The drawn-out crisis over the formation of a new government looks set to heighten tensions in Iraq, writes Salah Hemeid
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In the wake of anti-Shia attacks in Baghdad the Iraqi government has said an offer by Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr to help boost security was unnecessary
Hours after Baghdad was struck by a wave of coordinated bombings on Friday, killing 72 Shia Muslims as they left Friday prayers amid a deepening national crisis over the formation of a new government, radical Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr declared that he was ready to send his Al-Mahdi Army fighters back onto the streets of Iraq in order to defend the country's Shias.
The bombings, among Iraq's deadliest in recent months, also wounded around 120 people and signalled the possibility of a rise in sectarian violence after the 7 March national election produced no clear winner and left a power vacuum for insurgents and terrorists to exploit.
It also came in the wake of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki's announcement of the deaths of two senior Al-Qaeda leaders, Abu Ayoub El-Mohager and Abu Omar Al-Baghdadi, in a raid by joint Iraqi and US forces that marked a blow to the organisation in Iraq.
On Monday, Iraqi security forces said they had launched a fresh offensive against Al-Qaeda hideouts on the country's huge Himreen Plateau, one week after the killing of Al-Masri and Al-Baghdadi.
Al-Qaeda acknowledged the deaths of its two top figures on Sunday and vowed to take revenge. "The war is never-ending and the believers will be triumphant," said a statement by one of the group's leaders posted on the Internet.
Fears that this week's attacks could heighten sectarian tensions in Iraq were reawakened by the stalled efforts to form a new government and Al-Sadr's move to remobilise the Al-Mahdi Army, which is widely believed to have been responsible for much of the bloodshed during the worst years of the sectarian fighting in the country in 2006 and 2007.
In a statement read out in Shia mosques, Al-Sadr suggested mobilising hundreds of his followers to form "official brigades in the army or police to defend holy shrines, mosques, markets and houses and to provide a face-saving solution for the government."
Al-Sadr had ordered the dissolution of the militia in 2008 after confrontations between it and government forces. However, observers believe that Al-Mahdi Army fighters were never in fact truly demobilised and have simply been keeping a low profile.
Yet, in his offer to help the Iraqi security forces to fight terrorism in the country Al-Sadr is sending a clear message that if the Iraqi government cannot protect the Shias, then his followers will. For its part, the Iraqi government was quick to reject Al-Sadr's offer, saying that there were enough army and police units in the country to maintain security.
Nevertheless, Sadrist leaders have reportedly instructed members of the Al-Mahdi Army to take up arms to defend Shia mosques. The group's spokesman, Salah Al-Obeidi, claimed that Shias were being targeted by Al-Qaeda because the latter group wants to plunge Iraq back into sectarian fighting.
There is reason to believe that Al-Sadr's remarks were also designed to consolidate his power among Iraqi Shias, following a strong showing in the March parliamentary elections.
The cleric, a staunch opponent of Al-Maliki, also seems to be trying to challenge the embattled Iraqi prime minister and show that he remains a key player in the country, whether in deciding Iraq's next leader or in maintaining a semblance of control in the violence-torn nation.
As these events were taking place, the political crisis in the country worsened as election authorities announced on Monday that they were disqualifying 52 candidates in the March elections, including two of the winners, because of alleged Baathist connections.
The official in charge of purging former Baath loyalists also disclosed that he had asked for eight further winning candidates to be disqualified. A ruling was expected as soon as Tuesday, all the eight additional candidates being members of the Iraqiya List headed by former Shia prime minister Iyad Allawi.
Monday's disqualifications followed an order by the appeals court in charge of reviewing alleged electoral fraud in the March elections and the manual recount of votes cast in Baghdad. The recount had been requested by Al-Maliki's State of Law Coalition, which claimed that fraud had benefited Allawi's list.
Both decisions raise the possibility that the initial results of the country's pivotal national elections will now be changed in order to reverse Al-Maliki's narrow defeat. They will also push the date that the new government takes office beyond the constitutional starting date, further jeopardising the fragile security situation in the country.
