Sunni Leader Says Prime Minister 'Finished'August 22, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The pressure on the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, both domestic and from the United States, continues to grow as the paralysis that resulted from the Sunni-led Iraqi Accordance Front's withdrawal from the government continues.
According to Umar Abd al-Sattar, a member of the Iraqi Islamic Party and a parliamentarian representing the Accordance Front (Al-Tawafuq), the front is working to propose a national-unity plan. Speaking to RFE/RL Iraq analyst Kathleen Ridolfo today, Abd al-Sattar harshly criticized al-Maliki, saying Iraq's first permanent post-Hussein government has done nothing for the people. Abd al-Sattar also discussed Al-Tawafuq's relations with the Sunni tribes of the western Al-Anbar Governorate, and with Kurdish and Shi'ite political parties.
RFE/RL: What is the status of talks between the Iraqi Accordance Front and the political parties inside the government over ending the political crisis?
Umar Abd al-Sattar: I think nowadays there is a negotiation between multiple Iraqi [groups]. Between us, Al-Tawafuq, and the Iraqi government, there is nothing to say about this issue. But, there is a good effort [made] continuously going by [Iraqi President] Jalal [Talabani] and his team to do what he can do to push the government to [meet] Al-Tawafuq and other political [groups'] needs. This is first.
Second, we are involving, nowadays we are busy, to arrange a national program. We think it is very necessary now to make all the categories -- the Iraqi political categories [political streams]...to discuss it.... We think there is a very strong conflict about this. There is some...terms, the Iraqi [groups] have conflict over -- like democracy, federalism, resistance, terrorism. These terms, we think, if we can put them in simple words, we can build upon it a national program. We can meet with the others to pass [through] this dilemma going on nowadays in Iraq.
RFE/RL: So, Al-Tawafuq is making its own program. And also there are talks with the government. An Iraqi government spokesman said on August 20 that the only issue that has been agreed upon was to change the de-Ba'athification law. He said all the other issues remain in dispute. Can you talk about these talks with the government, and how they are affecting [the political environment]?
Abd al-Sattar: Really, there is not any negotiation between us and the government. We said everything in a clear way. There is not any negotiation between us. The government did not send any team to meet with us about what we need from the government. The only effort [made] in this field was done by [Talabani].... So, we still think that the government [is] still in the first stage.
RFE/RL: What about the preparatory committee working on addressing the outstanding issues such as de-Ba'athification, the constitution, and federalism?
Abd al-Sattar: It is still working, and I think this is something apart from the government. It is something working to solve what we call a political issue; it's not a government issue.
RFE/RL: Who has formed this committee?
Abd al-Sattar: The committee is from Al-Tawafuq, [and the United Iraqi Alliance and the Kurdistan Coalition].
No Coalition Yet Decided
RFE/RL: A representative of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr said on August 20 that al-Sadr supporters are working to establish a new coalition in parliament and that Al-Tawafuq will join it. Is this true?
Abd al-Sattar: I think what al-Sadr's group said [about] this goal, I think it is not in the size or in the shape of a coalition. I think there is a negotiation between us and Al-Fadilah group, and al-Sadr's group, and Jabhat Al-Hiwar [Iraqi National Dialogue Council], Dr. Salih al-Mutlaq's group, and Dr. [Iyad] Allawi's Al-Iraqiyah group and others also.
From the beginning of this year and clearly from March or May of this year, all these groups inside the parliament, they are [working] together...to stop against any thing they [object] to...and it is a very strong coalition. But without a shape, without a name, without a [formal agreement like] the quadri[partite] coalition between the Kurdistan Coalition, Al-Da'wah, and [the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, SIIC].
I think there is a good distance between us and all these [groups] and also between us and the four groups inside the quadri[partite] coalition.... I think the only party we are reaching a closed way [having no relations with] is with the Al-Da'wah Party. We [have communications with] the Supreme Council [SIIC], with the Kurdistan Coalition, with the Iraqis List, with Al-Fadilah, with Al-Sadrists, with others. We are, as the IP [Islamic Party], the same distance from all these [groups]. We are not against any party or any group of these -- we want to meet all these in a national program not in a coalition, in any shape [that] a coalition [comes].
