No government in sight in Iraq
This week's brief opening session of Iraq's new legislature shows how difficult it will be to reach consensus on choosing a prime minister, writes Salah Hemeid
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Former Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, centre left, and Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki, centre right, are seen after the first session of Iraqi parliament in Baghdad. Lawmakers stood to take the oath of office in Arabic and Kurdish
Elegantly dressed in expensive suits bearing international brands or in traditional Arab and Kurdish gowns, rival Iraqi politicians hugged and kissed each other on the cheeks as they opened the first session of Iraq's new legislature on Monday.
But the newly elected lawmakers to Iraq's second parliament after the 2003 US-led invasion, who are meeting more than three months after an election stalemate, failed to present a coalition capable of leading the war-torn nation for the coming four years.
Iraqis went to vote on 7 March to elect a new 325- member legislative assembly, but an indecisive result and bickering over who should be the country's next prime minister has delayed the process and plunged the country deep into political crisis.
Monday's opening session of the parliament, officially known as the Council of Representatives, was largely procedural as members were sworn in before an interim speaker who ordered the meeting postponed to an unspecified date in order to allow feuding groups to hold further consultations on forming a new government.
"There are many elements that do not want to see the success of the political process, but in spite of that we have the will to succeed," Fouad Masoum, a Kurdish legislator who presided over the 18-minute session, said in an opening speech.
The indefinite recess until a broader agreement on a coalition is reached means that the country's three-month deadlock could now aggravate further as it enters a period that many view as critical only two months before US combat troops are slated to leave.
What lies behind the stalemate seems to be the struggle between Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki and former prime minister Iyad Allawi for the post of prime minister in the new government. Allawi's slim election victory of 91 seats to Al-Maliki's 89 scrambled Iraq's political landscape and further exposed the country's deep-rooted sectarian divide.
Neither man has budged since in insisting that he should be the next leader, polarising a nation that many hoped would finally find its way to ending sectarian tensions and forging a democratic and cross-sectarian government.
Last week, Al-Maliki finalised his list's post-election merger with the other main Shia-led bloc, the Iraqi National Alliance, giving the two groups 159 seats in the new parliament, only four short of an overall majority.
On Sunday, Al-Maliki and Allawi met for the first time since the election in what was described by aides as an icebreaker meeting. Yet the ceremonial 30-minute rendez-vous nevertheless failed to end the sniping over who had the right to form the next government.
Instead, the new Shia alliance and the Allawi-Al-Maliki encounter have underlined that despite the denial and sugar-coated talk the competition between the two men for power is a struggle along sectarian lines.
Al-Maliki's coalition has cast itself as the defender of the country's Shia majority, while Allawi's list, though portraying itself as secular, clearly represents the country's Sunni minority.
As tempers mount, there are low expectations of a breakthrough during the current parliamentary recess, with questions being asked as to whether Iraq's politicians are able to come to grips with the implications of a prolonged political vacuum in the country.
Many observers now believe that months may pass before a new government is chosen, as factions continue vying over the choice of a prime minister. The New York Times said on Monday that some US officials now estimate that the new government is likely to be finalised in October, or in a best-case scenario September, if negotiations gain speed.
Yet, the current parliamentary recess is raising speculation as to whether the various sides will in fact be able to end their brinkmanship and settle for a political deal.
So far, the strategy has been for each bloc to blame the other for any collapse in the political process. Both Allawi and Al-Maliki have been warning that a government formed without him could unleash a new round of sectarian fighting.
Supporters of each side have also been wagering that the other's coalition will fall apart because of the competing interests of its different members, suggesting that disgruntled deserters will join them.
Followers of the Sunni-backed Iraqiya List, led by Allawi, hope that the new Shia coalition will collapse amid a dispute about choosing a candidate for the post of prime minister.
Meanwhile, the Shias hope that the Sunnis will abandon Allawi when they realise that they risk being locked out of a governing coalition if Allawi continues to insist on heading the government.
On Tuesday, Haidar Al-Ibadi, a senior aide to Al-Maliki, said that two small Sunni blocs, the Accordance Front and Iraq's Unity Coalition, have expressed their willingness to join the new Shia alliance. If this is true, the alliance would increase its share of seats in the parliament and have a comfortable majority to form a new government.
Instead of trying to resolve the country's deepening crisis, the country's politicians are taking a lethargic approach to addressing the critical issues surrounding forming a new government. This wait-and-see approach, carried out by each side in the hope of outmaneuvering the other, is simply inviting further instability and even the possibility of a new cycle of sectarian strife.
Meanwhile, violence remains endemic in Iraq, refuting claims by Iraqi and American officials that it has diminished across the country. There have been increasing concerns that the continuing failure to choose a new government could lead to more violence.
As Iraqi lawmakers met on Monday, a string of attacks in Baghdad and other cities killed five people, including an army colonel and an anti-insurgency Sahwa leader and his wife.
On Sunday, armed men wearing police commando uniforms briefly overran Iraq's Central Bank, killing at least 24 people in a brazen daylight assault and sowing panic and confusion in the heart of Baghdad's busy commercial district. At least 46 people were injured.
A car packed with explosives detonated near a military patrol on Friday in the restive Iraqi province of Diyala, killing two American soldiers, an Iraqi policeman and two Iraqi civilians, the American military said.
Six American soldiers and at least 24 Iraqi police officers and civilians were wounded, officials said. The attack was the deadliest on the American military in more than two months.
Two other people were killed on Friday when a roadside bomb exploded in the Baghdad neighbourhood of Dora. The day before, a car bomb had killed four people in Baghdad.
Iraqi government figures show that 337 people were killed in unrest in May, the fourth time this year that the overall death toll has been higher than in the same month in 2009.
With an upsurge in violence and no working government, concerns are growing about Iraq's stability as the United States prepares to withdraw its forces from the country by the end of next year.