In a surprising move, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki reconciled with his Deputy Premier Saleh al-Mutlaq. The former called Maliki a dictator in December, which set off another crisis between the two politicians and their respective parties. Maliki had Mutlaq banned from the cabinet, and called for a no confidence vote. Mutlaq returned the favor calling for the prime minister to be removed. In the last several months however, the two have been holding quiet talks behind closed doors that eventually led to the deputy premier returning to work. This is another sign that Maliki continues to outplay his opponents, especially Mutlaq’s Iraqi National Movement (INM) that is beset by internal divisions.
|Deputy Premier Mutlaq was reinstated to his office in May 2012 (Reuters)|
On May 16, 2012, Deputy Premier Saleh al-Mutlaq went back to his office. On that day, Mutlaq met with the Turkish ambassador to Iraq. The following day, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki officially withdrew his no confidence vote against Mutlaq from parliament. Just beforehand, Mutlaq gave an interview with state-run Iraqiya TV where he made some complimentary comments about the premier. (1) The Deputy PM said that he didn’t hold a grudge against Maliki, and that the differences between them could be solved. He went on to say that the two could work together to tackle the country’s many problems, and that Maliki was actually a good manager of the cabinet, and that they both agreed on many issues such as the unity of Iraq. There had also been many stories beforehand about the two sides were making up. That was driven by Mutlaq who was most concerned about regaining his own position back. When his Iraqi National Movement (INM) boycotted the cabinet and parliament on December 17, 2011 for instance, Mutlaq allegedly was only willing to maintain the walkout until he could go back to being deputy premier. In February 2012, President Jalal Talabani was trying to get Mutlaq and Maliki to meet and go over their differences. Mutlaq was also coming under pressure from his own Iraqi National Dialogue Front to apologize to the premier. On May 3, there was a report that Maliki sent Deputy Premier Hussein Shahristani, Dawa members, the deputy speaker of parliament, the head of the White Iraqiya bloc, and parliamentarians from his State of Law to consult with Mutlaq to try to work out a deal. On May 10, an INM lawmaker told the press that the premier was going to drop the no confidence vote against Mutlaq. Three days later, Maliki told reporters that Mutlaq was a political issue that could be negotiated. The next day, the head of White Iraqiya remarked that the Mutlaq case was going to be resolved through a political deal. All of these events showed a slow, but steady move towards reconciliation between the two figures. Mutlaq desperately wanted to become part of the government again. Maliki on the other hand, used the talks to split the INM once again. Mutlaq was willing to undermine his list’s boycott for his own personal gain for example, and now that he has returned, he’s likely to be more compliant with the prime minister, knowing that he could quickly be removed once again. This just showed that the National Movement is a disparate list, made up of many different figures, each with its own agenda. That’s why it has been such an ineffective opposition to Maliki.
The prime minister originally moved against his deputy after some disparaging remarks he made to the international media. In December, Mutlaq gave an interview with CNN calling Maliki a dictator. He then compared Maliki to Saddam in a talk with the BBC. The prime minister took these as personal attacks, and on December 15, just as the United States officially announced the withdrawal of all of its forces from Iraq, Maliki banned Mutlaq from attending the cabinet. The prime minister than requested a no confidence vote against Mutlaq from parliament. The next month, members of State of Law called on the INM to replace Mutlaq. Seemingly unrepentant, Mutlaq went on to repeat the dictator comment several more times. According to him, his comments were based upon the fact that Maliki would not share power with any other party. That led State of Law members to declare that they would not accept Mutlaq back under any circumstances. This blow up was as much a political dispute as a personal one. Mutlaq and Maliki have a long history of bad blood. Mutlaq was a former Baathists who has praised the now banned party. Maliki on the other hand left Iraq, and went into exile in 1979 when Saddam Hussein’s government threatened to kill him for his membership in the Dawa Party. That left a deep scar on Maliki’s psyche, which has made him a life long opponent of the former regime. Not only that, but Mutlaq comes from Maliki’s main rival, the Iraqi National Movement, which has been leading a futile campaign against the prime minister ever since he outmaneuvered the list after the March 2010 elections. Mutlaq and others from the party have leveled an endless number of attacks upon the premier for over two years now. For all those reasons, when Mutlaq called Maliki a dictator and being like Saddam, that gave the prime minister the excuse he needed to move against the deputy premier.
Ironically, Mutlaq was a major player in putting together the government in Maliki’s second administration. In the 2010 election, Mutlaq’s INM won the most seats, but the prime minister was able to out maneuver it, and retain his position. The talks then centered upon how all the winning lists would split the spoils of power, namely the top positions. Mutlaq carried out his own independent negotiations with Maliki, and when he obtained the deputy premier’s office, he went to the National Movement’s leader Iyad Allawi, and told him that he needed to back the new coalition government or be left out. It’s this factious nature of the INM that has been its undoing since it was created. It was made out of too many different parties, each with its own leader, who brought to the table their own individual agendas. That’s the reason why Mutlaq was willing to pressure his own supposed leader Allawi into backing a government he didn’t like, because Mutlaq had already obtain his own post. Afterward, Mutlaq would go on to be one of the prime minster’s top critics after he helped return him to power.
The divisiveness of the National Movement was only emphasized by Mutlaq’s return. At the same time as he was retaking his position, there were a series of rumors that his Iraqi National Dialogue Front and others within the INM were going to lead a mass defection from the list. One report had as many as 25-30 lawmakers from the Solution Movement, the Iraqi Accordance Front, the Turkmen Front, and the Dialogue Front abandoning the INM to form their own list. They claimed they were disillusioned with the direction the National Movement was going, didn’t like their parliamentary leader Salman Ali Hassan Jumali, and believed their party bosses did not include them in decision making, and were making secret deals with the Kurds over the disputed territories in return for helping it oppose Maliki. Mutlaq coming to an understanding with the Prime Minister could be a sign that this split was going to occur, because it could mean that his Dialogue Front and the others were willing to give up their antagonistic stance towards the PM, and leave the INM. On the other ahnd, it could be just another episode of parliamentarians voicing their discontent with their leaders to pressure them to change their policies.
Many were caught off guard when Maliki tried to dismiss Mutlaq in December 2011, and were just as surprised when the two reconciled in May 2012. His return will not seriously affect the functioning of the government, because he had no real responsibility to begin with. It will undermine the Iraqi National Movement, which once again showed that it was easy to split by Maliki who has used the carrot and stick approach and divide and conquer tactics again and again against it to great affect. It could even change the mind of some commentators who have accused the prime minister of following a sectarian policy towards his opponents, when in fact he was going after specific personalities. Most importantly, it was a reflection of how firmly in control Maliki is, and how hopeless his opponents are.
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