So, the next days we will do something to solve what our people, what our nation, what our country needs. I think what our country and our people do not need [is] a coalition in any shape, but they need something [done for] them, something [done] for the country. And I think any coalition [formed] from these [groups] will not solve the problem. But they will solve the problem of [the parties and their personalities], not the problems of the country or the problems of the people.
Now we are very busy to meet all these groups on a national program [and] we are arranging [this program] to be ready in the next days, god willing.
RFE/RL: So, Al-Tawafuq will not join a coalition?
Abd al-Sattar: I think we must go to the direction of what the people need, what the country needs. We are now, in these days, doing something with the Kurdistan Coalition, and with [SIIC], and doing the same thing with Al-Iraqiyah [Iraqis List], Al-Hiwar [National Dialogue Council] and Al-Fadilah.
So, I think something will happen in the [coming] days. I think the age of this government is finished. And we must do something, not in the issue of the government, but in the issue of the political process, which is going...from March 2003 until now. We must solve a global thing, [the main issues] we are divided [over]. If this issue will be solved, I think the issue of the government [will be solved] more easily.
RFE/RL: So, will you push for a change in the government and to replace Nuri al-Maliki?
Abd al-Sattar: I think if this government will not do something to push the [administration] from a sectarian [program] to a national [program], and do something to solve...the political program of this government, after one year [referring to al-Maliki's term in office] to put it to be done, I think this government must be...I think the government until now has done nothing [for] the people, [for] the country.
If we judge this government according to our political program and the agreements that were signed before the establishment of this government and [according to] the constitution, so we will judge them, it will be judged and this government should finish and leave.... Then it is possible to form a new government according to an Iraqi political program and the democracy that we work within until now.
No Future In Sectarianism
RFE/RL: I want to ask you about this sectarianism in the government. Sunni Arabs have said they don't want a government based on sectarianism, that they want a national-unity government. But they also supported the idea of quotas to ensure a certain number of people from each sect in the government, in the ministries. If you eliminate sectarianism and say we will truly have a national-unity government, and we will only appoint ministers who are qualified, what happens if the ministers that come are not Sunni Arabs?
Abd al-Sattar: I think that if you go with the constitution, if you go with the program of this government...I think that if the government puts a Sunni [Arab] person who is not with Al-Tawafuq...this goes against the constitution and [is] not with the government program. I think that if this will happen, it will not solve the problem.
We do not want to [force] Sunni [Arab] people -- [either] from Al-Tawafuq or from a party from [within] Al-Tawafuq into the government -- this is not a solution. I think we will never mind [if] anyone -- Shi'ite or not Shi'ite, Kurdish or Arabic, Muslims or not, or Christians, will be the prime minister -- we will not mind. But we must guide [ourselves] in a national way, not in a double-standard way, not in a sectarian way. The prime minister must be the prime minister of all Iraqis, not [the prime minister] of a part of Iraq, not [only] of [the] Shi'a, not of [the] Sunnis.
What al-Maliki does is, he is a prime minister of the Shi'a, not the prime minister of all. So, after one year and three months from this government, we feel and we find -- we confirm this -- that the government is a sectarian government. Yes, we are Sunni people...but this is not because we are [Sunni]. Every Iraqi is either Sunni or Shi'a or Kurdi or another, yes. But what his national program is, the Al-Da'wah [Party] and what we call the wing of Al-Da'wah which al-Maliki guides, is a very.... Al-Maliki's wing that is heading the government is a sliding wing [slippery slope], a monopolizing wing, and a wing that is clinging to power, and a police wing.
Al-Maliki in fact proved that he is the secretary-general of Al-Da'wah and at the same time the general commander of the Iraqi Army. And what he did now, he made himself the only leader and the first leader, and we can liken him to Saddam Hussein in his dictatorship, clinging to power. This is not possible [to continue this way].
Our country nowadays, any party, any person, any coalition, cannot guide our country. Our country must be guided by all [parties working together] and all must be helped by the United Nations, because our dilemma is more than [within our ability] to solve it and go to the right direction.
