Still no government in Iraq
Efforts to end the impasse over the formation of a new government in Iraq are nowhere near a breakthrough, writes Salah Hemeid
Iraqi leaders are under mounting pressure to form a new government more than five months after the indecisive elections that produced the country's worst political deadlock since the US-led invasion in 2003.
However, for the time being efforts to form the new government are in a state of stalemate, even as US President Barack Obama reiterated his commitment to withdrawing US combat troops from Iraq by 31 August.
As US troops handed over control of combat duties to Iraqi security forces last weekend in preparation for the withdrawal, Washington increased the pressure on Iraqi leaders to agree on a new government.
The handover, a further sign that the US troop withdrawal is on track, was coupled with intense diplomatic efforts to push Iraqi leaders into a compromise on the formation of the new government, including a visit by a high-level team from the White House National Security Council to Baghdad.
Press reports have suggested that the American diplomats were in Baghdad to advance a proposal made earlier by US Vice-President Joe Biden backing a coalition that would include Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki's State of Law Coalition, the Sunni-backed Iraqiya List and the Kurdish bloc.
Under the reported plan, Al-Maliki would serve as prime minister, while a member of the Iraqiya List would be assigned the post of president, and a member of the Kurdish alliance would get the post of speaker of parliament.
While outgoing Iraqi President Jalal Talabani would chair a High Federal Council that would be formed to advise on matters affecting the whole of Iraq, Iraqiya leader Iyad Allawi would head the Supreme Political and Security Council that would be set up to supervise security matters, the reports said.
While the reports indicated that all three groups would be invited to participate in the new government, the plan leaves many details vague and faces enormous obstacles, especially as it excludes the Shia-led Iraqi National Alliance from the new government.
On Sunday Al-Maliki flew to Irbil in the north of the country for talks with Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani in a bid to secure Kurdish endorsement of the proposal to form a broad-based coalition government.
After the meeting, Barzani said he agreed on the necessity to "forge a roadmap for discussion with other groups in order to end the government deadlock as soon as possible."
However, his chief of staff, Fouad Hussein, said that the Kurds would back a coalition that included all four of the major groups in the present parliament including the Shia alliance, thus casting doubt on the American proposal.
Any agreement between Al-Maliki and the Kurds will need the blessing of the Iraqiya List, whose leaders have been insisting that the list, which came first in the elections, should have the right to head the new government.
Al-Maliki's chances of heading the new government have also recently diminished due to strong opposition from his two main Shia rivals, the powerful clerics Ammar Al-Hakim, head of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, and Muqtada Al-Sadr, leader of the Sadrist Trend.
These two leaders control the two largest groups in the Iraqi National Alliance, one of Iraq's two main Shia blocs, which has suspended talks with Al-Maliki's State of Law Coalition after initially agreeing to form an Iraqi Alliance to head the government.
Meanwhile, Washington has turned to Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, the senior Shia religious figure in Iraq, for help in efforts to end the crisis. President Obama has reportedly sent a letter to Al-Sistani, urging him to use his influence with the Iraqi leaders to end the political deadlock.
Citing anonymous sources, media reports have suggested that Obama's letter called on Al-Sistani to pressure Iraq's Shia leaders to settle their differences.
According to the reports, first surfacing in Iraqi media outlets and later appearing in the American magazine Foreign Policy, the letter was sent shortly after vice-president Biden visited Baghdad in July but failed to bring about a resolution of the dispute.
The letter "was a request for his [Al-Sistani's] intervention in the political situation to use his influence with the Shia groups and get them to compromise," Foreign Policy quoted an unnamed source as saying.
Neither US officials nor Al-Sistani's office have confirmed the existence of Obama's letter to the Ayatollah, though Al-Sistani had previously indicated that he might get involved in the governmental dispute if the stalemate persists.
Since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein, Al-Sistani has intervened several times to help end political disputes in the country, including by demanding that direct elections be held for the assembly tasked with writing a new constitution for the country after the invasion.
Seven years later, the failure of Iraq's fractious political groups to form a coalition government five months after this year's elections has created a power vacuum that is potentially a breeding ground for sectarian tensions.
Iraqi factions have sought in vain since the 7 March parliamentary elections to agree on a government to replace that led by Al-Maliki.
None of the leading slates won the majority needed to form a new government alone, and the groups' leaders have been at odds since over the choice of candidates for president, speaker of parliament and prime minister.
A number of violent incidents have taken place over recent weeks, increasing fears that insurgents, especially members of the avowedly anti-Shia Al-Qaeda group, are trying to exploit the political situation to foment sectarian strife.
Violence across Iraq last week killed dozens of people, amid a surge in suicide bombings, roadside bombs and bombs attached to cars, as well as machine-gun attacks.
Many Iraqis worry that the violence could soon take on alarming new dimensions, as the US troop pullout is expected to leave the country vulnerable to increased pressures from regional powers.
One reason behind the Iraqi failure to form a new government more than five months after the parliamentary elections has been the various interventions in the country by its neighbours, which have led to efforts to resolve the lingering dispute and form a new government shifting outside Iraq.
While Syria, Saudi Arabia and other Arab neighbouring countries have maintained contacts with Iraqi groups in order to stave off Iranian influence, Iran and Turkey have emerged as the biggest players and rivals inside Iraq.
While Al-Maliki was having talks with Barzani in Irbil, his special envoy, Ali Al-Dabagh, was meeting in Ankara with Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who is widely believed to have been behind efforts to persuade Iraq's Sunnis to put together the Iraqiya List and participate en masse in the March elections.
Al-Dabagh is now apparently trying to use Turkish leverage with the Iraqiya List to persuade the Sunnis to accept US proposals and join a government under Al-Maliki.
However, upon his return to Baghdad, Al-Dabagh said that efforts to form the government could still take months, a clear indication that the Turks might not in fact have joined Washington's bandwagon.
Turkey has been supporting Allawi, while Iran has been standing by its Shia friends and is trying not to take sides in their disputes.
Such conflicts of influence in the region are worrying to many Iraqis, with jailed former Iraqi deputy prime minister Tareq Aziz, a key figure in the former Saddam Hussein regime, slamming the planned withdrawal of US forces from the country.
Speaking to London's Guardian newspaper, Aziz said that US forces were "leaving Iraq to the wolves" by adhering to the timeline to leave the country. The remarks, apparently aimed at Iraq's neighbours, are significant because they come from one of Saddam's leading lieutenants.
On the face of things, Iraq thus appears to be stuck in internal factional conflicts, which are increasingly taking on regional dimensions. For members of the factions involved victory is all that counts, even if this may be catastrophic for the country as a whole.