The Cabinet crisis ended in Iraq, but not the struggle

July 13, 2012, Friday/ 10:56:00/ SERHAT ERKMEN

After the failed attempt to overthrow the Nouri al-Maliki government in Iraq through a vote of confidence, relative tranquility is prevailing in Iraqi politics.

The fact that Maliki has been hindering the vote of confidence process with support from both certain Kurdish parties and some Sunni Arabs shows that the critical element in the Iraqi political equation is Prime Minister Maliki. Compared to recent developments, there is a relative silence in the Iraqi political arena. However, this does not imply that the alliance of Arbil – Najaf has played its last card against Maliki. The second attempt to have the Prime Minister questioned in parliament –which is the second alternative that could lead the prime minister to leave his office according to the Constitution– will begin in the forthcoming days. Although certain sources in Iraq reported this process will start on 10 July 2012, the exact date has not been announced yet. It is foreseeable that the opposition would want to turn Maliki's statement in parliament into a statement in a political court. Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that the power struggle will end even after this process, from which Maliki would probably escape unharmed.

It is possible that the Sadr Movement, which has been pursuing the most active and unpredictable policies in recent Iraqi politics, wants to reduce tension with Maliki. The initial moderation of tensions after Maliki and Muqtada al-Sadr’s phone conversations is unlikely to be able to be turned into cooperation again. On the one hand, the Sadr Movement argues that the reform plan and its governing committee established within the frame of the National Alliance should be given a chance at implementation. This attitude poses a major obstacle to both al-Iraqiya's and the Kurdish parties' desires to take advantage of parliamentary balancing in order to drive Maliki into a corner again. However, the Sadr Movement appears to be directing the political conflict from arm-wrestling into the cabinet to anticipating the forthcoming elections. The elections will be held due to the perceived threat of Maliki’s power in parliamentary balancing and on the suggestion of Iran. As a matter of fact, it appears that the Sadr Movement will insist on making an amendment dealing with the movement’s calls for any one person to be limited to two terms in office among the three-presidency institutions (presidency, prime ministry, speakership). Currently, the president is elected every other year in accordance with the Iraqi Constitution. The speaker, on the other hand, can only hold office once. In this case, it is seen that the Sadr Movement is trying to prevent the reelection of Maliki. Another indicator showing that the Sadrists are preparing for the forthcoming period is the fact that they are strongly against the suspension of the local elections. Following the demand to postpone the elections to April 2013 (or maybe even further, to the end of 2013) due to the problems in determining the proper authorities for Iraq's Independent High Election Commission and the failure to enact a new electoral law, the Sadrists voiced strong opposition. While the Commission said that the Prime Minister is the decision-maker on holding elections, the Sadr Movement declared they would do their best to overcome any technical challenges before the elections.  The Sadr Movement’s attitude might be considered a victory over Maliki, who is thought to have weakened during the recent period, and an attempt to fill the gap created by the consecutive blows to the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq in the Sadrists’ favor. Thus, Sadr has been striving to prove its power in Provincial Council elections and to tip the power balance among Shiites in its favor.

Nevertheless, it cannot be suggested that Prime Minister Maliki stands idly by all these developments. It might even be put forward that Maliki’s moves, which significantly bolstered his supporters during the recent crisis, are a long-term election investment. Considering Maliki's moves which have recently come to light, it could be suggested that Maliki has been striving to fulfill the promises he made to Sunni Arabs and to deepen the fractions within Iraqiya. The fact that he started to recruit the security officers fired by the U.S. after the invasion in the Diyala Province shows that he has been trying to win support from Sunni Arabs in order to provide stability among Kurds in the area, especially in the neighborhood of Hanekin, Celevle and Karatepe. This also shows how he could turn the opportunities he has into a political tool, because a government in the province where Iraqiya is powerful would be an asset. It was also put on the agenda that a similar operation might take place in Mosul as well. The recruitment of former security officers in Mosul, who are more numerous than those in Diyala (at least in general), might directly and significantly affect the balances of power within this province. Al-Hadba, which was the most successful alliance of the 2009 Provincial Council elections, has been divided for a year, and the prominent figures (mostly Sunni Arabs and certain Kurds from Mosul) have started to cooperate with Maliki. The repercussions of the Diyala operation on other provinces, and on Mosul in particular, could have long-term consequences. Recently, Maliki has made another move in order to have more influence on Arab nationalists and in order to receive Arab (mostly Sunni) support from those who have had major problems with Kurds, especially those in disputed territories. The fact that he established a security force encompassing Salahaddin, Kirkuk, and Diyala under the name of the Tigris Leadership and at the command of the Diyala Operation Center is significant. Given the fact that the Operation Centers have largely been under the control of Prime Minister Maliki in the majority of Iraq after the U.S. withdrawal, this development may not seem very important at first glance. However, considering the area and the target it covers, we see that Maliki has increased his efforts to play his centralization-decentralization or Arab-Kurdish card. The last note related to Maliki's blows to his opponents is his initiatives within Iraqiya. Recently, there has been a major increase in rumors that the leader of al-Hiwar, one of the important groups within Iraqiya, and the Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq took over the leadership of Iraqiya from Iyad Allawi. It is apparent that Mutlaq, who went through major problems after Maliki was accused of being a dictator in late 2011, was not negatively affected by this process, unlike the Vice-President Hashimi. In fact, it might even be suggested that Mutlaq, who has given quite vague messages recently, has quietly approached the Maliki front. On the one hand, this situation might have been caused by the power struggle within Iraqiya. On the other hand, it could be a result of Maliki's moves in Diyala, Anbar, and Salahaddin provinces where Mutlaq is powerful. Nevertheless, for whatever the reason might be, there is nothing more normal than Maliki's inciting a new leadership struggle within Iraqiya. The fact that Iraqiya, which has been struggling with internal contradictions for a long time, is witnessing a new leadership struggle in recent months provides relief to Maliki both in parliament and in the political arena.

Lastly, it might be better to take a look at the attitudes of Iraqi Kurds. In the KDP front, which has been considered the most stable and consistent party in the Iraqi politics for the last eight months, there is no major change. The KDP is determined to use every means it can find to topple Maliki, but it is clearly seen that the PUK does not share the same opinion, despite its attempts to explicitly show the opposite. In an interview Adil Murad, head of the PUK Central Committee, gave to Al Shark Al Awsat, the fact that Murad explicitly argued for early elections (which was Maliki's most important card against those who tried to overthrow him) enraged the KDP front. The fact that a similar discourse has also been put on the agenda by Goran from time to time shows that there are major disagreements in the Kurdish front of Iraqi politics. All these developments (barring any big surprises) indicate that Maliki has secured his position for a longer period of time, at least until late 2012.

»» Assist. Prof. Dr. Serhat Erkmen, ORSAM Middle East Specialist, Ahi Evran Uni. Department of International Relations