He’s called an emergency summit, as yet unscheduled, of Iraqi political leaders to try and solve some of the most intractable differences among his cabinet members -- half of whom have walked off the job in recent days.
Patrick Clawson is the deputy research director at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a frequent media commentator on Iraqi and Iranian affairs. RFE/RL correspondent Heather Maher asked Clawson to assess al-Maliki’s political situation and consider what the United States might do if he is unable to bring his unity government back together.
RFE/RL: Half the seats in the prime minister’s cabinet now stand empty. What is al-Maliki up against on the eve of this summit?
Patrick Clawson: The basic crisis facing the government is that the principle actors on the political scene seem to want to have a weak government which is paralyzed and unable to act. There isn’t an interest, in other words, in resolving the government’s crisis because there isn’t an interest in having the government work effectively.
RFE/RL: With the exception of al-Maliki, right?
Clawson: I don’t think that Prime Minister al-Maliki is interested in finding a solution to the crisis because there is little indication that al-Maliki places high priority on a well-functioning government. His actions, the actions of the principle political leaders inside Iraq, have suggested that none of them [is] terribly interested in seeing that there be a nonsectarian, effective central power.
RFE/RL: What are they interested in, then?
Clawson: The people are much more interested in building up their own communities and their own institutions outside of the government than they are in seeing an effective central government work. So there’s been much more interest in how to grapple the part of the government’s resources and use it for one’s own sectarian purposes.
The agreements that have been reached have been effectively to divide up the pie and give different parties the ability to set up their own institutions, their own militias in many cases, at least their own patronage networks, and to heck with whether or not the ostensible job of the government gets done. That suggests that this is the pattern with which all the principle politicians are comfortable.
RFE/RL: How politically vulnerable is al-Maliki? Is there a chance the United States will abandon him as a leader, or will he retain U.S. support even though he is failing to meet the benchmarks?
Clawson: The United States would like to see a more effectively functioning central government. The individual -- al-Maliki -- is not particularly important. In fact, the United States has not been terribly impressed by Mr. al-Maliki and at times has looked around the political scene in Iraq and asked if anybody else could do better and generally come to the conclusion, no, the problem here is really a systemic problem, and not the problem of the individuals.
So, if al-Maliki were to be replaced by any other individual, the same problem would remain -- that the principle actors don’t want a powerful government. And that’s going to be a real problem for the United States, which would rather see central government institutions that are more effective and that can undercut all of these militias and these sectarian-based groups.
RFE/RL: How do you see al-Maliki’s future playing out?
Clawson: I think al-Maliki will remain the figurehead to run an ineffective government because that’s in the interest of the principle political parties, is to have an ineffective government. And the United States will be frustrated about this, and keep wanting to see al-Maliki do more to bring unity and to make the ministries function effectively and al-Maliki will probably be largely unsuccessful at doing that. Modest progress at best is what we should expect.
RFE/RL: Is the United States actively advising al-Maliki through these crises, or is it standing back and letting events unfold?
Clawson: The United States’ role has to be one of urging all the parties themselves to settle and come to conclusions, and at the same time the U.S. has to be very delicate about not being the one who dictates the terms. After all, what matters to the United States is that all the parties are happy with the deal. So the United States is in the frustrating position of saying, "Would you people please come to an agreement," but the United States is not going to dictate that agreement.
If it would appear to U.S. officials that the two sides are, in fact, very close to an agreement but that for some reason are not able to make that leap to an agreement, then I could see the United States playing a more active role, pointing out to everybody that, "Look, you all do agree on this." Not that the United States is going to dictate the solution, but the United States may help facilitate reaching agreements that the two sides want.
RFE/RL: The leader of the largest Sunni bloc in parliament has just accused al-Maliki of being too close to Iran, which he says is arming Shi’ite militias. U.S. military leaders in Iraq also believe Iran is supplying weapons. Is al-Maliki now in a position where he needs to reevaluate his relationship with Iran, or at least try to give the impression that he’s cutting ties?
Clawson: Not necessarily with Iran, but with the most radical elements in these militias who the Iranians have been working with. Because it would appear that in many cases, if you listen to both U.S. intelligence and to Sunnis inside Iraq, what we hear is reports of the Iranians working with the most radical elements and not even necessarily with the leaders of the political parties but the leaders of the militias. And so there is some basis for going to al-Maliki and saying, "Look, could you please get all these different political parties and militias to discipline their members and to be under better control and to work together better with the government?" It’s tough for al-Maliki to do that, but it’s not necessarily impossible.
RFE/RL: Finally, what's your prediction? Are the news headlines after this Iraqi summit going to read “Maliki Government Fails To Reach Agreement?”
Clawson: There may be an agreement reached on how to share power and authority, but it’s unlikely that the fundamental problem of a badly working government is going to get solved. And it’s unlikely that there’s going to be any agreement anytime soon on having a government that works better. People don’t want it.
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.
LISTENListen to the entire briefing (about 70 minutes):
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