Iraq’s PM al-Maliki Rejects Gov’t of Nat’l Unity as Sunnis Demand he step Down

By Juan Cole

Secretary of State John Kerry is an experienced and knowledgeable diplomat, but the difficulty of the situation in the Middle East right now is demonstrated by the repeated reversals he suffered during his trip to the Middle East. He asked Egypt to honor freedom of speech even as he brought news of over $500 mn in aid. The next day Egyptian courts jailed journalists for 7-10 years for practicing journalism. He visited Kurdistan president Mahmoud Barzani in Erbil, asking him to help form a united government in Baghdad to stand against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL). Instead, Barzani all but said he was on the verge of seceding from Iraq. In Baghdad, some sources say Kerry pushed the political elite to form a government of national unity and hinted around heavily that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would have to go (the State Department denies this).

Yesterday in his weekly address to the nation, al-Maliki defiantly refused to go quietly. He denounced the “formation of a government of national salvation, as they call it” as merely “a targeting by rebels of the constitution in order to finish off the nascent democratic experiment and to confiscate the votes of the voters.”

Al-Maliki emphasized that he will convene parliament within a week to begin the process of forming a new government, in accordance with the constitution and with the call of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. (The constitution requires that parliament begin deliberations on forming a government 15 days after the elections are certified. It was rumored that parliament would not in fact meet until the power brokers had made a deal about who the new prime minister would be. Sistani complained about this sidelining of the people’s representatives and insisted that the constitutional provision be honored.) Al-Maliki, weakened by the failure of his army (which has collapsed in the face of the ISIS-backed Sunni uprising), has been constrained to be seen as acting constitutionally if he has any hope of quieting his critics.

Al-Maliki’s Da’wa (Islamic Call) Party got 92 seats out of 328.

Iraq’s constitution calls for the president to convene parliament. It then elects a speaker of parliament, who presides over the election of a president of the country. The president then appoints the leader of the largest bloc in parliament as PM. The constitution is ambiguous as to whether this means the biggest winner in the elections or whether it means the politician who can put together the biggest post-election constitution. In practice, it has been the latter.

In parliamentary systems like Iraq, it is desirable that the prime minister have 51% of seats on his side, so as to be able to pass laws and survive challenges (votes of ‘no confidence’, for which the constitution provides). Putting together that coalition, where one’s party doesn’t win a majority of seats, happens after the election (in the US in essence the coalitions under the umbrellas of the two major parties are formed before the election). If al-Maliki can persuade another 73 parliamentarians from among Shiites and (likely) Kurds to support him, he can form a government. At the moment, reaching the magic number of 165 seems difficult, since the other Shiite parties now oppose al-Maliki, and the Kurds are also unhappy with him. That the small Sunni Arab parties would support him seems unlikely.

It is also possible in parliamentary systems for there to be a minority government, wherein the prime minister does not have a majority but where it is hoped that none of the other parties is motivated to bring him or her down with a vote of no-confidence. It is unclear if Jalal Talabani, a Kurdish leader, will continue as president; he had a stroke 18 months ago and seems to be absent from the political scene. Much therefore depends on who the president will be, whether al-Maliki can put together 165 votes (thus making other candidates implausible), and what the president thinks of al-Maliki. This process can be interminable and take 7 or 8 months, which Iraq probably doesn’t have, which is why al-Maliki’s insistence on putting the country through it is so discouraging.

Al-Maliki rather outrageously accused those who called for him to step down in favor of a government of national unity of de facto allying with ISIS, a would-be al-Qaeda affiliate, and the remnants of the Baath Party that used to rule Iraq in former dictator Saddam Hussein’s day.

Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr put forward a 6-point plan for ending the crisis. He urges that the ‘moderate Sunnis’ be separated from ISIS terrorists and called for a government of national unity (exactly what al-Maliki just rejected). He also called on Iraqis to act against any foreign incursions into Iraq.

At the same time, Ali al-Hatim, leader of the Council of Sunni Tribes, rejected the notion of al-Maliki gaining a third term: “He has to go, like it or not.” He characterized al-Maliki’s rule as “rule by Iran.” He also denounced the present constitution as an “occupation constitution.” If Baghdad has any hope of recovering Iraq’s Sunnis, it would be by allying with the rural tribes and nationalist urban dwellers against ISIS. (There have already been clashes between ISIS fundamentalists and Iraqi tribal forces). Clearly, al-Hatim is not willing to make that bargain with al-Maliki.

Meanwhile, the UN Food and Agriculture Agency (FAO), is warning of the possibility that the current events will be a disaster for the country’s ability to feed itself. About a third of Iraq’s wheat crop and 38% of its barley is grown in Ninevah and Salahuddin Provinces, both of them caught up in the Sunni uprising led by ISIS. With so many Iraqis being displaced, farmers may find it impossible to harvest these grain crops, an activity that ordinarily would just be beginning.

There were no big military movements on Wednesday. The Iraqi army still claims to have Samarra and the road that leads to it, including the (Shiite) shrine with the golden dome. ISIS has threatened to raze Shiite and Sufi shrines.

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Related video:

DW: “Iraqi Prime Minister rejects calls for national unity government | Journal ”

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Related book:

The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation is Changing the Middle East

14 Responses

  1. Since the government of ‘national unity’ would essentially ignore election results and give most power to the Sunnis and Kurds, if is not particularly surprising that it would be rejected. No shia PM would consider it.

