Faint glimmer of hope
A new Shia-Sunni-Kurdish accord provides a breathing space, but for how long, asks Salah Hemeid
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An Iraqi soldier secures the area in front of a large billboard bearing a portrait of Imam Hussein and Iraqi radical Shia clerics Ayatollah Mohamed Baqer Al-Sadr and Moqtada Al-Sadr in Najaf, south of Baghdad
Iraqi political leaders announced Sunday that they reached consensus on key issues of national reconciliation after weeks of wrangling over a new power sharing formula. In a joint statement, leaders of the two major Kurdish parties, two Shia groups, including Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki's Daawa Party, and the party led by Vice-President Tareq Al-Hashimi, a Sunni, said they are forming a broad political bloc to end the crippling political dispute.Under the new deal, the leaders of the five groups agreed to ease restrictions on members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party joining the civil service and military, a vital step if disgruntled Sunnis, who formed the backbone of Saddam Hussein's regime and, since its fall, of the insurgency, are to be persuaded to take part in the deadlocked political process.They also reached an agreement on releasing an unspecified number of detainees held without charge across the country, another key demand of the Sunni Iraqi Accordance Front which withdrew its members from Al-Maliki's government earlier this month in protest.
Still, despite the promising signs in Sunday's agreement, Iraq's political process remains all but completely stalled. For example, it was not clear how, or when, these moves would be implemented or how far they would go to reverse the almost total Sunni boycott of the cabinet. No details were released by the five leaders who signed the agreement, and committees must be formed to iron out final versions of legislation to be presented to the Iraqi parliament.
By most accounts, the deal was not enough to convince the main Sunni Arab political bloc to take back their posts in government which they abandoned this month over differences with Al-Maliki. Al-Hashimi himself greeted the agreement halfheartedly. "What happened is a good achievement in the current confused political situation. It is an achievement that deserves to be supported," he told reporters after the signing. But he said the Accordance Front, which groups three parties from the disaffected Sunni Arab minority, would not reverse its decision to quit the cabinet on 1 August. "Our previous experience with the government has not been encouraging, and we will not come back just because of promises unless there are real and tangible reforms," said Al-Hashimi.
Despite the cool response from the Sunni groups, US President George W Bush welcomed the agreement which he hoped would stave off mounting congressional demands for American withdrawal from Iraq. "The agreement begins to establish new power- sharing agreements, commits to supporting bottom-up security and political initiatives, and advances agreement among Iraq's leadership on several key legislative benchmarks," Bush said in a statement. However, he said the Iraqi parliament must pass legislation to put these agreements into law when it reconvenes in early September.
The new agreement seemed to be giving Al-Maliki new confidence and stridency. In remarks to reporters, Al-Maliki scoffed at his detractors, both domestic and foreign, including US senators Hillary Clinton and Carl Levin, two key members of Congress who demanded his dismissal, saying Iraq is not "one of their real estates". Al-Maliki, who previously reacted with anger to Bush's criticism of the Iraqi government's lack of political progress, also harshly criticised French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who called for Al-Maliki to be replaced in an interview with Newsweek. "Iraq is a sovereign country, and we will not allow anyone to talk about it as if it belongs to this country or that," Al-Maliki said.
That, however, wasn't evidence that Al-Maliki's problems were over. In the most recent, secular politician and former prime minister Iyad Allawi renewed his pledge to get rid of Al-Maliki and vowed to put together a new coalition to replace Al-Maliki's "sectarian" government. Allawi confirmed on 27 August that he hired Barbour Griffith and Rogers, a Washington PR firm to push his cause in the US where anti-Al-Maliki voices are still raging and demanding his removal. With people in Washington even talking about the "Saddam 2 option" to cut off Al-Maliki and bring troops home, Allawi might get some support among anti-war Americans.
Amid the Shia-Sunni dispute, gun battles raged between rival Shia militias on Tuesday as Iraqi Shias celebrated the birthday of the revered Shia Imam Al-Mahdi. Dozens of people were killed and some 180 people wounded including women and children in the fight in the Shia holy city of Karbala between Al-Mahdi army gunmen, loyalists of radical cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr and the Badr Brigade, the armed wing of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. Fighting then spread into Baghdad and some other cities where several offices of the council were set on fire by Al-Sadr loyalists. Such Shia-Shia inter-fighting makes reconciliation even much harder to achieve.
And in a step designed to capitalise on the chaos in Iraq, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad warned Tuesday that a power vacuum is imminent in Iraq and said that Iran was ready to help fill the gap. "The political power of the occupiers is collapsing rapidly," Ahmadinejad said at a press conference in Tehran. "Soon, we will see a huge power vacuum in the region. Of course, we are prepared to fill the gap, with the help of neighbours and regional friends like Saudi Arabia, and with the help of the Iraqi nation," Ahmadinejad said.
The growing pressure on the Iraqi prime minister comes at a sensitive moment in relations between Washington and Baghdad. US Commander General David Petraeus and US Ambassador Royan Crocker will soon present Congress with their analysis of the success or otherwise of the so-called "surge".
Last week a US national intelligence report cast doubt on Al-Maliki's ability to end the country's sectarian divide and predicted "the Iraqi government will become more precarious over the next six to 12 months." The report forecast increased criticism from within the Shia-led coalition, as well as from Sunni and Kurdish parties. "Broadly accepted political compromises required for sustained security, long-term political progress and economic development are unlikely to emerge unless there is a fundamental shift in the factors driving Iraqi political and security developments," the report said.
Yet the removal of Al-Maliki may not be the answer, nor putting the blame on Iraqis in an attempt to cover up Washington's failures in Iraq. If with all its military might the United States cannot put an end to the violence in Iraq, it is futile to expect Al-Maliki or any leader to control the age-old rivalries.