The four political blocs that split the Iraqi parliament's 325 seats between them in the recent elections have been waiting for the final results to be certified before starting serious negotiations on forming a coalition government.
The Iraqiya List, largely supported by Sunni Muslims, has denounced the court's two rulings and other moves that have taken place since the elections, saying that they represent an effort to undermine the will of the voters. Representatives of the List have demanded that any recount should be done in another province beside Baghdad and that it should be carried out under United Nations supervision.
Allawi himself said he might not accept the results of the recount. "We have doubts and we have the right to express our reservations," he told the Al-Arabiya television network on Monday, further warning that he might call for a new election under UN supervision if the results were "unsatisfactory."
Since the elections took place in March, the two leading blocs have been battling it out in efforts to form the next government. Al-Maliki, who seeks a second term as prime minister, has failed to convince the other major Shia group, the Iraqi National Alliance, to endorse him for the premiership, dampening earlier confidence that he might gain all-out Shia support and forcing him to seek an alliance with Allawi's Sunni-dominated bloc, despite their acrimonious post-election exchanges.
Al-Maliki's sudden change of heart follows reports that the United States has been proposing a deal between Al-Maliki and Allawi under which each man would hold the post of prime minister for two years at the head of a coalition government.
Meanwhile, the United States has expressed its concern about the delay in forming the new Iraqi government, which it had wanted to take control of the country after the planned withdrawal of US combat troops this summer, leaving a force of 50,000 US troops in Iraq after September.
"We have an election that took place on 7 March. We are now approaching the two-month period [of waiting for the final results], and we are concerned that the process is lagging," US ambassador Chris Hill said on Monday.
The international human-rights group Amnesty International also warned on Monday that continuing political uncertainty in Iraq was contributing to a rise in the number of civilian deaths, reporting that more than 100 civilians had been killed in the country in the first week of April alone.
"Many were targeted by armed groups because of their religious, ethnic or sexual identity," the group said. Seven years after the 2003 US-led invasion, "Iraqis are still living in a climate of fear," according to the Amnesty report.
It is this climate that the drawn-out political uncertainty resulting from the inconclusive March elections is causing, as armed groups continue Shia-Sunni sectarian fighting.
Violence hit different areas of the Iraqi capital this week in the shape of bomb blasts that killed and wounded tens of people. Meanwhile, gunmen have continued to hunt down officials, officers and Sahwa, or Awakening Council members, using silenced guns.
Overall, the picture remains grim in Iraq, with the violence underscoring the unrest that continues to plague a nation whose politicians are still struggling to form a government even seven weeks after the elections.
If Iraqi politicians cannot form a government soon and work together to bring stability to their beleaguered nation, the spirit of sectarian strife may very well worsen and trigger another round of civil war.
Iraq's free-for-all and political stalemate benefits no one, laments Mohamed El-Anwar in Baghdad
There are many reports in Iraq's media of carnage, explosions, funerals, grieving victims and relatives, and their loathing of new politicians who are only interested in playing political games in order for the chaotic state of affairs to continue. The result is the tragic deaths of hundreds of innocents across the country. In Iraq today, and especially in the capital, there is no cheerful news in the midst of this dangerous and stressful reality.
The only positive event was Iraq's second Blossom Parade sponsored by Baghdad's local government, which took place despite continued deaths and complications. The timid three-day event was soon over, giving way once again to the echo of missiles and explosives and hundreds of victims.
For more than seven years, this miserable state of affairs has been the norm, and continues to be so. Many sources believe that for many reasons Iraq is heading towards more violence caused by political rivalries, power grabs and politicians not able to agree on forming a new government after the Iraqi people did their part and went to the polls on 7 March, despite the bombings, to elect their representatives, who have so far failed the democracy test.
"We cast our ballots and did our part," stated an Iraqi restaurant employee near the Green Zone. "Iyad Allawi and Nuri Al-Maliki won but they failed the people, especially Al-Maliki who refuses to share power. One way or another he will have to give it up because the US does not want him and nor do the people. While he stays in power, anything is possible. The recent explosions in Baghdad are a result of the political struggle and impede the people. Everyone knows that."
