Al-Hayat writing in Arabic reports on Saturday’s successful parliamentary session in Baghdad, which was joined by the Iraqiya Party, for which most Sunni Arabs had voted. The parliament had elected Jalal Talabani of the Kurdistan Alliance as president and has put in Usama al-Nujayfi of Iraqiya as speaker of parliament.
Apparently Iraqiya leader Iyad Allawi had hoped as late as early Thursday that he could find a higher post for his party. He had wanted to be president, and the Obama administration had apparently put enormous pressure on the Kurds to step aside and allow an Allawi presidency. Allawi, a secular ex-Baathist from a Shiite background, had emerged as leader of what was largely a Sunni bloc in parliament, with 91 seats out of 325. If Allawi could not get the presidency, he plumped for an alternating prime ministership, with himself first, for 8 months, after which incumbent al-Maliki could return to the post.
The USG Open Source Center translated the following passage, which sheds light on this issue:
“Al-Bayyinah al-Jadidah on 11 November publishes on page 2 a 200-word report citing Iraqi National Congress Chairman Ahmad Chalabi as saying that Kurdish President Mas’ud Barzani and President Jalal Talabani came under great US pressures recently and that Talabani informed President Barak Obama that they will not allow the Trojan horse (Ba’th Party) to infiltrate the political process.”
In other words, the Kurds, who were the swing vote, viewed Allawi and his Iraqiya as far too close to the Arab nationalist emphases of the old Baath Party, and so they joined with the Shiites to deny Allawi either the presidency or an alternating prime ministership.
The election of Talabani as president on Thursday angered most of the Sunni Arab members of parliament, insofar as it reduced them to holding the office of speaker, which they saw as a lesser position incommensurate with their having won the largest bloc of seats last March. Some Sunni Arab tribal leaders were saying that they would henceforth forbid their tribesmen to vote, since the exercise had only led to their loss of face.
In contrast, most other MPs thought they were doing Iraqiya a big favor in overlooking Nujayfi’s strident Arab nationalism, his fights with the Kurds, and his abrasive style. His speech to parliament lambasted Iraq for its poor security and corruption, and neglected to condemn terrorism, which angered the other MPs. (Many Shiites and Kurds suspect Sunni Arab nationalists and fundamentalists in parliament of having shadowy ties to Sunni Arab guerrilla groups.) Nujayfi is from a prominent and wealthy Mosul family and his brother is governor of Ninevah Province, a Sunni Arab stronghold in the north.
Then, the Iraqiya deputies had understood that on their agreement to join the new government, parliament would immediately reinstate three Iraqiya members who had been excluded by the Shiite-dominated Justice and Accountability Commission (formerly the De-Baathification Commission) for their alleged closeness to the now-banned Baath Party, which had ruled Iraq 1968-2003. When the other MPs said that they weren’t ready to vote for such a reversal immediately, many of the Sunni Iraqiya representatives staged a walkout, led by Iyad Allawi himself. Although the spin doctors in the US government and the Iraqi government tried to suggest that the walkout was not serious, some MPs told al-Sharq al-Awsat on background that it was deadly serious and could have led to a collapse of the proposed national unity government. Allawi himself went on CNN and angrily charged that the ‘power-sharing’ agreements reached the previous week were a joke. He threatened to sit in the opposition benches rather than to join the new government.
The NYT says that this walkout put al-Nujayfi in a bind. If he joined it, he abandoned his leadership of parliament, to which he had committed himself. If he did not, he risked a split in his own party. Al-Nujayfi handled this crisis by absenting himself briefly to consult with those who had walked out. But then he returned to chair the remainder of the session, during which parliament nominated al-Maliki for a second term (apparently a suggestion to the new president, who actually is the one who asks a candidate to form a government)
And on Friday Nujayfi managed to convince the furious Iraqiya leaders to return for the Saturday session. Or at least most of them. (And it is possible that he is using his new office to usurp leadership of Iraqiya from a sulking Allawi, who got none of the high posts he had imagined for himself and clearly doesn’t think the proposed national security council that he is supposed to head will be allowed to amount to anything by the Shiites and Kurds). Nujayfi worked out an agreement with the other parties that they would at least begin taking up the issue of the excluded Iraqiya MPs. There are other issues that parliament will take up, to nail down the power-sharing agreement hammered out last week. Al-Hayat says that Nujayfi opened parliament on Saturday with an address that forthrightly condemned terrorism, no matter who committed it.
According to al-Hayat, and contrary to what many Western news services are reporting, President Talabani has not yet formally asked incumbent Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to form a government, though he has indicated that he will do so. The request will come in the form of a signed letter. Talabani has 15 days to make the request, and then al-Maliki would have a month to put together a cabinet and ensure he has a majority in parliament. By letting al-Maliki work on the deals for a while before the formal request is made, al-Hayat says, Talabani is in effect extending al-Maliki’s deadline. It is a little worrisome that Talabani should think that al-Maliki will need an extra week. But presumably he would need it not for a majority (the Shiites and Kurds in parliament give him that) but rather needs the time to ensure the formation of a government of national unity that includes the Iraqiya and thus the Sunnis. Given that Allawi is in a snit and the walk-out on Thursday, Iraqiya may now play hard ball about what cabinet posts it gets.
Al-Maliki, according to WaPo, also accepted an American demand that the Sadr Movement, with 40 seats, be given no security-related cabinet posts, and it is not clear to me that the Sadrists, who are key to al-Maliki’s post-election coalition, will be willing to accept an American dictat of that sort. (The Sadrists did get a post of deputy speaker of parliament).
As far as I can see, Washington lost big. Talabani is relatively close to Iran, and he is president, not Allawi, as Obama had apparently wanted. The American dream of stripping al-Maliki of his control of the security forces on suspicion of being too close to Iran will be difficult to achieve, as Allawi recognized with his cynical comments on the power-sharing deal being dead. The Iraqiya is just very unlikely to be able effectively to block Iranian interests in Baghdad or to place effective constraints on al-Maliki. Talabani clearly still sees the Iraqiya as Baathism lite, and he will use his powers as president and the powerful Kurdistan Alliance to promote al-Maliki as long as the latter is seen as the lesser of two evils. That Nujayfi is now the face of the Iraqiya in parliament doesn’t actually bode well for its relations with the Kurdistan Alliance. (The Kurds would like to annex Kirkuk Province and parts of Ninevah Province, perhaps even the major city of Mosul, to their Kurdistan Regional Government, and Nujayfi asserts Arab rights over that territory).
How badly the Americans have lost is clearly in this Iranian news report:
‘ Ahmadinejad in a phone call with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki congratulated him on formation of new Iraqi government. “Formation of new government is a great victory for Iraqi government, parliament, nation and political groups,” Ahmadinejad said on Saturday night. “The Islamic Republic of Iran is ready to deepen ties with the neighboring and friendly country of Iraq,” Ahmadinejad continued. Al-Maliki on his part appreciated the Islamic Republic of Iran’s assistance to Iraqi nation and government and said, “expansion of ties with Iran is demanded by Iraq as well.” “Important steps will be taken for development and welfare of Iraqi people through introducing cabinet members in near future,” al-Maliki added. ‘
Ahmadinejad, in other words, is saying ‘ka-ching!’ Iranian support was key to al-Maliki’s having gradually put together so many seats in parliament in post-election coalitions to make himself the clear front-runner. Their guy won. America’s guy, Allawi, got only a little more than bupkes. Which explains Allawi’s outburst on CNN.