Back to square one in Iraq's impasse
By Sami Moubayed
DAMASCUS - Two major news stories made headlines in Iraq over the weekend. One
was that the death toll for July had reached a staggering 535 Iraqis, 396 of
them civilian. This was the highest toll since May 2008, when 563 people were
The second story was that Ammar al-Hakim of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council
(SIIC) had suspended talks with the State of Law Coalition as long as it
refused to nominate someone other than its chair, Nuri al-Maliki, for the
Hakim was speaking on behalf of the 70-man Iraqi National Alliance (INA), an
Iran-backed coalition that includes
heavyweights like Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a former prime minister, and Shi'ite
cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
In a message that leaves the door to speculation wide open, the INA announced
its willingness to negotiate with any political bloc that "displays flexibility
and is willing to work to solve the current impasse". This effectively means:
"We can now talk to Iyad Allawi, the ex-prime minister who commands the 91-seat
Iraqiya bloc, provided that all of our demands are met."
Although ideologically on opposite ends of the political spectrum, with the INA
being religious to the bone and Allawi being an outspoken secularist, the two
groups could hammer out a tactical alliance aimed at filling the political
vacuum left since the March 2010 elections.
In looking back at the feeble rapprochement between them (hammered out in June
under pressure from Iran) neither Maliki nor Hakim was enthusiastic about
working together after having parted ways in 2009.
Maliki at that time had decided to create an independent list, the State of Law
Coalition, during provincial elections of January 2009, distancing himself from
Hakim and friends who had brought him to the premiership in 2006.
Part of it was arrogance, much of it was short-sightedness. Then, Maliki
reasoned that it was politically incorrect to associate himself with radical
Shi'ite parties, trying to appeal to non-Shi'ite segments of society.
He spoke a secular language during the election campaign, cuddling up to Sunni
figures, and indeed won with a landslide victory, whereas the SIIC lost eight
out of 11 provinces. Today, nearly two years down the road, although the SIIC
never managed to regain its earlier clout or popularity, it remains a
heavyweight political party - the third-largest bloc in parliament - holding a
grudge, nevertheless, against the prime minister.
In private, members of the INA, of which the SIIC is a prime component, are
saying all sorts of bad things about the prime minister, ranging from him being
a traitor to his allies, to being partly to blame for the reversal of Shi'ite
fortunes after dividing the Shi'ite camp in 2009.
With such baggage, it would have been very difficult for the INA and State of
Law Coalition to reach any sustainable compromise over the premiership. Hakim
after all is bent on bringing his ally Adel Abdul Mehdi of the SIIC to the
post, and Maliki insists that only he is entitled to the job, given that he
commands 89 seats in parliament.
It now seems the situation is back to square one, with no single party - or
grouping - commanding a 163-seat parliamentary majority to impose a prime
minister on the legislative assembly. Had the INA and State of Law Coalition
alliance remained, it would have given Maliki a total of 159 seats, making his
return to power an easy shot with the help of a few other people.
What makes the story all the more intriguing is a question on everybody's mind:
where does Iran come into play in the power struggle of Baghdad? Aren't Hakim
and Maliki two very close allies of Tehran - or that is what the international
media say - and how can it accept such a divide between the men?
True, both politicians are very close to the Iranians, but as is the case with
some fathers, they favor one son over others. In this sense, Iran favors Hakim
more than Maliki. Hakim grew up in Iran and is indebted to its leaders for his
career. Maliki, however, tried to market himself during various stages of his
career as a friend of the Iranians, while always keeping other options on the
More recently, he tried to shake off the Iranian connection, trying to win Arab
allies, and in doing so caused Iran's allies in the INA a strong setback in
both the provincial and parliamentary elections.
Hakim's announcement that he would no longer work with Maliki effectively means
that the prime minister is politically finished in Tehran. Additionally, two of
Iraq's other neighbors, Syria and Saudi Arabia, have found it impossible to
work with the current prime minister.
Hakim's ally Muqtada also announced after a recent trip to Damascus that he
would not be dealing with Maliki and preferred working with someone like
Allawi, a former opponent turned potential ally.
For his part, Allawi also said he would never join a cabinet headed by Maliki.
It seems unlikely, however, that Iran would ever accept Allawi as premier and
allow its proxies to get muscled down by Saudi Arabia.
The more likely option, as far as Iranian strategists are concerned, would be a
real coalition, headed by Abdul Mehdi - the only prime minister hopeful who is
effectively acceptable to everybody but Maliki.
To date, however, nothing is on the horizon signaling that Mehdi (a heavyweight
in the SIIC) will get the 163-seat majority unless he teams the 70 members of
parliament of the INA with the 91 deputies of Allawi's Iraqiya, raising
speculation that a Hakim-Allawi alliance - despite the gross ideological
differences - might be in sight.
Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.