Al-Ahram Weekly Online   14 - 20 October 2010
Issue No. 1019
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Involving the neighbours

Agreement on a new Iraqi government now hinges on regional powers, writes Salah Hemeid

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Former Iraqi prime minister Iyad Allawi, who heads the country's mainly Sunni Iraqiya bloc, held talks on Sunday with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan received the head of the Shia Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), Ammar Al-Hakim, in Ankara.

Both leaders were reportedly discussing with the two Sunni-dominated countries efforts to form a new government as Baghdad marked seven months of political stalemate after the 7 March disputed elections.

The Saudi official news agency said Abdullah and Allawi, accompanied by top leaders from the Iraqiya List, "reviewed the current situation in Iraq" at their Riyadh meeting.

Osama Al-Nujaifi, a Sunni leader who joined Allawi on the trip, said the meeting, also attended by Saudi Intelligence Chief Prince Muqrin bin Abdel-Aziz and Saudi ambassador to Washington Adel Al-Jubeir, was intended to discuss Iranian interference in efforts to form a new Iraqi government.

Al-Hakim later flew to Cairo where he held talks with President Hosni Mubarak and other Egyptian officials. Egypt's Middle East News Agency reported that the crisis over the formation of a new Iraqi government was at the top of the agenda for the talks.

Meanwhile, Erdogan also flew to Damascus on Monday for talks with his Syrian counterpart, Bashar Al-Assad, on the "political vacuum" in Iraq, which both leaders stressed could only be ended by forming an all-inclusive government.

With Allawi and Al-Hakim shuttling between regional capitals, their main rival, caretaker Shia Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki announced that he was starting a regional tour on Wednesday, which will take him to Syria, Jordan, Iran and Turkey.

Earlier this month, Al-Maliki dispatched emissaries to several neighbouring countries aiming to rally support for his attempts to secure a second term in office.

On Wednesday Iraq also topped talks between Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal who delivered a letter from Saudi monarch King Abdullah to Mubarak.

Following the talks Al-Faisal told reporters that both countries support efforts to form an all-inclusive government in Iraq. "We look forward to an Iraqi government which is representative to all Iraqis so that all sects will enjoy equal rights and duties."

In the March elections, Allawi's Iraqiya bloc gained two more seats than Al-Maliki's bloc, but neither bloc won enough seats to control parliament outright, plunging the country into its worst political crisis since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

Although Al-Maliki received a boost last month by forging an alliance with radical Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, he has so far failed to master enough support from other parties to allow him to form a new government.

As rival Iraqi politicians exhaust efforts to end the gridlock in the country, they are also seemingly turning to foreign powers for help.

Over recent weeks, rival Iraqi politicians have intensified contacts with leaders of other countries in the region, seeking their help in efforts to form a new government, despite repeated claims that they do not want such countries to get involved in internal Iraqi disputes.

With the seven-month efforts to form a new government apparently going nowhere, and with American guardianship of the political process fading, Iraqi politicians are resorting to regional sponsors for political backing.

While it may be difficult for outsiders to fathom the idea of Iraqi leaders travelling to neighbouring states to solicit backing, while at the same time blaming external interference for delays in forming a new government, Iraq's complicated history and the close ties of its competing ethnic groups with their kinfolk across the borders help to explain this apparent contradiction.

With its huge material and human resources, Iraq has always been a rival to its ambitious neighbours, which have long competed with Baghdad for regional influence.

However, seven years of foreign occupation and the destruction of the Iraqi state and national fabric has marginalised the country, leaving the door wide open for foreign interference.

With Iraqi politics degenerating into a religious and sectarian struggle following the US-led invasion, Iraq's neighbours have important stakes in how political power is distributed among the country's sharply divided groups.

Nothing illustrates this competition better than attempts to influence the political process in Iraq, with neighbouring countries each trying to place its allies in the new government as bases for power and patronage.

Sunni Arab countries and Turkey believe that Al-Maliki is too close to their regional rival Shia Iran, while Iran believes that Allawi is a Trojan horse used by Sunnis to infiltrate the government and bring Saddam loyalists back to power.

The question is why Iraqi leaders are now seeking help from countries which they have hitherto repeatedly accused of stirring up trouble in the country and undermining Iraqi sovereignty.

It is no secret that most of Iraq's new leaders, including Allawi, Al-Hakim and Al-Maliki, were closely connected to the secret services of their countries of exile while fighting to topple the Saddam Hussein regime.

While hosting them, such governments would have expected that they would be rewarded after Saddam's fall for providing Iraqi exile politicians with protection, funding and licenses to operate.

The influence of such governments on Iraq's new leaders has been so great that it is something that cannot simply be ignored.

Al-Maliki was immediately silenced when Syria shunned him following accusations made last year that Damascus had been harbouring alleged terrorists operating in Iraq, for example.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani has repeatedly said that he cannot criticise Syria, where he lived for 17 years while in exile, because the country was generous to him.

Even while they are loathe to accept foreign intervention, Iraq's politicians are incapable of stopping their neighbours from cutting deals that would permit them to exercise influence in the country.

Rhetoric from Iraqi politicians about foreign interference in Iraq's affairs cannot therefore be taken at face value, since its purpose is at least in part to confuse people about who is an ally and who is an enemy.

Iraq's neighbours have also been playing the same confusing game, best illustrated by President Al-Assad's sudden dropping of the Syrian veto on Al-Maliki, deciding to back him against Allawi.

Yet, if Iraqi leaders are looking for a genuine boost from the current round of shuttling between neighbouring countries they may be disappointed, since these countries have long been part of the problem, not of the solution.

They may come to regret their manoeuvring outside Iraq, engaging in this at the expense of dealing with domestic problems at home.

The stalemate over the formation of a new Iraqi government looks unbreakable at the moment, and it may be impossible to find an acceptable solution, despite the current round of efforts.

Iraq's neighbours may be simply not ready to help the Iraqis, since they are already too busy dividing up the spoils.

However, one thing at least is certain. The Iraqi people will pay dearly for the mistakes of their politicians, as the Lebanese and Palestinians have done before them.

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