News from Iraq has been filled with headlines about a possible no confidence vote against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. His main rival, the Iraqi National Movement (INM) has been talking about such a move for quite some time, but Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani and Moqtada al-Sadr have recently joined it. That gave the impression that Maliki’s opponents might have finally turned the corner, but it was fool’s gold. The National Movement has not been able to stick together, the Kurdish Coalition is also divided, and the Sadrists have been more talk than action. Iran has also tried to reconcile some of the parties. This all shows that Premier Maliki still has the upper hand.
|Iraqi Pres. Talabani (left), Moqtada al-Sadr (center), and Kurdish Pres. Barzani (right) at Irbil meeting, Apr. 2012, which discussed what to do about Premier Maliki (KRP.org)|
The call to unseat Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki seemed to gain momentum in April 2012 as more parties were joining the chorus for him to step down. Maliki’s main rival the Iraqi National Movement (INM) had been talking about a no confidence vote against him more and more recently. On April 27, its leader, Iyad Allawi joined Moqtada al-Sadr, Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, and Speaker Osama Nujafi, who is also from the INM, in a meeting in Irbil to discuss strategy. Sadr’s attendance seemed like a game changer, because he had been one of the prime minister’s main supporters. The group came up with a 15-day ultimatum for Maliki to follow the Irbil Agreement, which put together the current government, but which the prime minister has only partially followed. Speaker Nujafi said that this was a last chance for Maliki to share power or suffer the consequences. Those demands were put together in a letter sent to the National Alliance head Ibrahim al-Jaafari. The National Alliance is made up of the Sadrists, the Supreme Council, the Fadhila Party, the Badr Organization, and other smaller parties, and joined with Maliki’s State of Law to assure him a second term in office after the 2010 parliamentary elections. On May 19, there was another meeting, this time in Najaf, which included Sadr, Speaker Nujafi, Ahmed Chalabi of the National Alliance, former prime minister of Kurdistan Barhem Saleh, Deputy Premier Rowsch Nouri Shaways of Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), and others. On paper, the National Movement, Kurdish Coalition, and Sadrists had more than half of the seats in parliament, which could call for a no confidence vote against Maliki. That as what led to all the press reports. The INM has been feuding with Maliki since before the 2010 elections even took place. President Barzani has joined the fray in the new year. Sadr has occasionally criticized Maliki as well, but his attendance at the Irbil and Najaf meetings seemed like he really meant it this time. It appeared that the prime minister was really in trouble, but all the press coverage obscured just how fractious a group this was.
The major problem for Maliki’s opponents has been that they are not united. Before the Irbil meeting for instance, a Sadrist spokesman said that they would not support a no confidence vote against the premier. During the meeting they remarked that they were not looking to replace him, and then repeated that after the Najaf affair. At the same time, they were discussing possible replacements for him. These seemingly schizophrenic statements have been typical of the Sadr Trend for months now. The Kurdish Coalition was also divided, with President Barzani saying that he was done with Maliki, while President Talabani has called him a partner. Officials from their two parties have also been snipping at each other behind the scenes. The National Movement has barely stuck together since the March 2010 election. There were reports that 20 to 30 parliamentarians from the list were ready to leave, because they were disillusioned with their leadership. Many lawmakers from northern provinces like Ninewa, Tamim, and Diyala that have disputed territories were upset that Allawi and others might be making deals with the Kurds, who they ran against, in order to facilitate their opposition to Maliki. Some members of parliament from the INM even issued a statement on May 20 that they stood by Maliki for his stance towards the Kurds. One legislator claimed that only around 20 from the list, which is less than a third of its total, would support a no confidence vote. Altogether that meant while the prime minister’s opponents might have more than half of the seats in parliament, in reality they had far less. The futility of the situation was apparent to some. Deputy Speaker of Parliament Aref Tayfour from the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) for instance was quoted in the press saying that the parties would probably decide to keep Maliki in office until the next elections in 2014. Another member of the Kurdish Coalition remarked that his list hadn’t even decided to support a no confidence vote or not, and said that the Supreme Council, the Fadhila Party, the Badr Organization, parts of the Iraqi National Movement from the north, President Talabani and his Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), Free Iraqiya, and the White bloc all supported the premier. That meant Maliki was facing no real threat despite all the talk and news stories. His opposition has been big in rhetoric, but has never been able to present a united front. They make grand announcements, make plenty of demands, hold meeting after meeting, but they do not have any power to apply real pressure on the prime minister to make him change.
The weakness of the opposition was shown in the response, or lack thereof of Maliki’s supporters. The Irbil letter was addressed to the National Alliance (NA). The Sadrists said that since the NA nominated Maliki back in 2010, it was up to it to replace him. The Alliance, with the exception of Sadr’s followers, however, has stood by Maliki. When the 15-day deadline set in the Irbil meeting expired, the NA didn’t reply. On May 23, it held a conference, but no decision was made about the premier. Those were all signs that Maliki’s opponents were not being successful in their strategy. The National Alliance was obviously feeling no pressure, which was why they let the ultimatum pass. With the opposition lacking the votes to move against Maliki there was no reason for the list to make a decision on him.
Iran has also come to the aid of the prime minister. Several Iranian officials have visited Baghdad and Irbil recently. Allegedly, they asked the Kurds to give Maliki another chance, and told the premier to compromise with them. Maliki also travelled to Iran and met with Sadr there. The two signed a letter of understanding, which was supposed to reconcile the two. Neither initiative worked, but it shows that Iraq’s longstanding political crisis is bringing in its neighbors into the fray. Iran’s strategy in Iraq is for it to be like a big brother, which Iraq turns to when it runs into problems. Before the 2010 elections for example, it helped push the Sadrists and Supreme Council together into the National Alliance, but failed to get Maliki to join it in a grand Shiite coalition. It was also thought to have played a hand in the deBaathification controversy that led to the banning of hundreds of Sunni politicians, which occurred prior to the voting. After the vote, it worked to block INM head Iyad Allawi becoming premier, by pushing Maliki’s State of Law and the National Alliance to join together as the National Coalition to keep the prime minister in office. Tehran has continued to play this role in Iraqi politics throughout the current crisis by consulting with Iraqi politicians, and trying to mediate some of the disputes.
The news out of Iraq continues to be dominated by reports about the differences between the country’s political parties. While there is much talk about unseating Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the reality is that he is comfortably holding onto power. Despite more leaders joining the chorus criticizing his rule, his opponents remain deeply divided, and lack the seats in parliament to do anything about him. These disputes are far from over however, and will drag on until the 2014 parliamentary elections. That will mean that the government will be deadlocked, with little to no major legislation being passed for the foreseeable future as neither side will be willing to compromise with the other. This is a perfect example of the zero sum game that debilitates Iraqi politics. As long as Iraq’s lists are caught up in this battle over the prime minister they will not be doing much else in terms of governing the country, which means the public is the one really paying the price.
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