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    Middle East
     Jan 15, 2008
Iraq's Sunnis reclaim lost ground
By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - Unlike any other time since Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki came to power in 2006, his tenure is under real threat. This time, Maliki's exodus is not being engineered by his long-time rivals in the Sunni community, but rather by the Kurds: friends of yesterday, enemies of today. This is what he was reportedly told by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown during his recent visit to London.

Indeed, the Sunnis are temporarily being placated, highlighted by the Iraqi Parliament approving a landmark bill on Sunday that would allow thousands of former Ba'ath party members to reclaim

their positions in the bureaucracy.

For the past eight months, Maliki has been cozying up to the two Kurdish heavyweights, Massoud al-Barzani, the president of the autonomous Kurdistan district, and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. He needed them to survive politically after major political parties walked out on him in the summer of 2007.

They needed him to get hold of oil-rich Kirkuk province. That has been the constant Kurdish obsession since 2003 - in addition to a more pressing concern: to fight off the Turkish military campaign in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Maliki promised to deliver on both issues, realizing that if the Kurds joined his parliamentary opponents (all of whom have abandoned the prime minister, accusing him of incompetence, authoritarianism, sectarianism and corruption), then he would be voted out of office. Maliki first promised to implement article 140 of the constitution, which calls for a census and plebiscite on Kirkuk, to be done no later than December 31, 2007. Thousands of Arabs were uprooted from Kirkuk (under his orders), to increase the city's Kurdish population. He claimed that they had been illegally brought there for the exact opposite reason in the 1980s, by Saddam Hussein.

When a census takes place, Maliki wants people to overwhelmingly vote in favor of annexation to Iraqi Kurdistan. If that didn't secure a permanent friendship with the Kurds, then nothing would. This enraged Sunnis and prompted certain Shi'ites to demand similar autonomy in southern Iraq. As a result of political pressure, and the Turkish campaign on the Iraqi border (the Turks are equally opposed to giving Kirkuk to the Kurds), Maliki had to back down and renege on his promises to Barzani and Talabani. Apart from bold words to the press, he did nothing to ward off the Turkish campaign as well, adding to Kurdish anger with the Baghdad government.

Barzani seemingly never believed that Maliki could deliver, but was pressured into working with him by US President George W Bush. The Americans feared what post-Maliki Iraq would look like. In as much as they are opposed to Maliki's sectarian policies, and his inability to advance security concerns, the US fears that a power vacuum will be catastrophic - especially with presidential elections underway in the United States.

The Americans realize that the only real and capable alternative, former prime minister Iyad Allawi, lacks a power base in Iraq, mainly due to his secular policies and relations with the US Central Intelligence Agency. US ambassador Ryan Crocker, sensing Barzani's anger, sent a message to the Kurds saying: "We think everyone should be placing emphasis on making the government more effective, not on changing the government."

Simply put, the Kurds have lost faith in Maliki. Last December, they sent him an ultimatum, showing grave concerns over his failed policies with regard to the Kurdish issue. Barzani visited him in Baghdad to demand more action on the issue of Kirkuk, but returned to Irbil empty handed. Commenting on the failed meeting, he said; "Sadly, the Kurdish delegation returned without achieving any results."

Another senior Kurdish statesman and parliamentarian, Mahmud Othman. said, "If Maliki doesn't consult with the Kurdistan coalition ... about political, security and economic decisions, his government cannot continue." If Maliki does not deliver on the issue of Kirkuk, he added, then they would make it clear to him that their words would be followed by action.

In normal circumstances, Maliki would not have cared what the Kurds thought as long as he enjoyed the backing of the Iraqi Accordance Front (a Sunni coalition), the Iraqi National List (a cross-sectarian secular coalition), and the heavyweight backing of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. But with all of them gone, he only has the Kurds to turn to.

Maliki now has every reason to be worried.

Maliki's opponents are toying with the idea of replacing him with Adel Abdul Mehdi, the vice president who is a prominent member of the pro-US and pro-Iranian religious party, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC). Mehdi has had his eyes on the premiership since 2005. To do that, the Kurds need to work with disgruntled Sunnis from the Accordance Front, Shi'ites from the Sadrist bloc, and Allawi's team. The anti-Maliki team needs to garner 138 votes for a no-confidence vote in Parliament. That can be done with 53 votes from the Kurdish parties, 55 votes from the Sunni groups and 40 from the Allawi team and supporters of former prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari (a former patron of Maliki who has grown disenchanted with his policies).

