The return of leading Kurdish politician Jalal Talabani is eagerly anticipated in Iraqi political circles. The aging President of Iraq – Talabani is 80 – was in Germany for knee surgery and he also has heart problems; it has taken him two months to recover but his doctors say he will be ready to travel soon. Kurdish MPs confirm that Talabani will return to Iraq within a matter of days.
And many politicians, from all part of the political spectrum in Iraq, believe that Talabani is the only one who will be able to heal the country’s own wounds.
“I don’t really like the guy or his politics,” says one political journalist in Iraqi Kurdistan, “but even I think he is the only one that can do this job. And many other people feel the same.”
Talabani is widely seen as the prime mover behind calls for a National Conference, during which, it’s been proposed, all Iraq’s political parties should resolve the impasse that has virtually handicapped the local political system at times. Over the past few months the three main groups involved in Iraqi politics – the two religious sects, the Sunni Muslims and the Shiite Muslims, and the Kurdish ethnic group – have failed to resolve their differences.
Yet the past few days have seen more hope and even some optimism about finding a resolution to these accumulated differences. Over the past week Talabani has been making phone calls from Germany, setting up meetings and preparing mediation. On August 19, the first day of the celebration of the major religious celebration Eid, Talabani gave a speech stressing the importance of a National Conference.
“The last few days have seen a decline in the intensity of the crisis that has troubled the Iraqi skies,” Talabani said during the speech, before concluding that any solutions developed at the National Conference must be sustainable and long lasting.
“Upon his return, President Talabani will call for a meeting that brings together the different political blocs to discuss the political crisis in the country,” Kurdish MP, Hassan Jihad, confirmed. “Calls that the President made during his stay outside Iraq have borne fruit.”
There are various issues that have meant that almost no significant work has been done by the Iraqi Parliament over the past few months.
One of these involves the so-called Erbil Agreement, a power sharing deal formulated in 2010 in the northern city of Erbil, that broke the political deadlock after elections resulted in two major political blocs with almost equal power. The opposition Iraqiya party, headed by former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayed Allawi, says that the conditions for power sharing have not been met by the ruling State of Law bloc; the latter is headed by current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
One of the developments that led to a more optimistic outlook recently was the return of Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, to work.
Al-Mutlaq, one of three deputy prime ministers, has been away from politics since the beginning of the year when he criticized al-Maliki, calling him a dictator. Al-Maliki sacked al-Mutlaq, a member of the major opposition party, Iraqiya and al-Mutlaq then apparently went on to boycott Parliament.
But now he has returned after what was described as a “historic meeting” between himself and al-Maliki. The al-Mutlaq, al-Maliki summit came after another positive meeting between al-Maliki and Osama al- Nujaifi, also a leading member of Iraqiya and the speaker of the Iraqi Parliament. MP Mohammed al-Khalidi, who is close to al-Nujaifi, said the meeting was “positive”.
Another of Iraq’s major issues involves conflict between the Iraqi federal government in Baghdad and the government of the semi-autonomous state of Iraqi Kurdistan. This involves not only the unfulfilled terms of the Erbil Agreement but also the Iraqi Kurdish government’s desire to go it alone, when it comes to the awarding of oil contracts to foreign firms. The Iraqi Kurdish, who have their own legislation, have formulated an oil and gas law. Baghdad has yet to do so.
In the recent past, the Iraqi Kurdish have been involved in legislative attempts to unseat al-Maliki. The President of Iraqi Kurdistan, Massoud al-Barzani, was seen as a major factor behind these. However, Jihad believes that Talabani will also be key in resolving this antipathy. It is believed that Talabani will be able to convince al-Barzani and al-Maliki to sit down at the negotiating table.
Of course, not everyone is as positive about Talabani’s prospects at conflict resolution.
“We believe that a national conference is of great importance but we don’t think that the potential reforms [suggested by al-Maliki] are serious,” Hamid al-Mutlaq, an Iraqiya bloc MP and brother of the Deputy Vice President, expressed the doubts of many of his colleagues. “But we have no other choices. We need to sit together and discuss all possible solutions.”
Opposition MPs suspect that the conference will result in the formation of various committees tasked with looking into how to resolve the various political problems Iraq currently faces. And those committees will take some time to achieve any results, they say. It would be almost impossible to get the results before the next round of elections in 2013.
The reform initiative al-Mutlaq is talking about is one presented by al-Maliki’s party recently, directed at conciliation with other parties. However many of al-Maliki’s critics say this is just a way for the Prime Minister, who has been threatened with various kinds of impeachment, to buy more time to consolidate his power. Some MPs have called for the open publication of the “reform paper”, which has remained mainly unseen.
Still, many MPs were sympathetic to the move – and this includes Talabani. Despite his close ties to Kurdish politicians, Talabani is widely seen as having acted with integrity during recent crises – such as the one earlier this year when al-Maliki ordered Iraqi Vice President and opposition politician, Tariq al-Hashimi, arrested. Talabani did not take sides and acted with integrity, many Iraqis believe.
“Talabani was, and still is, the link between the different political opponents,” MP Abdul-Hussein Abtan, a leading member of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), one of the most important political organizations representing the interests of Iraq’s Shiite Muslims, said.
Officially the ISCI is allied with the current Prime Minister’s bloc.
“And he is playing this role because this is his responsibility, as the President of Iraq. He is trying to build bridges and convince the politicians to cross them together.”