RFE/RL: Does Al-Tawafuq have a relationship with former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari's wing of the Al-Da'wah Party?
Abd al-Sattar: Yes, I think we have good relations with al-Ja'fari's group.... I think the Iraqi parties will not solve their problems [through] a [single] person, [whether] it's al-Ja'fari, al-Maliki, Allawi, or [Sunni Vice President Tariq] al-Hashimi, or [Shi'ite Vice President] Adil Abd al-Mahdi, or Talabani, or [Kurdistan regional President Mas'ud] Barzani [referring to all the possible names that might replace al-Maliki if the government falls].
The Iraqis need a program, a national program, not a sectarian program.... We need a national program, not a person [no matter] what kind this person is, [how] strong this person is....
RFE/RL: How are Al-Tawafuq's relations with the Al-Anbar Salvation Council? Al-Maliki said last week that he may replace Al-Tawafuq ministers with members of the Al-Anbar Salvation Council.
Abd al-Sattar: We have very good relations with the Abu Rishah group [tribes aligned with Sheikh Abd al-Sattar Abu Rishah], we have very good relations with the sheikhs of the tribes of Al-Anbar, but what we say about the Al-Anbar Salvation Council, this coalition is not present. Abd al-Sattar Abu Rishah said that the Al-Anbar Awakening Conference dismantled the Al-Anbar Salvation Council.
So, we have a good relation now, and all the sheiks of the tribes of Al-Anbar are with Al-Tawafuq now. In the next provincial council election of Al-Anbar, we will do a single, unified list. Their tribes are our tribes, and they are from us and we are from them.
There are some people from within the government and from outside the government who want to do something between us and the tribes of Al-Anbar. [They] didn't succeed in this goal, so I think we have no problem with [the tribes], and the names that [the Salvation Council] proposed to be the ministers in the government [to replace Al-Tawafuq] were withdrawn. I think this is not a problem to us nowadays.
U.S. Signals Increasing Frustration With Iraqi Premier
U.S. President George W. Bush, speaking at a news conference in Canada on August 21, avoided his customary praise for al-Maliki, instead underlining his concerns about the Iraqi government:
"There's a process taking place, and the fundamental question is, will the government respond to the demands of the people?" Bush said. "And if the government doesn't respond to the demands of the people, they will replace the government. That's up to the Iraqis to make that decision, not American politicians."
The head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator Carl Levin, speaking after his recent visit to Iraq, was more outspoken. He called on the Iraqi parliament to vote the al-Maliki government from power, saying it had “totally and utterly failed” to reach a political settlement.
And the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, told journalists on August 21 that the Iraqi government's progress toward national reconciliation was "extremely disappointing."
All this comes just weeks before Crocker and General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, are due to deliver a key progress report on developments in Iraq, that could lead to policy changes from Washington.
Al-Maliki today brushed off U.S. criticism of his government, telling reporters at a press conference in Damascus that "no one has the right to place timetables on the Iraq government. It was elected by its people."
Mustafa Alani, the director of security and terrorism studies at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai, says the United States has good reasons to be unhappy with al-Maliki:
"Now we are talking about more than a year [of al-Maliki being in power,]" Alani says. "He was unable to produce any political reforms, and he is not meeting the United States' expectations. Now the United States feels he is not delivering and he is not contributing and helping the country to stabilize, and he is too weak to force the militias [that are supposed] to be disbanded. He is too weak to introduce amendments to the constitution, and [to address] other issues -- the question of the police, the question of the army."
Alani says that U.S. dissatisfaction alone wouldn't be enough to remove the prime minister. But he notes that al-Maliki is rapidly losing support in the Iraqi parliament, too.
"Al-Maliki is losing support even within the [Iraqi] parliament -- [within radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada] al-Sadr's group, the Arab Sunni coalition. So he is not only losing the American support, he is losing inside the country as well," he says.
Many Iraqi politicians would seem to agree. Hasan al-Shammari, a parliamentarian from the Shi'ite Al-Fadilah Party, says his party is unhappy with the current situation. He says al-Maliki is not prepared to address the key issues that need to be discussed.