Talk of replacing Maliki has triggered the imagination of the Sunnis, who are demanding that Talabani step down and be replaced by a Sunni Arab president, floating the name of current vice president Tarek al-Hashemi. Instead, the Kurds would get the post of speaker of Parliament. Current speaker Mahmud al-Mashadani would be replaced by Fouad Massoum, a member of the Kurdish Alliance. Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari (a Kurd) would be replaced by a Shi'ite statesman from the SIIC, Hamed al-Bayat, who currently serves as his country's ambassador to the United Nations.

While the Hashemi-Massoum-Bayat scenario is far fetched at this stage (although the Americans would support it if it means greater security) the Maliki one is more realistic.

With all of that in mind, Maliki has started to cuddle up to former opponents, hoping that he can salvage what can. He is now targeting the very same names who are planning to work with the Kurds at bringing him down: the Sunnis, the Sadrists and the coalition of Allawi.

Last week, Maliki received a joint delegation of the Accordance Front and the Iraqi List - with whom he has been at loggerheads for months - calling on them to return to the government. All of their demands, including a Sunni request for a general amnesty, will be fulfilled. Both parties have refused to comment on the promises made to them by the prime minister, claiming that they visited him with the sole purpose of checking on his health after he traveled to London for medical treatment two weeks ago.

Coinciding with the visit was a high profile sermon delivered at a prime Shi'ite mosque in Baghdad by Maliki's ally, Sayyed Ammar al-Hakim. Speaking to worshipers on Friday, Hakim (the son of the SIIC's leader, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim) called on the Iraqi Accordance Front and the Iraqi National List to be more flexible when it comes to rapprochement with Maliki. He also called on the government to exert a stronger effort to restore cooperation with the al-Fadila Party (another walkout on the prime minister) and the Sadrist bloc of Muqtada. Ammar al-Hakim said: "I hope that the government will take all needed measures to secure their return."

Additionally, Maliki's team is trying to put together a new alliance that excludes the angry Kurds, composed of the National Dialogue Front (Sunni) that is led by Saleh al-Motlak, the Iraqi National List (secular) that is lead by Allawi, the Sadrist bloc headed by Muqtada, the Iraqi People's Congress, led by Adnan al-Duleimi, and the Da'wa Party, headed by Maliki himself.

He has also backed a law originally advised by former US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad - bringing thousands of Ba'athists (all Sunnis) back into government. And so it was that on Sunday Parliament passed a bill allowing lower-ranking former members of the Ba'ath party to reclaim government jobs. Washington has been pushing for the legislation, which will become law after being processed by the sluggish Iraqi bureaucracy and approved by the presidential council, consisting of the president and two vice presidents.

It was not known how many former Ba'athists will be eligible for reinstatement, but before the party was outlawed by proconsul L Paul Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority soon after the invasion in 2003, its membership was estimated at between 2 million and 6 million. Estimates put the number likely to regain jobs at 31,000.

The new legislation will permit Ba'athists to return to their jobs in the civil service, military and police, and receive pensions for their years of work, starting from when they were employed under Saddam. This will please the Sunnis, Maliki believes, making sure, however, to exclude senior Ba'athists from a comeback (a total of 3,500). Speaking on his Middle East trip, President George W Bush praised the new law, saying that it is an "important step towards reconciliation".

The issue is whether this will be enough to please the Sunni community. Some people are saying that what Maliki is now doing is too little too late. They complain that Maliki is extending a hand to the Sunnis not for the sake of being nice, but to save his government. Had it been up to him, he would have kept them on the sidelines of political life.

He is already upset with the Americans arming up to 70,000 Sunni tribesmen (known as the Awakening Councils) to combat al-Qaeda in Iraq. He warns that the minute these Sunnis get rid of al-Qaeda, they will train their guns on the Americans, Maliki and the Shi'ite community.

Arming Sunnis - and legitimizing their weapons - was the last straw for Maliki. He ordered thousands of Shi'ite militias to join the Iraqi army in response. If the Sunnis were legitimizing their arms, then so would the Shi'ites. This hostile attitude with regard to the tribal councils has also been toned down dramatically this past week. Speaking at the 86th anniversary of the founding of the Iraqi police, Interior Minister Jawad al-Boulani (an ally of Maliki) praised the Awakening Councils and accredited them with the reduction in violence. That is new to government rhetoric, and came days after Maliki made similar statements to the London-daily al-Sharq al-Awsat.

Sleeping with the Accordance Front and cuddling up to the Awakening Councils while honeymooning - again - with Muqtada and Allawi might be the only remedy to save Maliki from the wrath of the Kurds.

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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