The feuding had been festering long before Iraq’s leaders gathered in Baghdad’s Green Zone this week, ostensibly to come together to form a government that would signify harmony in the face of fragmentation.
It didn’t take long, however, before insults, accusations and anger overtook any portents of union and shelved the politicians’ plans.
The Kurds, shoring up their borders after capturing Kirkuk after Iraqi security forces fell away from neighboring Mosul, demanded their share of revenue that the Shia-dominated central government has been withholding because of oil contracts the Kurds have been initiating independently.
The Shia, in turn, raged against the Kurds. One member of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s bloc yelled across the legislature that the Kurds were betraying the country.
“The Iraqi flag is an honor above your heads,” shouted Kadhim al-Sayadi. “Why do you take it down? The day will come when we will crush your heads.”
The Sunnis were internally split. They and the Kurds were said to have agreed on one Sunni candidate to be named speaker of parliament — a position that must be filled before any others may be — only to encounter opposition from the man currently in the post. He doesn’t want to vacate.
The deadline issued by the country’s leading Shia religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, to form a new leadership has passed. And Maliki, faced with a political impasse at least until next week, continues to show no signs of stepping down as his rivals — and Al-Qaeda-inspired fighters — have demanded. With increased pressure from his own Shia factions and the burgeoning Islamic State virtually in view of Baghdad, can Maliki hold on long enough to create a new political reality?
In his televised weekly address on Wednesday, Maliki fought to shift the focus away from the political machinations to the realities of an impending civil war.
“I don’t believe there is anything more important than mobilizing people to support the security situation. Other things are important, but this is the priority,” he said. “We will move on in the political process, but we have to focus on the battle, which is on behalf of the people.”
Of the lawmakers who filed into the first session since national elections in April, Maliki said, “It was good to see people united and showing up, despite the weaknesses we saw and did not hope to see.” By the next session, he hoped, “we will overcome this by cooperating and being realistic.”
It is still unclear whether he will be his bloc’s choice for prime minister. Part of the fallout on Tuesday stemmed from each bloc’s failing to nominate someone or refusing to play its cards before it saw everyone else’s hands. In the meantime, Maliki may be seeking to soften his opponents with his latest move, which is offering amnesty to Sunni tribes and their fighters “who were involved in acting against [the] state," he said. “We will not exclude anyone, except those who killed and shed blood.”
He may be content to tread water as he waits for support from unlikely allies: Russia, which working to prop up Bashar al-Assad’s besieged regime in Damascus. To Maliki’s great satisfaction, Russian jets are on their way. He said he believes they will turn the tide against Islamic State fighters toting U.S. military hardware newly appropriated from departing Iraqi troops.
Throughout, Maliki’s supporters have said that he is reluctant to stand down while the country is in crisis and that he doesn’t want his legacy to be a weak Iraqi security force and his failure as a leader.
But Iraq’s notoriously slow political process is nothing new. Even before this latest tumult, parliament was infamous for turning up for a few hours a day, a few days a month before adjourning for weeks on end. The U.S. military surge in 2007 was initiated in large part to allow Iraqi leaders to forge an alliance that would surmount their sectarian differences. But the constant squabbles and parliament’s lackadaisical schedule only exacerbated the country’s woes.
That all sides fronted for talks this week demonstrated at least a willingness on the part of most to find common ground. While Turkey may prefer a secular, economically viable party on its borders rather than a fundamentalist state, it hasn’t outwardly expressed support for Kurdish independence. Responding to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent comments that Iraq’s Kurds had proved their political commitment and moderation and were “worthy of independence,” his Turkish counterpart, Bulent Arinc reiterated Turkey’s stance.
“Turkey’s position is for the territorial integrity and political unity of Iraq. That’s it,” Arinc said, adding that the disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk should “continue as it is” and remain part of Iraq.
Even with Kirkuk safely in their hands, the Kurds will need to partake in the central political game in Baghdad: Their economy is not yet sustainable without Baghdad’s support, and having a Kurd, Jalal Talabani, as president of Iraq helps soften power plays in the Kurdistan regional government between the dominating political parties.
The choice for Iraq’s Sunnis is even starker. They have little economic stability, fewer social services and an extremist presence that proved itself unwanted 10 years ago, when U.S. forces battled Al-Qaeda inspired fighters in the city of Fallujah. Despite the shifting ethnic landscape, the Sunnis in Iraq’s west cannot exist without the central government. They rely on it for electricity, drinking water, gasoline and a share of national revenues. And ultimately, many of their leaders have come to realize that the only way they can prevent their being targeted by way of anti-Baath legislation is to be part of the legislature to oppose it.
The greatest question for Maliki remains within his own group. Will he choose to step aside for another Shia leader to take the reins? Will he and his group be willing to bridge differences that have alienated Sunnis and Kurds? The longer it takes, the more those differences will fester. But as long as there is no new government, Maliki remains commander in chief. He may prefer to maintain the status quo as long as possible, deflecting attention from the political stalemate onto the security crisis in the hope that a defeat of Islamic State fighters would reap him enough political leverage to stay where he is when the politicking finally begins.