"No steps have been taken to reform the political process," al-Shammari says. "What we have now is an approach to address some unresolved issues, which parliament has not been able to decide. These include the oil law and the de-Ba'athification law as well as the question of the powers delegated to the presidential council and those of the prime minister, the so-called 3+1 formula. These are the issues to be considered with leaders of the political blocs at the coming meeting. I don't think at issue is the political situation and restructuring the entire political process to be managed in genuine partnership. No, I don't think this is the issue put on the table."
Sunni parliamentarian Abd al-Karim al-Samarra'i of the Iraqi Accordance Front is even more critical and says the party's participation in the current cabinet is excluded.
"The Accordance Front has made up its mind," al-Samarra'i says. "It will never return to the government in its present composition. Frankly speaking it is a long agenda. As you know, the points of contention referred to the coming meeting [of leaders of the various groups] are many. They include the constitution, bills sent to parliament, national reconciliation, the Accordance Front's demands, the militias, etc. In fact there are many demands, not only those of the Accordance Front. The important thing is that the Accordance Front's return or non-return to government is not linked to meeting its demands. These are national demands and no one can concede some of them or engage in bargaining over these demands if they are met by the government. There is no room whatsoever for bargaining in this regard."
It is difficult to tell at this stage who might vie to replace al-Maliki, should it come to that. Shi’ite parties have the majority in the parliament and it is most likely, Alani says, that the next prime minister would also be a Shi’ite politician.
"They have to pick someone from the parliament, someone who can enjoy the support of the parliament," he says. "It needs to be one from a major Shi’ite party. But changing a personality could help because they [parliamentarians] think al-Maliki is too weak as a person, and it is not the only question of whether a Shi’ite is a prime minister or not, it is a question of personality as well."
Alani says there is not a clear candidate now. But he says he is sure the majority in the Iraqi parliament could find a personality acceptable to the ruling majority.
French Minister In Iraq As Ties With U.S. WarmAugust 20, 2007 -- France has sent a top official to Iraq for the first time since Paris led opposition to the U.S.-led invasion of 2003.
Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who is on a three-day visit to Iraq, said after arriving in Baghdad on August 19 that he had come at the invitation of President Jalal Talabani.
Kouchner said he had come to listen, and not to offer any new initiatives.
"I hope that this attitude by a European Union member nation will lead to more interest," he told a news conference on August 19. "And I have come to participate in the return of hope."
The visit by Kouchner -- a former UN administrator for Kosovo -- is seen as highly symbolic.
Just four years ago, the then French president, Jacques Chirac, led opposition around the world to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, a stance that cast a chill on U.S.-French relations.
The cafeteria in the U.S. House of Representatives famously had the "French" taken out of "French fries," dubbing them "freedom fries" instead.
Sarkozy Sets A New Tone
But in May this year France got a new, pro-U.S. president in the form of Nicolas Sarkozy.
Kouchner's visit to Iraq comes less than two weeks after U.S. President George W. Bush hosted Sarkozy for a lunch at the Bush family's seaside vacation home in Kennebunkport, Maine.
Sarkozy had been in the neighborhood, having vacationed in the nearby state of New Hampshire.
But he went to great lengths to attend the lunch -- flying back to France to attend an important funeral, before returning to the United States for hamburgers and hotdogs with the Bushes.
It was all seen as evidence of a new keenness to improve ties, as expressed by White House spokesman Tony Snow a couple of days before Sarkozy's trip.
"It looks like we're on the verge of a new era of relations with the French, which is a good thing, and the president [Bush] believes in building personal relationships with other heads of state," Snow said. "This [lunch] fits into that pattern."
The White House has also welcomed Kouchner's visit to Iraq.
"This is one more example...of a growing international desire to help Iraq become a stable and secure country," spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.
It's unclear what specific role France -- which has no troops in Iraq -- might play.
Kouchner's Iraqi counterpart, Hoshyar Zebari, had some words of hope. He said he would like the visit to herald an "increased level of engagement by France with Iraq, a level consistent with the activism of its foreign minister."