Al-Maliki digs in
While US military operations expand, Iraq's non-functioning political process remains deadlocked, writes Nermeen Al-Mufti
Iraqis are finding it harder to be optimistic about the future these days. Not only is violence rife everywhere, but also the government of Nuri Al-Maliki seems unable to keep its own ministers in the cabinet. Operation Arrowhead Ripper is continuing in Baquba, capital of the Diyala governorate, 70 kilometres northeast of Baghdad. Meanwhile, Operation Phantom Strike has already started in towns around the governorate, in an effort to eliminate "Al-Qaeda" suspects. While US troops comb Al-Sadr City in Baghdad, members of the "Al-Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers" are assassinating their Sunni opponents.
In less than a month, Baghdad has seen two traffic bans; one lasting for three days. In Karbala, police went on alert and a traffic ban was declared on 26 August in preparation for Shia religious holidays, which are expected to bring millions of visitors to holy shrines. News reports speak of widespread clashes in Karbala 28 August, as tens of thousands gathered to attend the anniversary of Imam Al-Mahdi. At least one person was killed in the clashes, the reason for which remains unknown.
In Basra, rival Shia groups are fighting to control the city ahead of British withdrawal. Basra is close to Iran, and some say that its coasts are used for oil smuggling, an activity believed to be financing weapon purchases. Eyewitnesses in Basra told the Associated Press that fighters from the Mahdi Army occupied the joint police command as soon as British forces vacated it. The news was denied by Iraqi police. A spokesman for Moqtada Al-Sadr said that militiamen gathered at the police station, chanted slogans of victory, then "safely withdrew".
In less than two weeks, unidentified gunmen assassinated two high-level officials of the Higher Islamic Council: the governor of Al-Diwaniya (180 kilometres south of Baghdad) and the governor of Al-Muthanna (220 kilometres south of Baghdad). Meanwhile, US troops backed by helicopters are still combing Al-Sadr City in north Baghdad, looking for bomb smugglers affiliated with Iran. Most American casualties in Iraq over the past few months were killed by roadside bombs. Prime Minister Al-Maliki had asked occupation forces not to attack Al-Sadr City without his permission.
Iraqi police said that several civilians were killed in a raid by a US helicopter in Salaheddin governorate. A statement by US forces last Monday said that two US soldiers were killed on Sunday in exchanges of fire in Salaheddin governorate, north of Baghdad. In the course of Operation Phantom Strike, US planes killed 37 members of Dawoud Al-Majmaee's family in Diyala, including eight children and 13 women. Meanwhile, according to police sources, dozens of Al-Qaeda gunmen attacked the home of a mosque preacher in Diyala and killed him along with other members of his family before abducting 12 people, including women and children. The dead imam was a member of the anti-Qaeda "Diyala Revival Council". In a related incident, a suicide attacker broke into a house in Al-Tagi, north of Baghdad, and killed five anti-Qaeda Sunni clan leaders.
Meanwhile, Al-Maliki has rejected all calls for his resignation, and asked France to apologise for statements made by its foreign minister. Bernard Kouchner, who visited Baghdad last week, apologised, and then went on to say that Al-Maliki would have to go. "Al-Maliki is leaving us soon," the French minister said.
The Iraqi prime minister lashed out at Senator Hillary Clinton as well for calling his government a failure. Al-Maliki claimed that the Islamic Party, the largest of Sunni groups, was about to join the Shia-Kurdish coalition of "moderates". Speaking at a news conference, Al-Maliki brushed aside criticism of his government, saying that the country was about to see "political and economic progress as well as improvement in services." He even promised every citizen "land and a loan to build a house".
Salim Abdullah, a key figure at the Islamic Party, denied that the party wanted to join the "coalition of moderates". Speaking to reporters, Abdullah said that the Islamic Party "blesses the formation of the coalition but thinks it would be inappropriate to join." The Islamic Party, which is led by Sunni Vice-President Tareq Al-Hashimi, turned down an invitation by the four parties of the "coalition" to participate in a united front.
On Saturday, Al-Hashimi said that he told the Iraqi Accordance Front (IAF) that he was willing to step aside as vice-president should the IAF asks him to do so. IAF leader Adnan Al-Duleimi said that Al-Hashimi's resignation was out of the question for the time being. Although an agreement was reached among key Iraqi political groups last Sunday, the IAF still wants the government to resign.
Khalaf Al-Elyan, chairman of the Iraqi National Dialogue Council and a key IAF figure, said that the meeting was an attempt by the government to "appear as if it were trying to mend fences with the opposition." Al-Elyan added that the political situation was "unclear" and that the government should resign. The IAF, he said, had no intention of returning to the government unless its demands were met. Meanwhile, key Iraqi political and sectarian groups are said to have reached an agreement 26 August night as part of an effort to break the deadlock. The agreement is to be presented to parliament when it returns from recess 4 September.
Speaking at a news conference in Baghdad 27 August, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said that he was assessing "the political crisis in the country" with a view to "determining future courses of action". Al-Hashimi and Vice-President Adel Abdul-Mahdi, as well as northern governor Masoud Barzani, attended the news conference.
Ministers of more than one political group have recently resigned, the last being those of Iyad Allawi's Iraqi List. Al-Maliki is facing domestic and international criticism over the failure of his government to achieve national reconciliation and pass certain laws -- principally the US-favoured oil law. So far, Al-Maliki has reacted angrily to criticism, pledging to stay on in office.