    But in general, all this talk about replacing Malili seems overblown. Even if he were replaced, all the main issues would still be there and the Sunni would quickly hate the new Shia PM just as much as the old. Now it’s a war of attrition, and one the Sunnis are poorly positioned for. The best they can hope for is independence in destroyed, impoverished version of the Gaza strip.

    • A government of national unity would not hand all power to Sunnis & Kurds.

      Some Sunnnis clearly believe they can conquer entire country, not be trapped in new Gaza strip. They are probably wrong, but Shiite defenses have thus far been unimpressive.

      • It has been unimpressive, primarily, I would argue, because given the sectarian environment, sunni officers are not going to follow Maliki’s orders. Likewise Kurdish officers will follow their own community’s leadership.

        Like Assad, Maliki is going to weed out the armed forces and integrate shia fighters into the forces. The US attempted to create an inclusive Iraqi armed forces which is useless in a civil war. The new shia forces with Iranian training will not suffer anywhere near the same level of desertions/corruption that the US trained forces suffered from.

        Unlike Assad, Maliki has the demographic advantage for manpower, oil money for arms funding, and even easier access to Iranian support. He’s already made a statement that he should have bought Russian arms given all the strings the US is attaching to him for help.

        If the US keeps insisting that the shia’s share power with a community that is allying itself with ISIS they will find themselves losing out whatever influence they have with the majority group in Iraq to Iran.

        • Redux, I agree that trying to accommodate the rebellious Sunni is distasteful, but what is your vision? It sounds like you want the U.S. to jump on the Maliki/Iran bandwagon, see the Sunni crushed and dominated.

          I see nothing but endless warfare and ethnic cleansing in your approach, there will always be more fighters to enter on Sunni side.

        • I agree with Richard below, maybe the sunni’s are allying themselves with ISIS because that is there only hope in having any kind of say in the country. If the government of maliki or whomever, allows the Sunni to be part of the process they may ditch ISIS, no?

      • The one proposed would basically give 1/3 of the power to each ethnic group, even though shia religious parties won 2/3 of the vote. Why would any political party agree to throw away its own electoral victory like that?

        So far, but that won’t last. The shia have every advantage and there is nothing like a crisis to get people serious about reforming the military, starting with a purge of all the sunnis added for ‘power-sharing’ reasons.

    • I dont think the arguement is to give most power to sunni and kurd, but more power. It has to be a three way sharing of power or just split the country up. No one would enjoy living under the rule of another group who does not have your interests in mind.

  2. SW Tucker

    The kurds rejected it first. Then al Maliki rejected it because he knows it’s a trap to get him out of power

  3. A great deal will be revealed by what happens next … particularly as to who is calling the shots from within “ISIS” and how unified they are (which is critical — as can be seen in the trajectory of the Syrian rebels whose moment of near-victory resulted in catastrophic infighting and general chaos — not matter how much we still like to refer to them as “the rebels” as if they were unified amongst themselves).

    Because of the lack of oil reserves in the traditionally Sunni areas, there are, in fact good reasons “ISIS” to forgo blowing up Iraq and letting the chips wall where they may — there’s the majority Shiia population, the as-yet largely untapped (I think) Medhi army of Al-Sadr, the Kurd and Iran — arrayed against them — and, yes, it wouldn’t be 2014 without the United States and Israel rather decidedly not.on.their.side.
    KSA should be shaking in the boots and unable to sleep at night for the chaos they’ve aided and abetted here.
    However, all bets are off, if Lebanon becomes yet another “front” in “ISIS’s” assault and/or if the Palestinan refugee population there becomes mobilized. Jordan, similarly, needs close attention — particularly since they raised alarms about the dangers to stability they saw in their own returning Syrian veterans. I’m going to think good thoughts and hope that there are enough Lebanese who remember their last civil war … however, about Jordan, I just don’t know. See also: If “ISIS” turns up in Yemen and/or takes the reins of that insurgency from AQIP.

    • It also remains to be seen if “we” will allow anyone to negotiate with ISIS — see also Afghanistan and the Taliban — when there are no American lives and no American blood at risk, we can be remarkably resolute in not only our refusal, but putting the thumbscrews on any of our dependents when it comes to negotiating “with terrorists” — see Ukraine, which seems to grow worse weekly, particularly for the “pro-Russians” and/or ethnic Russians of the east and/or “the federalists” and/or “the separatists” — BBC did a long segment this morning. Reportedly 14,000 have fled into Russian and taken refuge there.
      link to bbc.com

  4. China Matters: “Getting played by ISIS? Welcome to the Club!”

    He thinks they are operating like an organized criminal gang, the mafia. In Syria they rolled Nusra and took over. In Iraq, ISIS has to use more subtle techniques until the time is right to act against the Baathists and whatever Sunni groups/tribes stand in their way. C.M. says it looks like Mosul was their HQ and they had inside help with their rapid takeover. The various crime gangs have to kick 20% of their take upstairs.

    If China Matters is right, why should ISIS risk going toe-to-toe with Maliki, the Mahdi Army, perhaps Iran, the U.S. and even the peshmerga?

    ISIS controls a big part of northern and western Iraq right now. It will be very expensive and bloody for anyone to take back Sunni country. They would all be treated as occupiers.

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