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Iraq: Sunni Ultimatum Rocks Al-Maliki's Position

Prime Minister al-Maliki (right) with Vice President al-Hashimi (file photo) (AFP) May 9, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Last week U.S. lawmakers expressed anger at the Iraqi government's plan to take a two-month summer recess. The summer recess, starting in July, would most probably occur before the government is able to take crucial steps to ease sectarian tensions.

The passage of a hydrocarbon law outlining the equitable distribution of Iraq's oil revenues and amendments to the Iraqi constitution to mollify Sunni fears of exclusion are considered by the U.S. administration two of the most important "benchmarks" of progress for the Iraqi government.

During a May 7 interview with CNN, Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, a Sunni, gave Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki a stark ultimatum. He said if al-Maliki's government does not implement key amendments to the Iraqi Constitution by May 15, he will resign and call on the Iraqi Accordance Front, the largest Sunni political bloc in parliament with 44 seats, to withdraw from parliament.

'The Mistake Of My Life'

"If the constitution is not subject to major changes, definitely, I will tell my constituency frankly that I made the mistake of my life when I put my endorsement to that national accord," al-Hashimi warned.

The failure to push through the petroleum legislation would be a huge embarrassment to the al-Maliki government.

Al-Hashimi complained that the government is excluding Sunni Arabs from the decision-making process. Specifically, he demanded constitutional guarantees that would prevent Iraq splitting into Kurdish, Shi'ite, and Sunni federal states, a possibility that he believes would leave Sunni Arabs at a great disadvantage. The majority of Iraq's oil wealth is in the Kurdish north and the Shi'ite south, leaving the Sunni Arabs with the resource-poor heartland.

The issue of constitutional amendments is crucial to Sunnis within the government. Sunni Arabs were reluctant to join the post-Saddam Hussein political process, and many were finally convinced to vote in the December 2005 elections by promises of future changes to the constitution. However, almost 18 months after those elections, the constitution has not been revisited, creating the impression among Sunnis that they had been duped.

The End Of Reconciliation?

While the withdrawal of the Iraqi Accordance Front would not lead to the collapse of al-Maliki's government, it would be seen as a major blow to the national-reconciliation process. If moderate Sunnis like al-Hashimi who gave the political process a chance decided to withdraw their support, extremist Sunni factions who were considering putting down their weapons and entering the political process would be unlikely to do so.

In fact, those extremist elements would likely harden their resolve if they conclude there is no realistic alternative to armed resistance.

The other key issue looming for al-Maliki is the adoption of a hydrocarbon law outlining the equitable distribution of Iraq's oil revenues. The U.S. government has named this legislation as one of the most significant benchmarks of progress by the Iraqi government.

Oil Law Hits A Snag

In February, the cabinet approved a draft law and after much protracted negotiations; the bill seemed ready to be sent to the Iraqi Parliament for ratification. However, even as the parliament takes up the draft law for debate, the Kurds have expressed grave misgivings about the bill. At the heart of the opposition are the annexes to the draft law by the central government that relate to the role of the Iraqi National Oil Company (INOC) and its control over most of Iraq's proven reserves.

Kurdish Natural Resources Minister Ashti Hawrami has said that under the draft, the INOC would have jurisdiction of more than 93 percent of Iraq's known petroleum reserves, leaving only 7 percent to the regional governments -- including the Kurdish region government.

The oil terminal at Al-Basrah (epa file photo)

Kurdish officials pointed that the original draft endorsed by the Iraqi cabinet, which includes Kurdish members, did not have the technical annexes. He said the additions violated the February agreement.

Kurdish officials said ceding virtually all of Iraq's all known oil fields to the state-run INOC is unconstitutional and vowed to oppose it in parliament. While, the Kurdish Alliance, with 58 out of 275 seats in parliament, does not have enough votes to defeat the bill, their opposition could delay its passage indefinitely, thereby increasing the strain on the Baghdad government.

The failure to push through the petroleum legislation would be a huge embarrassment to the al-Maliki government. In early April, Oil Minister Husayn al-Shahristani was optimistic enough to declare that it was " pass P favor.?< in are parties political all since months two within law [oil] the to achievable>

Crumbling Coalition

The snag with the hydrocarbon bill further underscores al-Maliki's overall eroding support. With the departure of the Al-Fadilah Party from the ruling United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) in March and the resignation of six ministers from Muqtada al-Sadr's political bloc in April, al-Maliki seems increasingly isolated. If the Kurdish Alliance reaches an impasse and decides to withdraw, it would severely undermine the al-Maliki government.

In the wake of the Sharm el-Sheikh meetings, this political turmoil comes at particularly delicate time. Although, no major breakthroughs were made at the meetings, the international community did pledge $30 billion in financial commitments for Iraq through debt relief, loans, and grants. But Sunni Arab nations -- most prominently Saudi Arabia -- called on Iraq to enact political reforms; essentially a hint that the Shi'ite-led government is not doing enough to reach out to disaffected Sunnis.

However, al-Maliki may be placed in an untenable position. His Shi'ite allies have balked at the constitutional reforms demanded by Sunnis and a de-Baathification law that would allow former members of the Hussein regime to return to their government positions.

Nevertheless, the threat of a Sunni walkout does not cast al-Maliki's government in a favorable light in the eyes of Iraq's Sunni neighbors or in the international community. While it would be unlikely that support for Iraq would end, there may be increasing calls for new leadership as al-Maliki is increasingly viewed as incapable of delivering a political solution to the current crisis.

Sharing Iraq's Oil

Sharing Iraq's Oil

The pipeline from Kirkuk to Turkey is one of Iraq's main oil-export lifelines (epa file photo)

THE FUTURE OF THE ECONOMY. The uneven distribution of Iraq's oil resources has long been a source of tension among the country's ethnic and sectarian groups. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, the tangled quest to find an equitable way to share oil revenues has been a major stumbling block on the road to national unity.


Kurdish Oil Law Poses Problem For Baghdad

Ethnic Tensions Increasing In Oil-Rich City

Government Struggles To Revive Oil Infrastructure

Iraqi Oil Sector Faces Tough Times

Kurds Claim Their Right To Oil

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