Supporters say the Iraqi PM is simply shoring up support and abiding by the law. Critics say he’s more interested in ditching the difficult three party system and starting a new government of his own. Will al-Maliki become Iraq's new dictator? Or will he struggle on with the democratic process?
Earlier this week, Baghdad was thrown into a serious political crisis when al-Maliki asked the Iraqi parliamentarians to dismiss one of his three deputy prime ministers, Saleh al-Mutlaq, with a no-confidence vote. Al-Maliki was also behind an arrest warrant for one of Iraq’s two vice presidents, Tariq al-Hashimi, on charges of terrorism.
Al-Hashimi is accused of being involved in a death squad that targeted politicians during the height of sectarian unrest in Iraq between 2006 and 2008. He has denied the allegations, saying that they are politically motivated.
Both al-Hashimi and al-Mutlaq are senior members of the Iraqiya bloc, the main opposition group to al-Maliki’s governing State of Law bloc. As a result of al-Maliki’s moves, the Iraqiya bloc, which has 83 seats in the 325 seat parliament and heads nine ministries, declared its intention to boycott parliament. Later on Monday, parliamentary proceedings were suspended for 15 days. There was no quorum – the minimum number of MPs needed to be present in order for decisions to be made – because many Kurdish MPs also stayed away.
"With this arrest warrant, Iraq is facing a serious political crisis,” Itab al-Douri, a member of the Iraqiya bloc who was once considered a potential Minister of Defence, told NIQASH. “There have long been fears that government officers would use the army and police force to eliminate the opponents,” she said.
While allegations about al-Hashimi’s involvement in violence are not new, it is also true that the arrest warrant is a political hot potato for obvious reasons. Both al-Hashimi and al-Mutlaq have been harsh critics of al-Maliki in public and in parliament.
Al-Maliki himself has just returned from a visit to the US where the foundations were apparently laid for Iraq’s future relationship with that country, after the withdrawal of US troops.
Al-Maliki’s supporters describe his moves, made shortly after his Washington visit, as his way of shoring up his power within the delicately balanced coalition government and of confronting opponents who have repeatedly described his position as weak and who have spoken about bringing about the collapse of the government.
Al-Hashimi repeated this threat as recently as last week in an interview with NIQASH. Al-Hashimi has also been outspoken critic of the influence that the Iranian government, a Shiite Muslim-dominated theocracy, has over the Shiite Muslim politicians in Iraq. He has criticized the fact that this influence is never spoken about by Shiite Muslim politicians and last week, al-Hashimi told NIQASH that after the US withdrawal, “the real challenge for the Iraqi people is how they’re going to manage their own country, by themselves.” This was in reference to Iranian influence.
There is no doubt the current situation has been building up for some time.
After the 2010 elections in Iraq, the two major political groups – one Sunni Muslim-dominated, the other Shiite Muslim-dominated - in the country emerged with almost equal representation within the Iraqi parliament. After much manoeuvring and negotiation, Al-Maliki’s State of Law list, which is Shiite Muslim dominated, won the right to rule.
However, in order to do so, they had to make a number of deals with opposition parties, including the Kurdish representatives from the semi-autonomous state of Iraqi Kurdistan as well as with the Iraqiya list, led by former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayed Allawi. They also had to dispense high ranking positions to opposition politicians, like al-Hashimi and al-Mutlaq.
The tricky power sharing deal between the three major blocs – the Shiite and Sunni Muslims and the Kurdish – was supported by the US but the results have not been pretty. Far from settling the country down, almost every mildly controversial decision the Iraqi government has had to make since then has been either been endlessly debated or postponed.
Additionally the relationship between al-Maliki and al-Hashimi has never been a happy one. There has been a rift ever since al-Maliki’s first government was sworn in, in 2006.
Banned from travelling out of Iraq, Al-Hashimi is currently in the partially independent state of Iraqi Kurdistan – the state, generally considered safer than most of Iraq, has its own government and its own military and the Kurdish seem to be playing the mediator role in this crisis.
Al-Hashimi has always cast aspersions on the integrity and professionalism of the Iraqi security forces and the Iraqi judiciary and he has said he would be willing to be trialled in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, on the charges of terrorism that al-Maliki is levelling against him.
