Iraqi Parliament Wobbles Over Forming Government

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Iraq’s political process appeared near collapse for several hours on Monday after the Parliament said it would be at least five weeks before members would even try to elect a speaker, the first step in the process of forming a government.

But that plan appeared to be in flux after a firestorm of criticism from friendly countries and senior Shiite clerics, and late Monday evening Parliament said members would try to meet Sunday — only five days later than originally planned.

The announcement of the five-week delay was quickly followed by charges and countercharges about which political bloc was to blame for slowing down the political process. And even if Parliament does meet Sunday and chooses a speaker, it is far from clear that it will be able to move speedily to the next steps of selecting a president, two vice presidents and a prime minister.

“It’s a crisis,” said Laith Kubba, an analyst who served as a spokesman for the Iraqi government shortly after the fall of former President Saddam Hussein.

“The problem is that there is no shared vision today in Iraq,” Mr. Kubba said. “The Kurds have developed a vision, and the Sunnis are very confused about the new reality, and the Shia are very confused.”

The election was held in April but it was not certified until mid-June, and when Parliament met for the first time last week, all members could agree on was delaying for a week. According to the Iraqi Constitution, the first step is to name a speaker and once that is done, lawmakers have a maximum of two weeks to choose a president and two vice presidents and then a month more to choose the prime minister.

Since a large part of the country was taken over by Sunni extremists on June 10, touching off the current crisis, a host of friendly governments — most prominently, the United States and Iran — have urged Parliament to move quickly to form a unity government that might give the country a new direction and forestall further political fraying.

They have pushed the Shiite majority government to reach out to Sunnis, who say they have been treated as second-class citizens, imprisoned in large numbers and disadvantaged directly and indirectly by the Shiite-dominated government led by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.

Critics of the Maliki government say that its relentlessly sectarian policies alienated Sunnis, helping to ease the way for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria to oust the Iraqi Army and move into Sunni areas in Iraq’s north and west. In the melee, the Kurds seized other disputed areas in the north with the result that the country’s borders are being redrawn on the ground, something that many Iraqi lawmakers seem not to have fully faced.

Instead, much of the public discussion has been about assigning blame for not forming the government, while there is almost certainly considerable bargaining going on behind closed doors about what each bloc needs to sign on to the leadership slate.

“The session was postponed until Aug. 12 because of the disagreement and the conflict between the blocs,” said Aboud al-Essawi, a member of Mr. Maliki’s predominantly Shiite State of Law party, referring to other political parties.

The Sunnis said they were ready to proceed, but wanted the Shiites to make the first move. “We are still saying that we are ready to present our candidate for speaker whenever the National Alliance presents its candidate for prime minister, and it can be anyone else but not Maliki,” said Dafar al-Ani, a spokesman for the main Sunni bloc, referring to a coalition of Shiite parties.

“The National Alliance asked for more time to make their final decision,” he added.

Beneath the blame game are real differences in what is acceptable to different groups. For instance, a large number of Shiites now want to remove Mr. Maliki, but his party won the most parliamentary seats, so he cannot be summarily kicked aside. And there are differences of opinion about who might be an acceptable successor, first to all the Shiite blocs, but then also to the Sunnis and the Kurds.

Mr. Maliki says that removing him just as Iraq is trying to reconstitute its demoralized army would undermine those in the fight. While that might seem a convenient argument to prolong his time in power, at least some lawmakers appear to agree.

Even a senior leader in the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a Shiite party that now opposes Mr. Maliki, said that “replacing Maliki now could be seen as a victory for the terrorists, and it also could adversely reflect the security leadership’s morale because if Maliki is not there anymore, they could be dismissed or accused of corruption.”

The Sunnis are demanding an amnesty for the tens of thousands of Sunni imprisoned — unjustly, they say, in most cases — by the Maliki government and a bigger say in how the country is run, including its security services. While some Shiites might be willing to give that to them, others are adamantly opposed.

The Kurds believe they have an absolute right to include Kirkuk and some surrounding disputed villages in the autonomous Kurdish region, but neither the Sunnis nor the Shiites want to cede that ground, especially since the Kurds have made it plain that their ultimate goal is independence.

While each group has defensible reasons for its views, taken together they amount to stasis.

In Washington on Monday, the State Department urged the Iraqi politicians to quickly form a new government.

“We’re looking at a dire situation on the ground,” said Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman. “We’ve seen the statements,” she added, referring to Parliament’s schedule. “Our view is, that’s not set in stone, that they still have the ability to move forward more quickly than what they outlined this morning.”

In the meantime, the fight by the extremists goes on. The general commanding the Iraqi Army’s Sixth Division was killed in a mortar attack on Monday morning west of Baghdad, according to officers in the division and a counterterrorism official.

The commander, Brig. Gen. Najim Abdullah Ali al-Sudani, was killed in or near the town of Garma, which is close to Fallujah, a city that has been held by Sunni militants for most of this year. In recent weeks, Iraqi troops bolstered by militia groups have been trying to reclaim the city.

SOURCE: New York Times, July 7th 2014: