No government, but troop withdrawals
As Iraqi leaders continue their brinkmanship, US combat troops are preparing to pull out of the country, writes Salah Hemeid
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Allawi (left) and Al-Sadr on Monday during a visit to Syria to discuss the deadlocked government in Baghdad
As Iraq remains gripped by a profound political crisis and worsening violence, the United States reiterated its intention this week to start drawing down its combat troops in the country by September.
On Sunday, US Vice-President Joe Biden said that lengthy negotiations with the Iraqi government on power-sharing would not be affected by the scheduled withdrawal of US troops.
"There is a transition government. There is a government in place that's working. Iraqi security is being provided by the Iraqis, with our assistance. We're going to have, still have, 50,000 troops there," Biden told the US channel ABC News in an interview.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration has stepped up pressure on Iraqi leaders to overcome a five-month political impasse that has prevented the formation of a new government.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that Washington was increasingly concerned about the deadlock as the withdrawal of US forces looms. Iraqi politicians needed to put national interests ahead of personal ones and assemble a government quickly, she said.
There was a "critical need for Iraq's political leaders to continue the hard work necessary to form a proportionate and inclusive government that represents the voices of Iraq's diverse communities and can deliver on the promise of democracy," Clinton told reporters at the US State Department after meeting with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari.
Iraq's political parties have been deadlocked since inconclusive parliamentary elections in March over who should form the new government and serve as prime minister and president. The elections gave no party a majority in the 325-member parliament.
Last week, Iraqi legislators extended an inaugural parliamentary session by two weeks to give political leaders a chance to form a government. Many politicians now expect that the parliament will not meet any time soon, as the rival groups remain deadlocked over naming a new prime minister.
The war-torn country reached a political impasse after the Iraqiya Alliance, led by former prime minister Iyad Allawi, narrowly won the March elections by securing 91 seats, though this was only two seats more than the present Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki's State of Law Coalition.
A ruling coalition has yet to be formed, as no bloc managed to achieve the outright majority needed to form a functioning government on its own.
Meanwhile, violence escalated in Iraqi this week as insurgents stepped up their attacks and exploited the political stalemate in efforts to further destabilise the country ahead of the American withdrawal.
On Sunday, suicide bombers killed some 50 people in two separate attacks against US- backed Sunni militias. Dozens of members of the Sunni Awakening Councils militia were killed by a suicide bomb as they queued for pay outside an army base in Baghdad.
Hours later, a second suicide attacker targeted other militia members in the western border town of Al-Qaim. The attacker first opened fire with a rifle before detonating a bomb, killing seven people and wounding a further 11.
On Saturday, an Awakening Council leader and two of his sons were killed by a roadside bomb in the southern Baghdad suburb of Dora, while a second regional leader was wounded by an explosion in Baquba, 65 kilometres north of the capital.
The Councils, about 80,000 strong, are Sunni militias raised by the US military to fight Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Most of their members are themselves former insurgents, and it is widely believed that Al-Qaeda is targeting the Sunni militias in order to lure them back into the insurgency.
As yet, there have been no signs that the soaring violence, the political deadlock, or the impending American withdrawal are pushing Iraqi leaders into serious deal-making. Instead, their wrangling has set off rumours about different scenarios to resolve the crisis, none of them very palatable.
On Monday, the Saudi-owned Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper reported that the Iraqiya bloc had suggested that a new leadership should be elected, under which Allawi would be prime minister, Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani remain president, and Humam Hamoudi of the Iraqi Supreme Islamic Council (ISIC) be named speaker of the parliament.
Another press report suggested that Iran was putting pressure on Shia leader Muqtada Al-Sadr to join Al-Maliki and the Kurdish alliance in order to form a new government. Followers of Al-Sadr have 40 seats in the parliament, and together with Al-Maliki's State of Law Coalition and the Kurdish parties, they would have a comfortable majority to form a new cabinet.
Yet a third rumour has suggested that the Syrians are trying to convince the Sadrists to join Allawi, the ISIC and the Kurds in setting up a government in an attempt to ostracise Al-Maliki. Al-Maliki has been shunned by the Syrians after he accused Damascus of hosting former followers of Saddam Hussein, who are blamed for the attacks in Iraq.
Those who favour this scenario point to the visits made by Al-Sadr and Allawi to Damascus this week and their discussions with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. On Saturday, speaking in a meeting with Al-Sadr, Al-Assad expressed his concern about the consequences of the failure to form a new government in Iraq.
Not all these rumours can be true, particularly because Iraqi politics is chaotic, thanks to the so-called "consensus formula" imposed by the Americans after the US-led 2003 invasion and the ambitions of regional countries, many of which are happy to interfere in Iraqi internal affairs.
On the one hand, Iraq's political leaders, who lack a democratic background and are backed by militias, are sharply divided on sectarian and ethnic lines and are not prepared to find a compromise that could exclude them from power and deprive them of the nation's enormous wealth.
On the other hand, the regional players are not expected to relinquish their roles in Iraq, and they will continue their attempts to protect their interests in the country.
The lingering stand-off over forming a new government in Iraq has raised questions about neighbouring countries' strategies as Iraq itself slips into deeper crisis.
Tehran's interventions in Iraq are a way of confronting Washington in a foreign context, while Sunni Arab nations and Turkey are alarmed by the prospect of Iranian and Shia domination of Iraq, and are exploiting ties with Iraqi Sunnis to justify interventions in the country.
It is no secret that the regional players are now planning for the endgame and are ready to use all possible means to fill the power vacuum that will result from the US withdrawal.
Meanwhile, the US itself has been sending conflicting signals. While American officials have repeated that they intend to stick to the withdrawal schedule, they also say that withdrawal in no way reflects a decrease in American engagement with Iraq or US commitment to the Iraqis.
It is against this background that rival Iraqi groups are continuing their political brinkmanship, showing that they are prepared to hold out for as long as necessary to secure victory.
One risk that they are all ignoring is that such brinkmanship could expose Iraq to a dangerous political vacuum as it tries to emerge from civil strife and contain its sectarian divide.