Al-Ahram Weekly Online   16 - 22 June 2011
Issue No. 1052
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Change afoot in Iraq?

While Iraq's leaders continue to shame their country, the tide may be finally turning against them, writes Salah Nasrawi

Iraq's fragile political process suffered another setback this week, threatening to plunge the violence-battered country into turbulence only six months before the scheduled withdrawal of US troops.

The latest crisis was sparked by a spat between the leaders of the two main blocs in the country's "partnership" government, Shia Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki and the leader of the Sunni-backed Iraqia Coalition bloc, Iyad Allawi.

On Friday, Allawi charged Al-Maliki with "lying, hypocrisy and deception", saying that Al-Maliki had "depended on foreigners and Iran's support to become prime minister."

Allawi's remarks came hours after pro Al-Maliki demonstrators carried his picture when standing next to Firas Al-Jubouri, a man whom the government accuses of masterminding a massacre of some 70 Shias in 2006 while on their way to a wedding.

The gruesome crime, which included the raping of the women, including the bride, and the slaughtering of the men and children and the throwing of their bodies into the Tigris, was disclosed last month, infuriating many Shias who have demanded the public execution of the perpetrators.

But the incident also raises questions about why the government has waited so long to bring the assault to light and if it is now trying to implicate Allawi in it, especially following rumors that Al-Jubouri is a member of his National Accord Movement.

The disclosure came amid mounting criticism of Al-Maliki, who holds the portfolios of defense, interior and national security ministers in the Iraqi government, as well as that of intelligence chairman, and who has been accused of failing to stop the violence.

Some have suggested that Al-Maliki has filled these ministries and top security posts with his cronies and supporters who are inefficient or corrupt. He was also recently embroiled in a scandal that showed how deeply corruption goes in Iraq, even deep inside Al-Maliki's own office.

Last month some 12 Al-Qaeda terrorists escaped from prison in the southern port city of Basra, with some of the men facing death sentences. A parliamentary committee responsible for probing the escape said that it had found that the prison-break was linked to senior officials working in Al-Maliki's office.

According to the committee, Al-Maliki's senior security adviser Abdel-Karim Fadhil, his brother and a nephew allegedly helped the Al-Qaeda members to escape in return for cash.

Fadhil has no military or security training, and his only credential is his close family ties with Al-Maliki.

The disclosure of the Basra prison escape followed the killing of 17 policemen, including a top counter-terrorism officer, on 8 May during an attempt by terrorists to escape from a Baghdad detention centre.

The mêlée at the sprawling compound raised questions about how a group of prisoners at what is supposed to be one of the most secure facilities in the country managed to launch such a fierce attack.

Some 4,000 militants and terrorists have escaped detention with inside help in Iraq since 2006.

The country's criminal justice system is derelict, and hundreds of criminals and sectarian terrorists have been sentenced to death for killings but have not been executed or even brought to justice in a system where convicts can buy their freedom.

The new row came on the heels of a 100-day cooling-off period that al-Maliki had set for his ministers to improve their performance in order to quell protests nationwide.

Iraqi protesters have been demanding an end to the violence, combating of the rampant corruption and improvements in services.

Following the expiration of the self-imposed grace period, activists have planned more nationwide protests to press for democratic reforms and more government services.

On Friday, hundreds of peaceful protesters took to the streets across Iraq after al-Maliki renewed the 100-day deadline he had set for himself, citing the need for more time.

The protesters were savagely attacked in Baghdad's Al-Tahrir Square by some 1,000 of pro-government supporters who attempted to shift the focus from Al-Maliki's backtracking to the Shia wedding massacre.

What has made the situation worse has been the exchange of accusations between Al-Maliki and Allawi supporters. Al-Maliki aides have said they will file a court suit against Allawi on charges of slander, while Allawi has pledged to summon Al-Maliki to parliament for questioning.

On Sunday, a senior aide to Allawi, an Iraqiya lawmaker and a leader of Al-Maliki's Daawa Party were caught in a scuffle inside the parliamentary cafe shortly before a crucial session.

Parliamentary speaker Osama Al-Nujaifi was forced to adjourn parliament after Iraqiya announced a boycott in protest.

Amid such chaotic political scenes tensions have risen across Iraq, with terrorists escalating their campaign of bombings and assassinations. Dozens of people were killed this week in separate attacks in Baghdad and elsewhere.

On Saturday, twin car bombs ripped through a crowded neighbourhood in the northern

Iraqi city of Mosul, killing four civilians and two policemen and wounding 48 others. At least 11 people were also killed in attacks elsewhere.

On Monday, a suicide attack on a police station in the southern city of Basra killed at least four people and wounded 19 others.

The next day, gunmen stormed the offices of the local government of Diyala in the provincial capital of Baquba, with two car bombs and suicide blasts killing nine people and wounding dozens of others.

This week's attacks were the latest in a string of assaults against police and government headquarters aimed at undermining Iraq's uneasy security.

The violence highlighted increasing concerns about the capability of Iraqi security forces to protect the country as US troops prepare to leave by January.

Some analysts suggest that both the political wrangling and the escalation of the violence echo the difficulties Iraq politicians face as they prepare to make a decision that could determine the future of the US troops.

Radical anti-American cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, whose supporters have 40 seats in the parliament and seven cabinet ministers, has vowed that he will reactivate the Al-Mahdi Army, his militia, if the American military do not leave this year.

Other political leaders have not made their views public, although for practical reasons they may prefer to see the Americans stay longer.

Sunni leaders in particular are worried that the American withdrawal will create a security vacuum that the pro-Iran Al-Sadr militia will try to fill.

Most Iraqis are worried that the present fractured coalition government is incapable of reaching a consensus on the American troop presence and that its uncompromising partners will prefer to play brinkmanship rather than try to resolve this thorny issue.

Some Iraqis believe that though the recent quarrels hide a fierce political struggle, they also show a determination by the rival leaders to delay any hard decisions on the American presence until the last moment before the 31 December deadline.

By procrastinating, these politicians are not only providing further evidence that they are putting their own interests before those of their country, but also that they are gambling with whatever few gains the security forces have made so far.

The bottom line is that Iraqi politicians cannot survive without a continuing crisis, and however shameful this policy is they will continue to use it to conceal their own failure to remedy or even really to acknowledge Iraq's grave problems.

The one item of good news is that more and more Iraqis are now taking to the streets across the country to protest against their leaders' lies, greed and failures.

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