Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Back to Baghdad

Posted by Reidar Visser on Monday, 8 November 2010 14:56

The much-touted Arbil summit that took place earlier today as part of the “Barzani intiative” turned out to be a relatively brief event. Political leaders arrived from Baghdad in the morning, held a brief televised meeting dominated by boilerplate speeches on national unity and respect for the constitution, and decided to resume talking again tomorrow afternoon in Baghdad.

Beyond the nice talk about a “partnership government” there are two competing tendencies in motion here. On the one hand, Nuri al-Maliki seems focused on Thursday’s meeting in parliament at which he hopes to secure his own nomination as prime minister for a second term. In his view, all that is needed is agreement on the three major posts of prime minister, president and speaker of parliament. Based on his latest political moves, one would assume that he is aiming for himself as prime minister, Jalal Talabani for president and maybe someone from the new “Centrist” coalition of Tawafuq and Unity of Iraq as speaker, unless someone from Iraqiyya should signal their interest. This kind of scheme is sometimes labelled as a “political-majority” project, but that is misleading since it is based on an ethno-sectarian alliance full of ideological contradictions (on issues like state structure, federalism etc.). These issues would have been more pronounced had it not been for the invisible hand of Iran and its role in holding the alliance together.

On the other hand, Iraqiyya, apparently with increasing American support, is aiming for a power-sharing deal in which Ayad Allawi would obtain the presidency with enhanced powers. The main problem here is the constitution, which demands a special majority decision in parliament for this kind of constitutional change, to be followed by a popular referendum. Even if the other parties agreed on giving a beefed-up presidency to Iraqiyya, no one would know for sure whether the powers of the presidency would actually change until after a referendum some time in 2011.

The interesting aspect in all of this is the position of the Kurds. In theory, they could have picked a winner in the discussion; instead they seem to go on talking. Today they contributed an agenda reportedly consisting of 13 disputed points, including constitutional reform and revisiting the accountability and justice law! Evidently, they are fearful that Maliki is giving them empty promises and for that reason they would probably prefer to have ISCI and Iraqiyya inside the government to make it as polycephalous as possible. Their dilemma is that whereas this kind of posture may play well with Washington, it is disliked by Iran. Additionally, as time passes by, there is also the danger of growing revulsion against the extensive Kurdish demands for taking part in the government. The longer time this takes, the greater the likelihood of some kind of showdown in a sensitive area of policy, say, about who should be oil minister.

To Washington, this is a situation with no good alternatives. If it supports an early meeting of parliament, it will get the Shiite–Kurdish government that Iran has been working for. If it supports the Iraqiyya alternative, it may not get a new government at all anytime soon. Certainly, resolving all the issues between Iraqiyya and Maliki within three days seems unrealistic. Arguably, then, by continuing to lull Iraqiyya into constitutionally problematic scenarios, the Obama administration is becoming a spoiler in the Iraqi government-formation process against its own will. But since it never supported the viable alternative of a Maliki–Allawi coalition and instead pressed for a scenario which involves government formation and constitutional change at the same time, there really are no good alternatives either. The fear is that over coming months, the US government will spend most of its Middle East energies on partitioning Sudan and that once more, Iraq will get back-burnered.

17 Responses to “Back to Baghdad”

  1. Joe said

    A great post, you’ve captured everything succinctly, I believe. The only part I would take issue with is where you say the US “never supported the viable alternative of a Maliki–Allawi coalition”. Did they not always support the two-largest vote-getters working together on this? My sense is that they have. The two largest vote-getters, Allawi and Maliki, scuttled themselves, did they not, since they both wanted to be prime minister and neither would bow to the other? Which has led us down the road you accurately describe, with an SLA-Sadrist deal supported by Iran, and the Kurds as kingmaker (albeit dragging their feet somewhat, as you say). I do agree with you that the prospect of achieving an Allawi Presidency would almost guarantee that this process drags on much further than it already has.

  2. Reidar Visser said

    Joe, when media wrote about US-support for “power-sharing between Allawi and Maliki” they weren’t telling the whole truth. The USG never abandoned the idea of having all the four big winning lists inside such a government.With respect to power-sharing they also introduced the rather far-fetched idea of making the presidency of the national security council into a second premiership (for Allawi). Instead they should have encouraged the Allawi-Maliki scheme in its purest form, i.e. through active exclusion of everyone else (and their separatist and pro-Iranian agendas). That could have enabled Iraqiyya and SLA to develop real bonds and a true Iraqi partnership. Of course, the personal animosities between Allawi and Maliki were already there, but US fear of having someone left “outside the tent” meant that they weren’t even thinking of this scheme, thereby failing to provide the eye-opener the two sides needed.