Meanwhile Al-Maliki has publicly asked the government of Iraqi Kurdistan to send al-Hashimi back to Baghdad to face trial although at the time of writing, al-Hashimi was still in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The penalty for the crimes of which al-Hashimi is accused is death. Article 4 of Iraq’s 2005 Anti-Terrorism Law states that: “anyone who committed, as a main perpetrator or a participant, any of the terrorist acts stated in the second and third articles of this law, shall be sentenced to death. A person who incites, plans, finances, or assists terrorists to commit the crimes stated in this law shall face the same penalty as the main perpetrator.”
The warrant was signed by five judges and according to a spokesperson from the Ministry of the Interior, it remains in effect. Representatives of al-Maliki’s party told the al-Jazeera television network that the trial must be held in Baghdad because the crimes were committed in Baghdad.
As for al-Maliki’s instigation of a parliamentary no-confidence vote in his deputy prime minister al-Mutlaq, this also has some history. Al-Mutlaq has accused him of being “a dictator”, al-Maliki said. Al-Mutlaq has also talked about how difficult it is to work with al-Maliki.
“It is just not reasonable to have some individuals participating in this government,” MP Hussein al-Asadi, a senior member of al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition, explained to NIQASH. “They say they will work with the government but at the same time, they criticize it at every opportunity. That is what al-Mutlaq is doing.”
Al-Asadi pointed out the hypocrisy in the situation where politicians were participating in the coalition government and enjoying the privileges that came with their senior position, yet they were then continuously critical of the leadership.
“Anyone who is not happy with the government’s performance is welcome to leave and to join the opposition,” al-Asadi stated. “This would allow the government to work better as a team, to implement its programmes and to achieve its goals. This would be better than having two teams at work where one builds and the other only destroys.”
And there are also other forces at work. Only hours after the crisis began, al-Maliki held a meeting with what is known as “the White Iraqiya” bloc or simply “the White Bloc”. This group split from the main Iraqiya list earlier in March 2011 and has ten MPs. A spokesperson for the White Bloc, who had previously spoken about their support for al-Maliki’s government, said that they would be happy to fill any power vacuum left by the withdrawal of the main Iraqiya bloc from government.
As for Ayed Allawi, the leader of the Iraqiya bloc, he has yet to make any statements to the media. He did leave a note on his Facebook page though. “Democracy is now threatened in Iraq,” Allawi wrote. “It has been blown apart completely and we fear that this will lead to more sectarian bloodshed, especially if we take into account the current circumstances elsewhere in the region." The assumption is that he is referring to the unrest in the Middle East, due to various Arab Spring revolutions and ongoing crises in nations like Syria, all of which look set to change the sectarian power balance between Shiite and Sunni Muslim in the region.
Political observers in Iraq say the timing of this outburst by al-Maliki is particularly bad for the country. They say that despite general popular antipathy toward the US, the presence of US troops was clearly something of a buffer between the various parties in Iraq. Now that the physical US support for the unwieldy power-sharing arrangement has left the country, so, it seems has the desire to continue negotiating and fighting over every single legislative topic and over the powers and privileges that come with being an MP in Iraq.
It’s just that, rather than using the usual political channels, al-Maliki seems to be forcing the issue with al-Hashimi’s arrest warrant. In a televised speech on Wednesday, the Iraqi Prime Minister said that if he had to, he would form a majority government.
The crisis has also confirmed the important role that the Kurdish authorities have to play in Iraq’s political process. If al-Hashimi had not been able to shelter in the semi-autonomous state of Iraqi Kurdistan, then the crisis could have accelerated far more rapidly to dangerous levels in a country that is still working on repairing historical enmities between different parts of the population.
At the time of writing, things did not look any calmer. Vice President al-Hashimi was still in Iraqi Kurdistan despite the fact that al-Maliki had said he should return to Baghdad. Rumour had it that the Iraqiya bloc was apparently considering proposing its own no confidence vote to parliament, although this time it would be directed at al-Maliki. And on Thursday morning a seemingly random spate of bomb blasts in Baghdad left over 60 dead and hundreds injured. Targets included schools and construction sites. It was as yet uncertain who was behind them but the attacks may well further inflame tensions.
This political impasse may last days, or it may go on for weeks. Meanwhile ordinary Iraqis, many of whom prefer to consider themselves Iraqis rather than belonging to any particular religious sect, continue to live under what sometimes feels a never ending burden of political conflict.