies. Hence its indecision over whether to include Hashemi or not, and making numerous demands be met before the conference was to even happen although they had absolutely no leverage to gain any of them. The Kurds proved little better, because while they were attempting to be honest brokers they too could not convince Maliki to come to the negotiating table in good faith, and trying to get the venue changed from Baghdad to Kurdistan perhaps in the hopes that it would be a neutral location never got off the ground. Maliki was in a position of power being the prime minister, and had no reason to compromise on any of these issues.
With January having come and gone, the conference was then pushed back to after the Arab Summit held in Iraq in March, but that didn’t mean there was any more likelihood that it would be pulled off. There were some demands that the meeting happen before the Arab League came to Baghdad, but again the prime minister was not willing to talk to the other parties when he was more concerned about showcasing the new Iraq to regional leaders and diplomats as they travelled to the country. President Talabani then suggested April 5 as a new date. By the time April had rolled around, there had been several planning committee meetings, but nothing had been achieved. Allawi and Barzani said they would not attend as a result, and eventually the INM stated it would no longer go to the planning sessions, because the conference would not mean anything. Again, Maliki played his hand well, while the others did not. He could sit back and remain prime minister, while the various parties argued about the details of the national conference. A three-month delay from its original date of January was sign enough that he could wait them out even more.
The national conference seemed a pipedream from the get go. Prime Minister Maliki was able to get the Kurds’ backing for his second term, and the National Movement to join his coalition while leaving out Allawi. From that moment on he has been in the drivers’ seat, and shows no sign of relinquishing it to the other lists. They can call for a meeting of all the parties, make various demands about what will be included, but there’s no reason for Maliki to comply. He can send his State of Law members to every meeting, and hear every complaint and argument, and drag out the process for months. All the while, he will remain in power. As long as the Sadrist, Supreme Council, and Badr Organization led National Alliance stands behind the premier there are not enough seats in parliament to threaten Maliki with a no confidence vote. If that coalition of Shiite parties stands together, and the Sadrists and Badr have been some of the prime minister’s strongest supporters, he can stave off any attempts by the Kurdish Coalition or the Iraqi National Movement to negotiate with them. In the meantime, talk of a national conference will likely drag on for several more months. One might even happen eventually. Maliki’s position will not change however, because he’s holding all the cards.
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