New Sunni Boycott May Be End Of Moderates' Bloc
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.
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.
Parliamentarian Says Talks Continue To Form Moderates' BlocJuly 25, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Independent Kurdish parliamentarian Mahmud Uthman told RFE/RL Iraq analyst Kathleen Ridolfo on July 24 that Shi'ite and Kurdish leaders are still in talks to form a so-called moderates' front in the Iraqi National Assembly. Uthman discussed overtures made to the Sunni-led Iraqi Islamic Party to join the front.
RFE/RL: Can you tell us about the efforts that are being undertaken to form a moderates' front [in the parliament]?
Mahmud Uthman: There are efforts to bring together four parties. Already they have signed some documents [towards this, but] it's not declared yet. They call them moderates because there are other [coalitions] like Sadrists [supporters of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr], like some other parts of the Arab Sunni list and so on.
These four parties, which are Al-Da'wah Party, SCIRI [now SIIC, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council], KDP [Kurdistan Democratic Party] and PUK [Patriotic Union of Kurdistan], they have been friends for a long time. They were in the opposition together, so they have a lot of things in common, these people.
They are trying to bring in the Iraqi Islamic Party so there will be at least five [parties], and it will [then] include all the elements of Iraqi society -- the Arab Sunnis, the Arab Shi'ites, the Kurds, and everybody -- and then they will declare [the formation of the front]. So, I don't know whether the efforts [to include] the Islamic Party will succeed or not. They are now in the process of [trying to elicit] others to join the front.
RFE/RL: The Iraqi Islamic Party said two days ago that they have conditions that must be met before they would consider joining the front.
Uthman: Yes, there are some conditions. They say they have been marginalized by the government. They are not part of the decision-making [process] and they think they are marginalized and they think there is no balance in the courts -- the high courts of the state -- they mean between Sunnis and Shi'a. So they think they should be given more attention, the Arab Sunni side should have [a greater] role in the government, and they shouldn't be marginalized.
That means they [should] say which political formula, that means them joining this front, should go [hand in hand] with an executive formula which guarantees that they have more rights in the government.
They have these conditions and they have already presented a memorandum to the prime minister [Nuri al-Maliki]. They have [presented] a memorandum to the Americans [and] to the parliament. So, those things are discussed, two parallel lines -- one political, one executive. We don't know how things will go but we hope there will be some success.
RFE/RL: There were reports in the Iraqi newspapers on July 21 that the cabinet might be changed and maybe there will be a Sunni Arab president. Is there any truth to these reports?
Uthman: There will be a change in the cabinet, but that is only to fill the vacancies. There are now seven vacancies in the cabinet. Six ministries are vacant because the Sadrists withdrew; a seventh position is vacant because an Iraqi deputy minister resigned. Also there is [an eighth] vacant because of the controversy over the Iraqi culture minister [As'ad al-Hashimi, who is accused in a 2005 assassination]....So, there should be eight or seven ministers appointed to fill these vacancies.
This is the only thing which is going on now. But there is no talk of changing the whole cabinet. If those talks on the political and executive changes go [ahead], then there may be a change of a bigger [nature].
RFE/RL: But there's no talk of changing the president?
Uthman: No, there's no talk. Some people...have been saying that it's better to have a Sunni Arab president because the foreign minister is Kurdish and the president is Kurdish, so one of them [in the Sunni Arab view] should be [a Sunni Arab]. But now nobody talks about this, I mean nobody has put any motion [forward] either in the parliament or in the cabinet.
RFE/RL: The Shi'a and the Kurds are hoping that the Islamic Party will join their moderates' front but it doesn't appear that the Islamic Party is prepared to leave the Iraqi Accordance Front.
Uthman: No, they will not leave. Each [party] will not leave its main bloc. There is a cooperation between these parties to create a bigger bloc in parliament to cooperate with each other. But it doesn't mean that any of these parties will leave their original blocs, parliamentarian blocs. They will stay there. But they have the right, according to the blocs' program, to make coalitions in cooperation with other parties within the political process.
RFE/RL: So, the Islamic Party will remain with the Accordance Front, but they may join the moderates' front?
RFE/RL: Do you believe that the other parties to the Accordance Front will join the moderates' front?
Uthman: I really don't know, but they may because the moderates' front or what they call the moderates' front -- there is no [official] name for it yet -- it is open to other parties [and] the other political parties could join [as well]. [The front] is not closed [to other parties].
RFE/RL: Iyad Allawi has been working to form a new front for secularists. Will he join this front or pursue his own front?
Uthman: Well, Iyad Allawi says there is no secularism [now] and [he believes] everything is based on the sects [religious or ethnic]. But still he is the head of one bloc and he has a party also. It's up to him. As far as I heard from his party, they don't mind if he accepts those principles [of the moderates' front]. He could come into negotiations and join but I think he has no intention to join, based on his previous [public statements].
RFE/RL: KDP head and Kurdish regional President Mas'ud Barzani will travel to Baghdad this week and there are reports that the political parties may meet to discuss the formal establishment of the moderates' front....
