Escalating Political Crisis in Iraq and Chances of Resolution

Dr. Mustafa Abdel Aziz: Escalating Political Crisis in Iraq and Chances of Resolution

  • 19 January 2012

Following the withdrawal of US forces, Iraq finds itself in a grave political crisis that has the potential to severely undermine its security situation. The crisis erupted when Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki issued an arrest warrant against Vice President Tariq Al-Hashimi and a high-ranking leader of the Iraqiya Coalition on charges of involvement in terrorist acts and for running death squads that target government officials. The prime minister also called on lawmakers to withdraw support from one of his deputies and a coalition ally, Saleh Al-Mutlaq, who had recently called the premier a “dictator worse than Saddam.” This prompted former Iraqi prime minister Iyad Allawi, and leader of the Iraqiya bloc, to boycott cabinet and parliament sessions and called for a vote of no-confidence against Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki.

The gravity of the current crisis, described by Allawi as “the most dangerous in the history of Iraq,” lies in its sectarian dimension. According to some observers, Al-Maliki’s decisions are directed against the Sunni segments of the political alliance and they claim that the Iraqi prime minister is trying to marginalize Sunnis to strengthen his grip on power. As a result, the fear of sectarian strife has resurfaced as well as the danger of the ‘national partnership’ collapsing.

It is known that this government was cobbled together with great difficulty to end an eight-month long crisis. Following legislative elections held in March 2010, the Iraqiya bloc was supposed to form a government as it had garnered a majority of votes. However, thanks to the poor alliances it created, the ‘State of Law’ coalition headed by Al-Maliki secured a parliamentary majority that enabled it to form the government. In November 2010, leaders of Iraqi political blocs met in the city of Erbil, where the so-called Erbil Agreement was forged. One of the most important items of the agreement was the setting up of a Supreme National Council for policymaking, which was supposed to be chaired by Iyad Allawi. However, this did not happen. It was also agreed that the Iraqi Ministries of Defense and Interior were to be given to candidates of Iraqiya bloc and the National Iraqi Alliance, respectively. Neither of these commitments was kept and both posts are held today by Al-Maliki himself, in spite of his criticism in this regard both by the opposition and his own coalition partners. In fact, the prime minister was recently accused of trying to control security positions in order to consolidate his grip on the country after the US troop withdrawal.

In a bid to resolve this crisis, Tariq Al-Hashimi expressed his willingness to appear before a court of law, on the condition that his trial should be held in Kurdistan—his current place of refuge—for he claims that judicial authorities in Baghdad have been thoroughly politicized. The Maliki government predictably rejected Tariq Al-Hashimi’s request and hastened to ask the Kurdistan Regional Government to hand over Al-Hashimi for trial, arguing that this case was a criminal one, and was not politically motivated. For their part, Kurds declined the Central government’s request, stating that they did not want to be party to the dispute.

In wake of these developments and pressures, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani issued a call for the convening of an expanded national conference aimed at containing the fallout of the current political crisis on the overall Iraqi security and political situation. Despite the initial acceptance by various political blocs to this call, the chances of success of Talabani’s initiative appear mixed. On the one hand, there have been positive signs pointing to a possible resolution of the crisis, as all parties seem aware and concerned about the continuance of the crisis that might lead to outright political and security disorder. In particular, there is fear that the crisis could even break up the Iraqi ruling coalition, especially if the Iraqiya bloc is able to convince the Kurdistan Alliance to support a no-confidence motion against the government. Therefore, this feeling of apprehension is seen by some observers as a positive sign. In addition, efforts made by the United States to defuse the crisis are also seen as an encouraging development in this regard.

On the other hand, there are several negative indicators for it seems that each party is unwilling to compromise and would likely stick to its demands, which might turn the conference into a failure. Some observers point to the covert role played by Iran in this affair, as they claim that through its allies in Iraq it is trying to escalate the problem with a view to divert attention from its own dispute with Western powers.

The Kurds could play a decisive role in this crisis, as each faction is trying to woo them into its camp. Al-Maliki wants to use them to strengthen his position in the crisis and preserve the coherence of his government; while Allawi is trying to entice Kurds to end the targeting of prominent figures in his bloc, and to secure the required majority for a vote of no-confidence against the Maliki government. The Kurds have the opportunity to politically maneuver the situation in order to achieve their longstanding demands on control of oil resources and other outstanding issues between them and the central government.

Perhaps what might exacerbate the political and security crisis and add another dimension to the crisis is the effort made by some Iraqi factions to turn their provinces into federal regions, which could result in the redrawing of borders among them. It is feared that this trend in the future could lead to the division of Iraq along ethnic and sectarian lines, threatening the country's unity and integrity. 

Undoubtedly, the current political crisis has adversely affected the security situation in the country. After a period of relative stability, terrorist bombings are again rocking Iraqi cities, causing scores of deaths. The latest attack occurred in the city of Basra (on January 14, 2012), which was targeted against a procession of pilgrims heading to the city of Karbala. The strikes left over 50 people dead and dozens injured. According to some sources, the bombings in Iraq since the begging of December 2011 to mid-January 2012 caused 200 fatalities, and have left hundreds injured. The blasts targeted both Shiite and Sunni gatherings, which means that the goal is once again to incite a bloody sectarian conflict that Iraq had experienced during 2006 and 2007, pushing it to the brink of a fierce civil war.

In this context, the declaration by the so-called ‘Islamic State of Iraq,’ by a group affiliated to ‘Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia’ organization, of its responsibility for a number of these bombings seems remarkable, as it suggests the revival of these groups after a period of dormancy. There is an agreement among observers that political instability creates a favorable atmosphere for terrorist organizations to freely carry out their criminal activities.

The turbulent political and security situation necessitates that all Iraqi political forces move quickly toward ending the current political crisis and reach national consensus without the exclusion or marginalization of any group. The continuation of sectarian differences under a political process that does not include all factions will not ensure desired stability for the country. Hence, the onus is on Iraqi forces to save and reconstruct Iraq through a genuine national consensus, and to stand up to attempts by regional and international powers—particularly Iran—to safeguard their own interests. The United States should also help Iraq in overcoming this difficult stage through diplomatic channels. There is an urgent need for more effective Arab role to assist Iraq in its endeavor to overcome its crisis.