After months of back-room talks and promises by Allawi supporters to establish a new alliance -- and with it a national-salvation government, the Kurds and Shi'a went on the defensive in an effort to maintain their hold on power.
The Kurdistan Alliance issued a statement on June 4 on behalf of its leading parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, saying it was astonished at reports that the Islamic Party and Allawi's Iraqi National Accord (a constiuent of the Iraqiyah List) established a new political front on April 29 that includes "Saddam [Hussein's] thugs and hangmen who are staunch traitors of the Kurdish nation and are chauvinist figures standing against the aspirations" of Kurds and Arabs.
According to reports, the new front was formed during an April meeting in Cairo organized at the behest of the Egyptian government to bring together representatives from the Iraqi Islamic Party, Allawi's Iraqi National Accord, and smaller Iraqi parties with former Ba'athists from the Hussein regime.
The Kurdish Reproof
The Kurdistan Alliance contended the front was formed through the assistance and urging of foreign intelligence services. The alliance implied in its statement that the Islamic Party had been duped by Iraq's Sunni Arab neighbors.
"How does this stance relate to previous calls for independence and rejection of foreign intervention in Iraq's affairs?" the statement said. "Isn't this an exercise of odious sectarianism and chauvinism, when they ignore the majority Shi'a and Kurdish forces?"
The Kurds also asked why the Sunnis would cooperate with "representatives of the traitors, ...the racist and chauvinist Turani people," in a reference to Turkey.
The Islamic Party issued a rebuttal on June 5 denying that a front was announced on April 29.
"What took place were talks among Iraqi parties and forces at the Council of Representatives on the principles and policies related to the formation of an Iraqi political front," the party contended. The party added that it was surprised by the Kurdish reaction, which came more than a month after the meeting, and questioned the timing of the Kurdish statement.
It also criticized the Kurds for the tone of their statement, saying: "They had better turn a new leaf with all their Iraqi brothers."
The party said that although it was concerned about the state of affairs in Iraq, it would not conspire, but rather "work under the umbrella of the law in broad daylight. We have nothing to hide...and our plan is open to all Iraqis," the party asserted.
As for its plan, the party said: "We are working to establish a broad alliance in the parliament based on national unity and rejecting sectarian and ethnic positions."
Shi'a Parties Object
It claimed the Shi'a-led United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) and the Kurdistan Coalition, as well as Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani were aware of the Islamic Party's efforts.
The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), led by Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, said in a statement posted to its website that it was also "astonished" at the announcement because the front was formed by "names and forces that have been participating in the government" since the fall of the Hussein regime. It denounced calls to reinstate "Saddamists" and their supporters from the former "regime of oppression" into state institutions.
"While we exert feverish efforts to activate the issue of participation and give it tangible and genuine dimensions, ...we find out that the parties that participate in the government and support...the establishment of a national-unity government have made unilateral decisions in a secret document" on matters of interest to all Iraqis," the SIIC statement declared.
The SIIC called on parties to distinguish between the forces that "stood against the former regime and those that supported it," adding that national reconciliation should be tackled pragmatically.
The Kurdistan Islamic Union, which apparently attended the Cairo meeting, issued a statement saying that although it took part in the meeting, it did not endorse or join the front, nor had it followed any of the front's activities. The union, in an apparent attempt to save face, said it opposed "any attempt directed against the political process and conducted outside the framework of the parliament and the constitution."
No Place For Foreigners
Al-Maliki also weighed in, saying that any interference by Iraq's neighbors would meet a swift reaction. During a speech to a conference of military commanders on June 6, he cautioned that regional Arab states were supporting terrorists and trying to destabilize Iraq.
The prime minister called on commanders to retaliate with an iron fist.
"There will never be any room for plots that are hatched in this or that Arab capital," he said.
Al-Maliki contended that states that back terrorists in Iraq believe a weak Iraq "is an opportunity for their survival in the region, an opportunity that allows certain states to emerge on the regional scene."
He called on Iraqis to reject sectarianism and urged them to move toward unity and equality. The prime minister also criticized Iraqi politicians who support Arab interference in Iraq, without identifying the parties by name.
Meanwhile, Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, who heads the Iraqi Islamic Party, wrapped up a three-day visit to Cairo by claiming Iraq's "Arab identity" is in danger. The Sunni Arab community, as well as secular and nationalist Shi'ite Iraqis, believe their Arab compatriots are increasingly falling under Iran's influence. At the same time, the view Kurds as an entity unto themselves, given their political and ethnic status.
Al-Hashimi said in a statement following a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on June 6 that regional Arab leaders should help protect endangered Arab identity by opening embassies in Baghdad. The vice president said Mubarak gave a "favorable response" to his request.
Allawi has long claimed to have the support of regional Arab states for his national-salvation government, and with the apparent support of the Iraqi Accordance Front, can now claim to have at least 69 seats out of the 275 in parliament. Should he gain the support of the nationalist Shi'ite party, Al-Fadilah -- which pulled out of the UIA in March -- the new front would have 84 seats.
If supporters of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr join the front, the front would have about 30 additional seats, or 114 total.
By contrast, the UIA and the Kurds would be left with 138 parliamentary seats. It's unclear which way the other 23 seats would align, but the salvation front could gain 19 additional seats through the support of the National Dialogue Front (11 seats), the National Reconciliation and Liberation Bloc (five), and the Kurdistan Islamic Union (three), bringing the front's bloc to 125.
According to the Iraqi Constitution, parliament can withdraw its confidence in the prime minister through an absolute majority vote, or 138 ballots.
It remains unclear to what degree Kurdish and Shi'ite leaders would be willing to compromise on a restructuring of the national-unity government. Despite their rhetoric, both groups recognize the need to end sectarianism and allow for greater Sunni Arab participation in the political process. But the level and shape of that participation remains under dispute.
Until all sides can overcome their distrust of one another, it will be difficult to achieve real and lasting progress and resolve key outstanding constitutional issues. In the end, the issues must be decided by Iraqis, as more foreign interference -- on any side -- is a recipe for continued violence. For now, it appears it will be up to individual Iraqis to take the lead in bringing all three parties together.
Al-Sadr supporters demonstrating against the U.S. presence in Iraq in October 2006 (epa)
A RADICAL CLERIC. Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is a key figure in Iraq. He heads the Imam Al-Mahdi Army militia and a political bloc that is prominent in parliament and the government. His ties to Iran have also provoked concerns in some quarters.