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Show goes on in Iraq's political circus

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Show goes on in Iraq's political circus

By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - Iraq has been absent from the world's radar since upheaval rocked the Arab world in January, toppling the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt and sending shockwaves through Bahrain, Libya, Yemen and Syria.

A closer look at the political scene in Baghdad, however, shows that all is not well. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is in hot water, like many of his Arab counterparts - and his government might collapse soon, if not through street power, then perhaps through the shattering of the delicate balance in the upper echelons of Baghdad.

Last week Maliki hinted that he may resign and call new elections, just five months after forming his second cabinet. Two months ago, large and angry demonstrations broke out in Baghdad, inspired by the Arab Spring, chanting against corruption, poor government services, and the prime minister.

Among other things, he was accused of mismanagement of public office, abuse of power, authoritarianism and sectarianism. Maliki promised immediate action within the next 100 days. That deadline expires in July and there is nothing on the horizon to prove that the prime minister is willing, or capable, of living up to his promises.

There is also a daily barrage of accusations against him by his predecessor Iyad Allawi, who is backed by Saudi Arabia and other Arab heavyweights who are eager to topple Maliki - seen as an extension of Iranian influence in the Arab and Muslim world.

Iraq remains sharply divided between the prime minister and Allawi. The top seats in the ministries of defense and the interior are still vacant, and Maliki still denies Allawi the right to name the minister of defense. Even worse, he personally still controls the two jobs in a caretaker capacity, and seems in no hurry to give them up any time soon.

On Tuesday, Allawi nominated two people for the Defense Ministry, ex-army officers Nouri al-Duleimy and Abdul-Majid Abdul Latif, but neither of them to date has been accepted by the prime minister. At a recent press conference, Maliki accused his rival of sectarianism and of breaching an agreement between them, hammered out last November.

Then, Allawi sluggishly agreed to accept Maliki as premier, although the latter controlled only 89 out of 325 seats in parliament whereas Allawi's secular National Iraqi List commanded a slim majority of 91 seats. Instead, Allawi would be given a new job, which rivals, and in some cases theoretically challenges, that of the prime minister - chairman of the National Council for Strategic Policies (NCSP). That post, six months down the road, is still nowhere close to being formed. Allawi complains that his coalition is being treated "not as a partner but as a participant" in the Maliki government.

Allawi accepted the novel post with a grain of salt. It took heavy lobbying by Saudi Arabia, and a phone call from US President Barack Obama, to convince him to settle for the NCSP, along with assurances that the body would have real powers, rather than ceremonial duties.

The new council was supposed to operate under the umbrella of the Iraqi executive branch and replace the National Security Council, mandated to monitor government ministers and make sure that they carry out their duties according to the constitution. Additionally, the council was supposed to have several branches: (domestic) political affairs, foreign policy, economic and monetary affairs, security and military affairs, energy, oil and gas, electricity, water and environmental affairs.

The council would have a president, or secretary general, an entire staff and premises allocated by the Iraqi government in Baghdad. The council will also have its own budget, which is yet to be determined but will equal that of the premiership, the parliamentary speaker and the presidency. Allawi will reportedly be entitled to approximately 100 advisers and two military units to protect him and the council from terrorist operations.

Because of so much deliberate delay, Allawi recently announced that he was no longer interested in the offer, and that he too would back out on his agreement with Maliki and call for early elections.

If that happens, there is no telling what kind of vacuum will emerge in Iraq and who will fill it, especially as Arab countries have too much on their plate at this stage to focus on Iraq.

Theoretically, with Saudi Arabia focused on the situation in Bahrain and Syria occupied by internal problems, the only country willing and able to do the job is Iran. All eyes are now focused on Iraqi Kurdistan President Masoud al-Barazani, who has said he will launch a new initiative to bridge the gap between Maliki and Allawi.

A 15-man committee has been formed to conduct shuttle diplomacy between the two leaders, under the auspices of Barazani, and to date they have made no contacts with any of the Arab countries neighboring Iraq, or with the Iranians. Last October, Barazani's name graced a deal, known as the Irbil Agreement, where all parties agreed to form a national partnership government. Under the agreement, Maliki and President Jalal Talabani would retain their posts, while Allawi would get to chair the NCSP.

The real problem facing Iraq today, and explaining Maliki's delay, is fear of what the NCSP will mean for Iraq once both Maliki and Allawi are out of office. The November agreement did not state whether the council would permanently be under the control of Allawi's Iraqiya bloc, or whether different parties, or sects, would rotate within its leadership in future years.

Iraqis need to decide whether the council's leader will always be a Shi'ite, given that Allawi is Shi'ite, or whether Sunnis, Kurds and Christians will be entitled to compete for the post. If the new council will have powers equal to that of the prime minister, will it become part of the sectarian division of power in Iraq? Will it become a permanent seat that is given to the "second runner up" in any parliamentary election? And what will its status become if Allawi becomes prime minister one day?

Would it stay with Allawi's team or will it go to the "defeated" coalition in parliament? If this is the case, it needs to be said, either in writing or gentleman's agreement; especially that in today's case, Allawi's team is not a minority in parliament, but actually, the coalition with the largest number of seats.

Sami Moubayed is a university professor, historian, and editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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Thanks for the great post, DeadGuy. EXCELLENT analysis by Prof. Moubayed. Once again, the "S" word (sectarianism) defines the relationship among all the parties in Iraq. At this point, I'm not sure they even know how to come to agreement about this situation. Early elections may be the only answer to get them off the dime, er, dinar. JMO.

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Does anyone else think that M may use the RV to salvage his political livelihood? I'd imagine all will be forgotten on the streets of Iraq if it happened before the 100 day deadline (which is in June, not July).

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