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    Middle East
     Feb 10, 2009
Debt as a unifying power in Iraq
By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - In one of his classics, Syrian political playwright Muhammad al-Maghout speaks of a village unified by one central cause, living on occupied rich farmland usurped by a traveling settler.

The village chieftain is unable to liberate the occupied territory, and is held increasingly responsible for being unable to deliver. He decides to inject his village with petty rivalries, playing people against each other, to force them to forget - or get distracted from the one cause that unites them.

The play received a standing ovation when it was performed in Baghdad in the 1970s, and perhaps Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki attended it as a young man, or saw its reruns on television, during his long exile in Damascus. What he is doing today is the


exact opposite of what the chieftain did; rallying Iraqis around a unifying cause that makes them forget their petty rivalries while hailing him for speaking of their collective national interest.

This weekend, Maliki forcefully asked United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to cancel all accumulated penalties forced on Iraq after the invasion of Kuwait in 1990. In 1991, the UN passed resolution 687, forcing Iraq to pay an approximate US$50 billion in compensation to Kuwait and other Arab countries. This money would be deducted in 5% from oil revenue in Iraq. To date, Iraq has paid $25 billion, much to the displeasure of all Iraqis - Sunnis, Shi'ites and Kurds.

Supporters and opponents of Saddam Hussein claimed that this clause was unjust, always drawing parallels between it and the hated terms of the Versailles Treaty imposed on Germany after World War I. Kuwait alone wanted $45 billion, and has repeatedly refused, since 2003, to cancel the Iraqi debt.

To date, Iraq has paid its tiny neighbor $11 billion in compensation. Maliki is promising Iraqis that soon this will be a thing of the past, claiming that it was illogical for them to continue paying compensation for a crime they did not commit. This has sent his popularity skyrocketing throughout Iraq.

Maliki's claim to Ban came 48 hours after he scored a smashing victory in nation-wide provincial elections. Victory, however, seemed too good to last, since domestic problems arose almost overnight.

This weekend, yet another member resigned from the Maliki cabinet, Nawal al-Samarai, the minister of state for women's affairs. Her walkout puts the prime minister in a tight position, having already lost six Sadrists, three members of the secular Iraqi National List and six of the Iraqi Accordance Front, in addition to the Shi'ite party, al-Fadilah.

Her argument was that since coming to office she had been unable to advance the interests of Iraqi women because of a lack of funds from the Baghdad government. "I have the privileges of a minister but I do not perform the duties of one," she said, and added that her powers were very limited. Samarai, a member of the Sunni party, the Iraqi Accordance Front, was the only minister to veto signing the Security of Forces Agreement (SOFA) in the Iraqi cabinet in late 2008.

The Accordance Front is angry with the prime minister, and so are heavyweight Sunni parties, who claim that Maliki's team rigged the provincial elections, the results of which were unofficially announced last Thursday. Election results, rather than being unable to deliver, are apparently what caused Samarai to resign, under orders from the Accordance Front.

Saleh al-Mutlak, head of the Dialogue Front, a Sunni party and coalition of Arab nationalists, accused the government of masterminding “gross fraud” in the Anbar province, the former hotbed of the so-called Sunni insurgency. He added, “We are unsatisfied with the election results; they were undemocratic.” Mutlak won Anbar with 18% of the votes, but he claims that his team should have scored much higher.

Coming in at second place was the Awakening Councils, a coalition of tribal leaders from the Sunni community, armed by the US to combat al-Qaeda. True, Sunnis did show up with a 50% voter turnout during these elections - unlike 2005 when they collectively boycotted the elections - but they remained unsatisfied with the results. Noteworthy is that the Awakening Councils cast their votes, and so did inhabitants of Tikrit, the hometown of Saddam Hussein, who had been overwhelmingly opposed to the post-2005 government in Baghdad.

According to the London daily al-Hayat, Maliki conducted behind-the-scene talks with heavyweights in the Sunni community, including tribal leaders and ex-Ba'athists. He even opened channels with former officers under Saddam, calling on them to return to their official duties in exchange for a good salary. He promised them grand reforms if they did not wreck the provincial elections. Although five assassinations took place in the weeks preceding election day, the vote took place in a relatively calm and smooth manner.

They were certainly the safest elections Iraqis have seen since the downfall of Saddam in 2003. Among the conditions Sunni leaders made was a general amnesty, setting thousands of political prisoners free, and a greater role for them in the Iraqi cabinet. Maliki promised to look into these requests and respond affirmatively, saying that these things take time. He cannot deliver on rapprochement with the Sunnis until he feels safe and secure in his post as prime minister.

To obtain that he would need a popular mandate to lean on, which his constituencies did not fail to deliver during the latest elections. Sunnis remain skeptical, however, arguing that Maliki made these same promises in late 2008, when he got them to accept the signing of SOFA in exchange for reforms vis-a-vis Sunni representation in government.

Apart from the notable Sunni participation, the elections carried many surprises which unfolded over the weekend. In Karbala, a stronghold for Shi'ite religious figures like Muqtada al-Sadr and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, a newcomer and political unknown named Yusuf Habobi won with 13% of the votes. He is neither a member of the political parties nor does he preach political Islam.

As a matter of fact, nor did he invest in a costly election campaign, running as a low-profile independent. That infuriated the Sadrists and the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council. They are now arguing that since he was running alone, and not included in any campaign list, he cannot get more than one seat in the provincial councils, no matter how many votes he obtained.

In Baghdad, the prime minister took an overwhelming 38% of the votes, seconded by the Tayyar al-Ahrar (Free Patriots Movement), headed by Muqtada, which got only 9%. The Iraqi National List of Iyad Allawi, a secular coalition, won no more than 5.5% of the votes. In addition to Mutlak's appeal, Allawi's team was also unsatisfied with the results and cried foul, calling for a recount through its spokesman, Jamal Batikihi.

Electoral discontent aside, if the UN's Ban listens to the prime minister it could do wonders for Maliki and, perhaps, give the Iraqis some unifying power.

Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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