Challenges for Al-Maliki
For Nuri Al-Maliki to remain Iraq's prime minister, he will need more than the uncertain support of his Shia allies, writes Salah Hemeid
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A roadside bombing targeted the convoy of an Iraqi deputy minister, killing and injuring several people
Iraq's largest bloc of Shia lawmakers endorsed caretaker Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki for a second term in office last Friday, putting him within reach of controlling a majority in the country's parliament some seven months after inconclusive elections.
Al-Maliki was picked as the nominee for the top government job by the Shia-led National Alliance after he secured the support of the Sadrists, followers of his former opponent, cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, and other Shia deputies.
His main Shia rival, Ammar Al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC), and members of another small Shia party, together holding 19 seats in the Iraqi parliament, refused to support Al-Maliki's nomination.
The Sunni-backed Iraqiya List, which narrowly won the most seats in March's parliamentary elections, taking 91 compared to Al-Maliki's State of Law Coalition's 89, also immediately declared that it would not support Al-Maliki's nomination, refusing to join a coalition government led by him.
After a meeting on Saturday, Iraqiya leaders said they would now try to court Al-Hakim's SIIC and other Shia groups that oppose Al-Maliki, as well as two smaller parties that have 10 seats in the parliament in an attempt to frustrate Al-Maliki's nomination as the country's next prime minister.
However, even if Iraqiya succeeds in gathering such support, it will still leave the bloc without enough seats to thwart Al-Maliki's re-election. Even with the support of his State of Law bloc, which holds 89 seats, and the Sadrists, with about 39, Al-Maliki also still remains short of the 163 seats needed for a majority.
Support from the Kurdish Alliance, with some 56 seats, would help tilt the balance in his favour, and Al-Maliki will be hoping that this is forthcoming, perhaps together with support from other smaller factions and even Al-Hakim's group, if this can be persuaded to reconsider its opposition.
Yet, even a majority of seats in the country's legislature will not help to solve Al-Maliki's other problem of how to form an inclusive, broad-based government in a country sharply divided on sectarian lines.
Al-Maliki is believed to have made enormous concessions to the Sadrists in order to lure them into supporting a new government with him as prime minister, including the promise of key government posts, a larger say in political and security decisions, and the release of Sadrist members jailed for violence.
Al-Sadr himself is known for his fiery anti-American rhetoric and support for radical social policies, including the implementation of strict Islamic law.
For their part, the Kurdish groups have said that they will only support a new government that undertakes to meet a list of 19 demands, including resolving the territorial dispute over the oil-rich province of Kirkuk and giving the Kurds a larger share in the country's resources.
After his nomination as the country's new prime minister last week, Al-Maliki stepped up appeals to Iraqiya to join talks on the formation of next government, though these have thus far fallen on deaf ears.
The Sunni-backed bloc has so far remained united in the face of the incentives that Al-Maliki has been offering to its leaders, including government posts.
Without the backing of Iraqiya, it will be hard for the Shia bloc to win the votes required to endorse a new president for the country and speaker of the parliament, as is required by the constitution before a cabinet can be formed.
Suspicion and frustration among Iraq's Sunnis, who have hopes of regaining a key political role after the narrow victory of the Iraqiya List in the March elections, is complicating Al-Maliki's efforts.
Any government opposed by Iraqiya is likely to be viewed as illegitimate by the country's Sunnis, and without reliable Sunni allies Al-Maliki will find himself at the head of a sharply divided country still needing to deal with serious security challenges.
The sectarian and religious cast of the governmental crisis in Iraq has also raised fears that the country's neighbours might be pushed to intervene.
Many Iraqis believe that regional influences and the meddling of neighbouring countries are increasing the political feuds in Iraq and hampering efforts to form a new government.
Shia groups are seen as being under pressure from Iran to join an Al-Maliki-led government, and Tehran has been able to convince its ally Syria to drop its objections to Al-Maliki and help him to fill the post of Iraqi prime minister for a further four years.
The political disputes in Iraq were high on the agenda of the talks held between Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran on Saturday.
Damascus had parted ways with Tehran and supported former Iraqi prime minister Iyad Allawi, leader of the Iraqiya List, in the March elections, in part because Al-Maliki had accused Syria of giving refuge to militants responsible for bomb attacks in Baghdad.
Having realised the importance of its alliance with Iran, Syria has now aligned itself with Tehran and shown signs of accepting Al-Maliki's candidacy as the new Iraqi prime minister.
After Ahmadinejad visited Damascus on 18 September, Syria agreed to return its ambassador to Baghdad more than a year after he was withdrawn.
While Iran and Syria could act to influence events in Iraq, it remains to be seen what Iraq's other neighbours, especially Saudi Arabia, will do.
The oil-rich kingdom, which wields tremendous influence among Iraqi Sunnis and is believed to have strong objections to Al-Maliki, does not seem willing to accept him as the head of Iraq's next government.
On Sunday, the state-owned Saudi news agency denied reports in the pro-Al-Maliki Iraqi media that the kingdom was willing to support Al-Maliki's premiership.
Quoting an unnamed Saudi official, the agency said the reports were "lies and baseless allegations," and the editor of a leading Saudi newspaper described Al-Maliki's nomination as a joint American-Iranian plot.
"There is a belief among the Iraqi elite, as well as among Arab politicians, intellectuals and journalists, that the US is conspiring with the Iranians on the issue of Iraq, and that there is a plot to divide the region," wrote Tariq Al-Humeid in the Saudi newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat.
"The allegation is that America is concluding a deal with its Iranian counterparts, in order to persuade Tehran to cooperate with America and the West on its nuclear programme" in exchange for Iranian intervention in Iraq.
"If Nuri Al-Maliki is accepted for a second term in office, this will mean the destruction of the already fragile Iraqi political system," Al-Humeid warned.
While it is true that both Washington and Tehran seem to support Al-Maliki, this could be out of necessity rather than choice.
Both may realise that they have no better alternative. While Washington needs stability in Iraq in order to forge ahead with its planned military withdrawal next year, Tehran does not want to see its Shia allies fragmented or weakened.
However, Al-Maliki's nomination is no guarantee that he will now be able to persuade others to join his new government, particularly if dissenters within his own Shia alliance continue to show their reluctance.
Efforts to build a broader consensus behind Al-Maliki's re-election could take weeks or even months, further delaying the formation of a new government.
A further challenge for Al-Maliki will be to overcome the divisions that have dogged Iraq since the collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime following the 2003 US-led invasion.
In order to do so, he will need to be adept at more than political maneuvering in order to retain power. Instead, Al-Maliki will need to show himself able to exercise national leadership and to accept compromise.
Al-Maliki's Sunni opponents will also need to tone down their defiance and move instead towards a compromise power-sharing agreement, rather than insisting on their current zero-sum strategy.
The danger for Iraq's rival parties is that they will miss the opportunity to rebuild the war-devastated country, possibly pushing it even further into the abyss.
Their political maneuvering has come amid a wave of terrorist attacks that in their effects could go far beyond their aim of discrediting Al-Maliki's leadership and heightening public frustration with his government.
Iraq has now reached a tipping point, and the ongoing political games in the country could turn the country, just emerging from US-led occupation, further in on itself.