Uthman: [Barzani] will be in Baghdad on Tuesday [July 24]...and I think when he comes, we will know a few things about the general issues and about this front also because he is the leader of the Kurdistan region and he is the leader of the [Kurdistan] Democratic Party. So when there is a summit between the political leaders, he will be there and he will join them.
Iraq: Al-Maliki Urges U.S., Iran To Support Stability
Al-Maliki said he hoped both countries would support stability in an Iraq "that doesn't interfere in the affairs of others nor want anyone to meddle in its own affairs."
The two envoys -- Ryan Crocker and Hasan Kazemi-Qomi -- had a first round of talks in May, the highest-level meeting between the two countries since 1980.
There appears to have been little change in either country's public pronouncements since then, however, and many observers express little optimism this second round will make much progress, either.
That feeling may best be summed up by Mithal al-Alusi, a Sunni Muslim member of the Iraqi parliament.
"Well, really I believe that nothing will [come] out of this meeting," al-Alusi said in an interview with Radio Farda. "We haven't seen any kind of Iranian willing[ness] to stop supporting the terrorists and the militias, and the corruption in Iraq, but also in Lebanon, also in Syria, also in Hamas. So Iranian [policy] is very aggressive, not useful, and against the interests of many nations in the Middle East. So that's why I will be really wondering if something will [come] out of the meeting."
Playing For Time?
If today's meeting accomplishes nothing else, al-Alusi says, it will demonstrate Tehran is merely playing for time, perhaps as a way to advance its nuclear program.
Iran has in the past denied such accusations and said that it wants a stable Iraq. But Washington accuses Tehran of fomenting unrest in Iraq and says Iran needs to match its actions with words.
"[The meeting] is designed to see if Iran will change its behavior, and we can talk about issues related to Iraq," U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters on July 23. "We think that this kind of engagement is important, that at the very least, we can have a direct message to the Iranians that if they truly do want a more stable, secure, prosperous Iraq, they're going to have to change their behavior."
Mehrdad Khonsari, a former Iranian diplomat, tells Radio Farda that success for either or both sides is mostly a matter of will.
"It is definitely a positive step," Khonsari says. "But for the talks to reach a result and lead to a solution, both sides should really want it."
Khonsari says perhaps each side sees the other's demands as unacceptable. He says the United States probably believes it can't persuade Iran to end its suspected involvement in Iraq, while Iran likely believes it can't persuade the United States and Britain to withdraw its troops quickly from Iraq.
A Success, Of Sorts
Houshang Amirahmadi takes a different view. Amirahmadi is a professor at Rutgers University in the United States and head of the nongovernmental American-Iranian Council.
He tells Radio Farda that the very fact the two sides are meeting again proves the first meeting was a success, of sorts.
"I evaluate positively the fact that both countries have agreed to face each other and talk to each other directly," Amirahmadi says. "It means that both sides had a positive assessment of the first round of talks, apart from the fact that they have continued to make accusations against each other."
Carah Ong, a policy analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, a private think tank in Washington, believes the time lag between the two meetings may be working against the kind of momentum that the United States and Iraq need to begin building mutual trust.
Eight weeks is too long between meetings, she says, recommending instead interim sessions, perhaps involving lower-level diplomats, to maintain an improved relationship.
"I think the way the structure of meetings has been set up -- with eight-week intervals and a long time to set them up -- I think that at this point, no, they're not really set up for success," Ong says. "It seems that there [are] a lot of accusations going back and forth in the media in both countries. It seems like a far better approach would be for more sustained dialogue occurring more frequently, perhaps, in between some of these larger meetings."
There's been some speculation that the meeting might include topics other than Iraq -- such as Iran's nuclear program. But the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush has been emphatic that the talks will focus solely on how Iran can help stabilize Iraq.
But wouldn't a casual broadening of the subject matter breed familiarity and help generate friendly momentum?
Ordinarily, she says, she would prefer the broadest possible contacts between the two countries. But in this case, she concludes, a well-focused agenda is best.
"Because of the process itself, it's taken essentially eight weeks for the U.S. to really approve of this meeting, even though the Iranians had put forward the suggestion of having a follow-up meeting sooner after the May 28 meeting," Ong says. "I think it suggests that actually both sides have a harder line -- that they're going to stick to this subject [of Iraq security]. And I actually think, at this point, that they should focus on Iraq for the time being until there has been more ground work laid to better the relations between the two countries."
After all, Ong says, Iraq is now the most important topic for both Iran and the United States. If they can make even small progress on that topic, perhaps the stage will be set for progress in other areas, as well.
Those disputes include the international effort to curb Iran's nuclear program and U.S. suspicions that Tehran is turning a blind eye -- or worse -- to militants and weapons crossing Iran's border into Afghanistan.
Today's meeting also comes after Iran aired "televised confessions" on July 18-19 of two detained Iranian-Americans who are accused by Iranian officials of involvement in efforts to carry out a U.S.-backed "velvet revolution" in Iran.
The broadcasts were strongly condemned by human rights groups and the United States.
Iranian authorities also continue to hold two other Iranian-Americans, including Radio Farda broadcaster Parnaz Azima and Ali Shakeri, a founding board member of the Center for Citizen Peacebuilding at the University of California at Irvine.
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