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Iraq: Political Landscape Still In Flux As Parliament Reconvenes

Sunni leader Tariq al-Hashimi's attempt to bring about the government's fall may be running out of steam (file photo) (epa) September 13, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- As the United States makes progress in talks with Sunni and Shi'ite tribal leaders toward ending the armed conflict in Iraq, Iraqi politicians who form the core of the opposition are facing defections from cabinet members who would rather return to work than support their boycott of the government.

Iraqi Planning Minister Ali Baban, who hails from Sunni Arab Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi's Iraqi Islamic Party, returned to work on September 11 following a meeting with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, citing his commitment to serving the country.

The Islamic Party belongs to the Sunni-led Iraqi Accordance Front (Al-Tawafuq), which ended a parliamentary boycott on July 19 only to pull its ministers from the government on August 1, citing al-Maliki's refusal to meet the front's 11 demands, including the release of Sunni detainees not charged with crimes.

Baban told Al-Sharqiyah television on September 11 that al-Maliki had informed him that the Planning Ministry's investment program has slowed in his absence. "More than $10 billion was allocated to the investment plan for this year. The Planning Ministry is in charge of coordinating, following up, and monitoring the implementation phase. The prime minister told me that the implementation process is not going as rapidly as it should and that my two-month absence has played a role in this. He asked me to take over again on a temporary basis at least in order to avoid further delays," Baban said.

Baban's decision drew sharp criticism from leading Al-Tawafuq members. Umar Abd al-Sattar told Al-Sharqiyah that the front will hold Baban accountable for his actions. Meanwhile, front leader Khalaf al-Ulayyan called Baban's decision a "complete surprise," saying it is a huge embarrassment to the front and weakens the front's stand. Al-Ulayyan said Baban's decision was a "dangerous" one, which he likened to "an act of high treason," and called on the minister to reconsider.

Baban is not the only minister to regret the boycott. Several ministers reportedly opposed the decision of their parties or blocs to boycott the government, including some ministers aligned with former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's Iraqis List. According to an August 12 report in "Al-Zaman," most of the ministers who took part in the cabinet boycott are keen to return to their posts.

Parties Come, And Parties Go

Less than a week after parliament reconvened following its summer break, the Sunni-led Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, headed by outspoken politician Salih al-Mutlaq, ended its three-month boycott of the parliament on September 8. Al-Mutlaq said the decision to return to work reflected a desire by the front to work toward formulating a national plan to save Iraq. Part of that plan, he asserted, includes pushing for a change in government.

Meanwhile, parliamentary representatives aligned with Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr threatened to pull out of the ruling United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) on September 11, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported. The announcement comes days after al-Sadr-aligned parliamentarian Salam al-Maliki said the cleric's supporters may form a parliamentary alliance with the Shi'ite Al-Fadilah party, Allawi's Iraqis List, and others in the opposition to counter the newly formed moderates' front.

Al-Sadr spokesman Salah al-Ubaydi told reporters at a press briefing in Al-Najaf that parliamentarians were discussing a possible pullout with the cleric, because the bloc is not satisfied with the government's performance.

Al-Ubaydi said the government has failed to achieve the minimum requirements in terms of security and public services. He also criticized the UIA, saying the two major parties in the Shi'ite alliance, al-Maliki's Islamic Al-Da'wah Party and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), are monopolizing power and practicing a "double-standard" policy.

The threat to withdraw from government, however, appears to have more to do with ongoing tensions that began in 2003 between al-Sadr's militia, the Imam Al-Mahdi Army, and what came to be the SIIC-dominated police force. That tension has most recently played out through a series of violent events in central and southern Iraq.

In his statement to reporters, al-Ubaydi criticized a decision by the two leading Shi'ite parties to join ranks with the leading Kurdish parties in parliament to form the so-called moderates' front, saying Al-Da'wah and the SIIC should have consulted all the parties in the UIA before reaching such an agreement.

SIIC parliamentarian Abbas al-Bayati responded to the threat on September 12, saying that no party would withdraw from the UIA, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported. Al-Bayati stressed that any internal conflicts should be addressed through talks among the parties in the alliance, adding that the official position of the al-Sadr bloc is that the bloc should remain part of the UIA.

Talks Continue To Bring Ba'ath Into Government

Recent media reports also indicate that progress is being made toward encouraging Iraqi tribal leaders and members of the deposed Ba'ath Party to participate in the political process.

Sunni Sheikh Majid Abd al-Razzaq Ali al-Sulayman told the London-based "Al-Quds al-Arabi" in late August that Iraqi tribal leaders have been working since June to form a council that will work to support social cohesion. The council, which will be called the Council of Tribal Sheikhs and Notables of Iraq, would reportedly include the participation of Sunni and Shi'ite Arabs, Kurds, Turkomans, and Christians. Al-Sulayman contended that the council would stand ready to fill a vacuum and preserve the unity, sovereignty, and independence of Iraq, should Prime Minister al-Maliki's government collapse.

Meanwhile, Iyad Allawi continues to tout his role in facilitating talks between Sunni insurgents and the U.S. military. Allawi told Al-Arabiyah television in an interview aired on September 7 that he initiated dialogue with the Ba'ath Party several months ago at the request of the United States. The purpose of the talks was to "find a joint understanding between these Ba'athists and the U.S. government," Allawi said, referring to Ba'athists aligned with former Iraqi Vice President Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri.

Allawi contended that the talks were attended by high-level U.S. officials, as well as representatives of unspecified Western and Arab governments.

Grabbing A Piece Of The Pie

As more Sunni tribal leaders join the Iraqi government's effort to bring stability to the country, their Shi'ite counterparts appear destined to follow suit, out of both a need to stay engaged politically, and to take advantage of the economic and financial support being offered in return for their participation.

U.S. military officers and diplomats have been holding talks with senior members of al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army, the "Los Angeles Times" reported on September 12. The discussions, which have been under way for about a year and a half, apparently began to yield "tangible results" following the cleric's decision to suspend the activities of his militia for up to six months.

One U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the "Los Angeles Times" that while there are rogue elements of the Al-Mahdi Army that cannot be negotiated with, "There are others who we think we might be able to work with."

According to the report, the breakthrough in talks with the militia came after the U.S. military made inroads with local Shi'ite tribal leaders. That revelation was hardly surprising, as both Sunni and Shi'ite tribal leaders are expected to help forge national reconciliation by urging their followers, who form the core of Iraq's militias, to lay down their arms.

U.S. Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Frank, who has met with tribal leaders belonging to the Al-Mahdi Army, said that al-Sadr's cease-fire gave the United States "an opportunity that was very helpful to the discussion effort." While it may take time to yield practical results, Frank told the "Los Angeles Times" that the United States is committed to forging reconciliation between the Iraqi government and the Al-Mahdi Army.

"We have to craft a way ahead. We have to find a workable solution with the community leaders, the religious leaders and essentially the local political leaders within Jaysh Al-Mahdi," Frank said.

With the political landscape in flux, it remains unclear whether parliamentarians will be able to push through key outstanding legislation, including the draft oil law, the draft law on governorates, and the draft law on revising de-Ba'athification. In the week since it returned from summer break, the parliament has already agreed to delay a constitutional review until next year. Given the sensitivity of several key issues, more delays are likely to come.

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


Opposition Appears Set On Bringing Down Al-Maliki

Former Premier Pushing New Plan For Reconciliation

Al-Sadr Prepares For Post-Coalition Era

Sunni Ultimatum Rocks Al-Maliki's Position

THE COMPLETE STORY: RFE/RL's complete coverage of events in Iraq and that country's ongoing transition.

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