President Barack Obama broke normal diplomatic protocol this week by announcing that Vice President Joe Biden and other senior figures of his administration were intimately involved in the negotiations that ended the eight-month political deadlock in Iraq. According to The Washington Post, the administration spoke of its role in order to show that the US has not lost influence in Iraq since the March 7th election.
The deal making that produced last Thursday’s session of parliament is nothing to boast about. The meeting was only the second since the assembly held its inaugural session in June. The gathering was postponed three times during the day because of disagreements among the deeply divided leaders.
The meeting broke up in chaos after members of the Iraqiya bloc, led by Ayad Allawi, stormed out because Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, who was given a second term, did not instantly honour a pledge to overturn a ban on the participation of three Iraqiya lawmakers who had, allegedly, belonged to or been tied to the outlawed Baath party.
It is not clear why Iraqiya thought Maliki — a sectarian Shiite whose Dawa party was a bitter enemy of the Baath — would implement this pledge. Maliki has also failed to carry out solemn promises to recruit into the security forces or find civil service jobs for fighters of the Sunni Awakening Councils — or Sons of Iraq movement — who helped US and government forces curb Al Qaeda in 2007-08. Maliki has shown himself to have absolutely no intention of sharing power with Sunnis and certainly not with secular politicians like Allawi who represents the “old Iraq” where politics was non-sectarian.
In spite of Obama’s declaration that an “inclusive” government formula had been found after months of wrangling, Maliki is not interested in including Sunnis, secularists, former Baathists and others who do not subscribe to the ethno-sectarian system imposed on Iraq by the previous Bush administration.
According to an informal but so-far biding 2003 understanding certain positions in government were to be assumed by particular ethnic (Kurdish) or sectarian (Shiite or Sunni) politicians. This understanding was reflected in the composition of the Governing Council appointed in July 2003 and the governments that subsequently emerged. In the 2006 government, a sectarian Shiite (Maliki) became premier; a secessionist Kurd, Jalal Talabani, president; and a Sunni, assumed the powerless post of speaker of parliament. Ministries were divided among the communities, with sectarian Shiites predominating.
Last week’s “breakthrough” deal involved the reappointment of Maliki and Talabani but included highly destabilising arrangements.
First, the deal did not grant Iraqiya, the party which won a narrow plurality of 91 seats in the 325 member assembly, a major role in the government. Allawi fought long and hard for the premiership but Maliki, whose State of Law bloc came second with 89 seats, refused to renounce the top job. He won only because Iran came to his rescue by persuading a highly reluctant Muqtada Al Sadr, an anti-US Shiite cleric with a large following, to form a post-electoral alliance with Maliki who then capitulated to the Kurds onorous conditions.
Iraqiya was given the speakership of parliament and Allawi was promised the chairmanship of a not yet formed commission overseeing security strategy which is supposed to reduce Maliki’s control over the army and police. Maliki also promised to halt moves to exclude from official positions former members of the Baath party.
If Iraqiya does not secure a leading role in this government, frustrated and alienated Sunnis could take up with Al Qaeda while secularists could join nationalist exile groups seeking the ouster of the entire post-war order.
Second, Usamah Al Nujaifi, Iraqiya’s nominee, was given the speakership of parliament. Nujaifi is certain to be a confrontational figure. He is a secular Iraqi nationalist Sunni from Mosul, the capital of Nineveh province where Arabs bitterly contest Kurdish claims to tracts of territory bordering on the Kurdish autonomous region. Nufaifi’s brother, Atheel, governor of Nineveh since 2009, has faced a rumbling rebellion from Kurds who reside there as well as threats of violence from Kurdish militiamen (peshmerga) dispatched by the land-grabbing Kurdish regional government.
Second, Maliki’s main coalition partner, radical anti-US Shiite cleric, Muqtada Sadr, will not be allowed to name any of his followers to posts governing the security services, notably defence and the interior. Since the US would like to relegate the Sadrists to a very minor role in the new government, they could become disaffected, withdraw from the cabinet, and even revolt in Shiite areas where Sadrist militiamen can reassert control of the streets.
Third, as their price for cooperation with Maliki, the Kurds have made 19 demands, including adoption of a oil law that would give them control over the energy resources of the Kurdish region and the holding of referenda in areas which the Kurds seek to annex.
Implementation of these particular demands could be dangerous. Iraqi Arabs call for an equitable sharing of oil revenues while holding referenda in Nineveh, Tamim and Diyala could spark civil war between Arabs and Kurds. This would split the country’s weak security and armed forces and permit the return of both insurgents and Al Qaeda.
Finally, in spite of Obama’s claims of responsibility for the “breakthrough,” it was Iran, not the US, that brokered the dubious deal between Maliki and the Sadrists. Iran also played a role in convincing the Kurds to go along.
Tehran has sidelined Washington and its Sunni Arab allies which had wanted Allawi to become premier or Maliki and Allawi to form a unity government that would have created a balance between the sectarian and secular camps and reduced Iran’s influence. This did not happen and could never have happened because the Bush administration handed Iraq over to Iran the moment its surrogates, the Shiite sectarian Dawa and the Supreme Council for the Iraqi Islamic Revolution, took power in Baghdad.