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Iraq: New Sunni Boycott May Be End Of Moderates' Bloc

The latest Sunni boycott leaves al-Maliki's position increasing shaky (file photo) (AFP) July 26, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The announcement on July 19 by the Iraqi Accordance Front, the largest Sunni political bloc, that it was ending its five-week boycott of the Iraqi parliament was seen as a boost to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who desperately needed to show that he is still a leader capable of forming a broad-based coalition.

However, the situation again turned grim when the front announced on July 25 that it had immediately suspended all participation with the government and gave al-Maliki one week to meet its package of demands or it would completely pull out of the government.

Among the bloc's demands were a government pardon for all security detainees not charged with crimes, disbanding all Shi'ite militias, an opportunity for the front to have real participation in the decision-making process and the strict adherence to the International Declaration of Human Rights.

A complete pullout would not only be a major blow to al-Maliki's leadership, but it threatens to undercut months of back-room negotiations to form a new "moderates' bloc" to push the legislative process forward.

Hoping For Breakthrough

The so-called moderates' front was seen as a possible breakthrough to the political paralysis that has gripped Iraq's government for months. The aim of the new bloc is to form a broad-based political coalition in support of al-Maliki's increasingly beleaguered leadership, whose 14-month tenure has been fraught with protests and withdrawals.

The core elements of the bloc so far include two of the main Shi'ite parties -- al-Maliki's Al-Da'wah Party and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC, formerly SCIRI) -- and the Kurdistan Coalition, comprising the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party.

Leaders of the Shi'ite and Kurdish groups have been aggressively courting Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi's Iraqi Islamic Party, the most moderate of the three major components of the Iraqi Accordance Front, to join the new bloc. The addition of the party would give the moderates' bloc 125 seats in parliament, 13 short of an absolute majority.

In theory, these seats could be filled by minor parties and independent figures, which in essence would give the moderates' bloc enough political space to operate comfortably. But the inclusion of the Islamic Party would also ensure the bloc has enough Sunni representation to avoid accusations of being sectarian in nature.

Political Posturing Or Standing Firm?

The decision by the Islamic Party to continue to stay with the Accordance Front may be more to do with enhancing its position politically than displaying unity with the Sunni bloc. With pressure from the U.S. growing on Prime Minister al-Maliki's government to push through important legislation and move the national-reconciliation process forward, another broad Sunni withdrawal would be seen as a huge setback.

Indeed, al-Hashimi and the rest of the party leadership may be holding out for a better deal from the Shi'a and Kurds. The Islamic Party, with 27 seats in parliament, would form a considerable component of any coalition. Moreover, since it is the largest single Sunni party, its inclusion in a Shi'ite-Kurdish-based bloc would certainly enhance the legitimacy of a broad-based coalition.

However, the party's refusal to abandon the Accordance Front may be a clear indication that it is sticking to its principles of advocating broader guarantees for the Sunni community from any political coalition. From the perspective of the Islamic Party, or the Sunni Arabs in general, there is no reason to believe that a moderates' bloc will be any different from the makeup of the current governing coalition.

Is al-Hashimi loyal, or just playing his cards right? (epa file photo)

While there has been an emphasis on creating a "moderate" front, there has been little discussion among the Shi'a and Kurds regarding the issues the Sunni Arab community says marginalizes them. The reversal of the de-Ba'athification process to reinstate former regime officials has been stalled because of Shi'ite suspicions, and the committee responsible for amending the Iraqi Constitution has yet to present its recommendations. These setbacks leave many Sunni Arabs with the impression that the current government has a clear sectarian agenda.

In fact, the Iraqi Islamic Party issued a statement on July 22 outlining its suspicions about joining "an alliance with parties that are making things hard for us and our people -- twisting our intentions, inciting others against us, turning our people against us, and waiting for the right chance to terminate us."

Furthermore, the notion of a moderates' bloc may be somewhat problematic. Mahmud Uthman, a prominent member of the Kurdistan Coalition, told RFE/RL on July 24 that the bloc would be open to all political parties; however, the mere idea of a moderates' bloc is meant to bar hard-line elements such as radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's political movement and Sunni Arab groups with ties to insurgents.

Excluding hard-line Sunni groups may complicate any attempts to coerce members of the Sunni-led insurgency to drop their weapons and join the political process, a potentially devastating setback for the national-reconciliation endeavor.

Blow To Al-Maliki Government

The latest threat by the Iraqi Accordance Front could be another indication of al-Maliki's tenuous political position, as well as a further blow to his credibility as a leader. The boycott underscores how deep the sectarian fault lines still are, four years after the overthrow of the former regime, and al-Maliki's efforts to bridge them continue to fall short.

While the boycott would not affect the government's day-to-day affairs, if the Sunni bloc completely withdraws from the government, more than one-quarter of the places in al-Maliki's 38-member cabinet would be vacant due to protests. The Accordance Front has six ministers and five ministers loyal to al-Sadr resigned in April after al-Maliki refused to set a timetable for a U.S. troop withdrawal. So many withdrawals suggest that the current coalition government is far from anything like the unity government that al-Maliki has pursued.

This also comes at a crucial time, with the United States increasing pressure on al-Maliki's government to show tangible progress. U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and the U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, are scheduled to present the highly anticipated progress report on Iraq to Congress on September 15. The new boycott, if it continues, virtually guarantees that no significant progress will be made before that report is released.

Searching For A Way Forward

Searching For A Way Forward
A boy looks out from his Baghdad home (AFP)

LOOKING BEYOND AL-MALIKI: RFE/RL Iraq analyst Kathleen Ridolfo led an RFE/RL briefing about the changing political landscape in Iraq, focusing on efforts to gain the upper hand in the event that the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki falls.


Listen to the entire briefing (about 70 minutes):
Real Audio Windows Media


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Former Premier Pushing New Plan For Reconciliation

Al-Sadr Prepares For Post-Coalition Era

Sunni Ultimatum Rocks Al-Maliki's Position

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