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Iraq: Cabinet Shaken As Domestic Political Rifts Widen

  • Kathleen Ridolfo

http://gdb.rferl.org/45712EBA-05FB-4600-8850-837F26ACE838_w203.jpg --> http://gdb.rferl.org/45712EBA-05FB-4600-8850-837F26ACE838_mw800_mh600.jpg Al-Jafari (center) looks on as al-Maliki (right) meets reporters after being nominated prime minister in April 2006 (epa) August 2, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The main Sunni Arab bloc in the Iraqi cabinet followed through on its threat to quit the cabinet on August 1, in a move intended to destabilize the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.


The front issued the threat one week ago, saying it would withdraw unless al-Maliki agreed to meet 12 demands, including releasing Sunni Arab detainees held without charge in U.S. and Iraqi detention centers; dissolving and disarming militias and officers and enlisted military personnel tied to militias; dismissing the defense minister; appointing competent, nonpartisan Iraqis to serve as technocrats; and improving relations with Arab states.


According to media reports, the front will only withdraw its ministers from government; the bloc's 44 parliamentarians will return to their jobs on September 4, following the legislature's one-month summer break.

Sadrists and Sunni Arabs share some common positions such as opposition to federalism, the constitution, and key pending legislation. But even putting their sectarian tendencies aside, the differences that separate the two groups far outweigh their commonalities.

Parliamentarians from the front had previously walked out of parliament for five weeks, returning to work on July 19 following negotiations among Sunni, Shi'ite, and Kurdish leaders over the dismissal of parliament speaker Mahmud al-Mashhadani in early June.


A Quarter Of The Cabinet Gone


The decision to withdraw from the cabinet while keeping parliamentarians in their posts aims to destabilize al-Maliki's cabinet while ensuring that Sunni representatives help challenge key legislation due to be examined and voted on following the summer break -- including the draft oil law.


Moreover, the departure of the six cabinet ministers from the Accordance Front, coupled with the departure of five ministers aligned with Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr earlier this year, leaves the cabinet devoid of any real opposition. The 11 ministers make up about 25 percent of the cabinet. Al-Maliki this week put forth a proposal to streamline the cabinet that would combine ministries and bring several posts under the oversight of national security adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i. The proposal, offered before the Accordance Front's withdrawal, was rejected by the cabinet outright. It is unclear whether al-Maliki will attempt to push it through again.


President Jalal Talabani said this week that four major political parties -- the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the Islamic Al-Da'wah Party, and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) -- will continue to push for the formation of a moderates front in the parliament. Taken together, the four parties control a significant number of seats in the National Assembly, though they fall short of holding a majority.


It is questionable whether a moderates front -- billed as a nonsectarian grouping that will lobby for a united Iraq -- would have any legitimacy without the participation of Sunni Arabs. The forces behind the effort have been trying for several weeks to win the support of Sunni Arab Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi's Iraqi Islamic Party. The Islamic Party is a key member of the Accordance Front. For the time being, al-Hashimi is not biting. As a key critic of al-Maliki's administration, al-Hashimi has said that he will not join any grouping without key concessions from the prime minister with regard to power sharing in government.


Al-Ja'fari's Machinations


Meanwhile, former Shi'ite Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari has begun to push publicly for a cabinet reshuffle, a push that appears part of a broader plan by al-Ja'fari to unseat al-Maliki, who replaced him following the December 2005 elections.


Al-Ja'fari was reportedly behind media reports two weeks ago that called for replacing Kurdish President Talabani with a Sunni Arab leader. Al-Ja'fari met with Talabani in Al-Sulaymaniyah on July 27 to discuss the current political situation. Kurdish press reported that al-Ja'fari was seeking support to overthrow al-Maliki's government and insert himself as prime minister. Al-Ja'fari has denied the allegations, and he has also denied media reports suggesting that he is seeking to form a new political front of his own.

Despite pronouncements from all sides regarding their commitment to some form of a national-unity project, in reality the political currents in Iraq are employing a zero-sum-game approach in their relations with competing parties.

An Iraqi cabinet meeting (epa file photo)

Newspapers in Baghdad have reported in recent days that al-Ja'fari is seeking support from the Iraqi Accordance Front -- hence his sudden call for a Sunni Arab president -- much to the dismay of Shi'a aligned with al-Sadr. Al-Ja'fari's approach may lead to problems for the one-time premier, as he would likely need support from al-Sadr loyalists in any attempt to unseat al-Maliki.


Sadrists and Sunni Arabs share some common positions such as opposition to federalism, the constitution, and key pending legislation. But even putting their sectarian tendencies aside, the differences that separate the two groups far outweigh their commonalities.


The sudden push by al-Ja'fari highlights old ideological fractures between the two main streams of the Al-Da'wah Party. But the move can also be seen in the context of recent efforts by the party to position itself in terms of issues and policies, rather than adopting a traditional sectarian stance.


Meanwhile, another former prime minister, Iyad Allawi, has seen little support for his proposed national-salvation government. Despite Shi'ite distrust due to Allawi's recent actions, Allawi has reportedly taken part in recent meetings with senior Iraqi officials and al-Ja'fari. However, he told Al-Jazeera television on August 2 that he has rejected a U.S. request that he put aside his aspirations to form an expanded secular bloc and join the moderates front.


Zero-Sum Game


The current posturing of political parties and blocs will eventually force al-Maliki to address demands for wider participation in decision making and, by extension, broader participation by Sunni Arabs in the political process. But it remains to be seen how far the prime minister is willing to go in order to pacify his Sunni detractors.


Despite pronouncements from all sides regarding their commitment to some form of a national-unity project, in reality the political currents in Iraq are employing a zero-sum-game approach in their relations with competing parties. This reality is complicated by interference from regional powerhouses Saudi Arabia and Iran, which are propping up their allies in Iraq (Sunni and Shi'ite Arabs, respectively) while throwing up obstacles in the path of political progress.

Iraqi Insurgent Media



GETTING THE MESSAGE OUT. RFE/RL analysts Daniel Kimmage and Kathleen Ridolfo have produced a book-length study on the media efforts of the insurgency in Iraq and on how global jihadists are exploiting those efforts to spread their destructive message around the world....(more)


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