The developments taking place behind the scenes are cause for concern in light of a stagnant political process and quarrels over recounting the ballots in several governorates. They are most likely the reason why Mowafaq Al-Rabei, a leader in the coalition government, visited the Shia leader Ali Al-Sistani and informed him of the dangers caused by Al-Maliki's refusal to step down as prime minister. Al-Rabei insisted that holding new elections would be a catastrophe which would lead the country to a civil war. He further warned that the terrorists are manipulating the constitutional vacuum caused by the inability of the various factions to form a government by targeting civilians. In fact, civilians are the targets not only for terrorist groups, but also armed groups of various political dispositions which are active in Iraq.
The explosions on Bloody Friday which targeted Shia Muslims in Al-Sadr, Al-Rahmaneya, Al-Horreya and Al-Ghazaleya, killing 80 and injuring 200, were met with rage by Al-Sadr followers who accused the government of negligence in protecting religious sites, and that most victims fell in Al-Sadr strongholds. Al-Sadr followers are becoming increasingly hostile towards Al-Maliki and reject him as prime minister for a second term because he is dishonest and does not keep his promises, according to Salah Al-Obeidi, Al-Sadr's spokesman.
Al-Obeidi continued that there is distrust between military and police forces on the one hand, and the people -- especially those living in Al-Sadr strongholds -- on the other, because the government has not taken any real measures to secure these areas. He added that the situation is becoming worse, noting that Muqtada Al-Sadr's call for "believers" to join the ranks of the army and police aims to encourage them to protect these areas, religious sites and worshippers. Al-Obeidi stated that the government can accept or reject Al-Sadr's offer without repercussions, but he insisted that it would be entirely the government's responsibility if more attacks take place in the future.
In response to the explosions on Bloody Friday, Al-Sadr called on his followers to prepare hundreds of believers to assist the government in securing religious sites. This a clear message that Al-Mahdi army is ready and prepared to play a role, a notion which is rejected by all political and government circles because this would open the door once again to sectarian violence which is one of the tools for political gain and killing more civilians in sectarian and political strongholds.
So far, there is hope for an initiative which could achieve reconciliation and the formation of a new government. In fact, most Iraqis now believe that forming a government based on the results of the 7 March election could take more than three months or that new elections will be held. This means that two months after balloting, it is a free-for- all. Many are wondering about the role of the US in ending the stalemate, especially seeing that all developments indicate that the Iraqis have failed to agree or even communicate on the future of their country. Despite declarations that the two principal and strongest winners in the election, namely Allawi and Al-Maliki, are close to agreeing on a formula, in reality this is close to impossible in light of the personal conflicts and accusations exchanged between the two. There is no communication between them now, especially on Al-Maliki's part, as he views the secular Shia Allawi as representing the Sunnis with his list including Baathists. This demonstrates that political interaction in Iraq remains myopic and narrow-minded, which is characteristic of most new Iraqi politicians who are not concerned with the hundreds of victims who fall every day and only use them as tools to whip up sectarian support.
Nosseir Al-Awam, an Iraqi journalist, believes that the US is continuing to play an active role but recently left the arena to allow Iraqi politicians to play their part. "The Americans will make a move once security and political conditions hit rock bottom," asserted Al-Awam. "After that, they will begin playing mediator and assert their influence because in the end this is an issue that concerns them. It is not logical to invade Iraq, a united sovereign state and then leave it in a state of feuding islands. In the end, if security conditions deteriorate and there is no political solution, it will affect their withdrawal timetable from Iraq. If the US withdraws, it will leave the arena open to other parties such as Iran. The US will interfere decisively to end the situation because this will affect its experience in Iraq and they cannot withstand another failure in light of developments in the region."
It is certain that the US is present, but how and when, whose interest does it serve, and what benefits will it reap. Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda in Iraq and other resistance groups have the opportunity to operate and take revenge for the killing of its two leaders Abu Omar Al-Baghdadi and the Egyptian Abu Ayoub El-Mohager more than one week ago. This revenge will naturally be inflicted on innocent civilians, which some will use as a means to score political points."