  3. Kermanshahi said

    Not that I would want it to happen, but since Allawi has already given up claim to the Prime Minister post (to Adil Mahdi) and is hoping to get an ISCI-Kurdish coalition with him as Preisident, he might aswell join with al-Maliki and become President.

  4. Santana said


    Joe wrote exactly what I was gonna write …and now that you have responded I must say that it’s true that the U.S called for all four all along but they were thinking more of a 2+1+1 instead of a 1+1+1+1 which is how you are portraying it…big difference between the two but the math adds up the same.

  5. Reidar Visser said

    It is interesting how the idea of an Abd al-Mahdi premiership supported by Iraqiyya has apparently faded a little into the background lately. ISCI always wanted the “roundtable” in order to get the Kurds to nominate Abd al-Mahdi for them; now the roundtable is supposedly over and not much happened really.

  6. Kermanshahi said

    Probably because Iraqiyya was not willing to accept the demand for a Kerkuk referendum after all, so the Kurdish-Iraqiyya couldn’t be formed. Which basicly means that the man which nobody likes has done it again. The day he is sworn in (again) will be a sad day, for both Iraq and for the rest of the region.

  7. Reidar,

    What happens if Allawi is selected as president by the parliament. Then, he in turn, selects Adil Abd al-Mahdi as the candidate for prime minister? Does he have a constitutional basis since the president selects the candidate of the largest bloc? Or will Allawi have to accept the Federal Court’s suspicious interpretation of Article 76? Can there be a legal case made that the interpretation should have come before the election, not after, and that because it was after the election, that the interpretation should have been held the same as the 2005 election.

    If Maliki and the Kurds agree to give the presidency to Allawi, what does that leave the Sunnis? The Kurds will have the speakership in that arrangement. The Sunni component of Iraqiyya will perhaps get the National Security Council? But I doubt Maliki and the Kurds will allow the Council to have sufficient power in that case, especially if Nujaifi was going to head it.

    Also if Allawi is given the presidency, the constitutional referendum could be agreed to quickly rather than slowly. That’s because the parties would have already agreed to secure a two-thirds vote in parliament to give the presidency more powers as part of an agreement of having Iraqiyya participate in the next government. As for the referendum, I suspect the parties will agree to scrap it altogether, perhaps bury it under some vague bureaucratic process to never see the light of day. Remember the referendum that was supposed to be held on the SOFA? What happened to it? As of this point, the SOFA is unconstitutional since it was never given a referendum, but it continues today in all its operational capacities as if it were legal. You have to remember Reidar, to not interpret the Iraq Constitution as though it were a European or American document where its provisions are respected and institutionalized. Iraq is an underdeveloped democracy – if a democracy at all. Over there, and in much of the Arab world, the “idea” of a legal constitution still has not found the futile ground of non-negotiability. It can still be abused, bent, and even broken in some cases. What happened during the De-Baathification fiasco was not supported by the Iraq Constitution either. Yet it still happened, and Saleh al-Mutlaq is still held under the accusations issued by the Accountability and Justice Commission.

  8. Reidar Visser said

    Mahmoud, I think the constitution is too explicit when it comes to the modalities for constitutional change to enable the Iraqi politicians to ignore it. In contrast to the case of the SOFA, everything is spelled out clearly when it comes to the procedure for constitutional change. It would be a major gamble for Iraqiyya to enter government on the hypothesis of a Yes vote, since it enemies know about the relevant consitutional provisions and would be happy to exploit them.

    If Allawi is elected president then in practice he can settle for whatever interpretation of the constitution that enjoys majority support in parliament. So, in theory he could designate Abd al-Mahdi or, for that matter, Nujayfi; the vote of confidence later on would decide. This is probably another reason NA would rather have Talabani…

  9. Thaqalain said

    Redidar: Can you describe what was the view point of Al-Jaafari

  10. Reidar Visser said

    Seems to me that Jaafari has fallen in line with the Maliki project now. The recent trilateral meeting between him, Talabani and Maliki seemed significant in this respect after he previously seemed to be the favourite candidates of the Sadrists as a “third way” candidate of the NA instead of Maliki and Abd al-Mahdi.

  11. Kermanshahi said

    Mahmoud Abassi, if the Kurds make an agreement with al-Maliki with him accepting their demands in return for them backing him as Prime Minister than they will not allow an Ayad Allawi Presidency just for the sake of al-Iraqiyya joining the government, specially since a Kurdish Presidency is part of those 19 demands al-Maliki has to accept for them to join his government. The only way Jalal Talabani would accept an Ayad Allawi Presidency is if al-Iraqiyya agrees to holding a Kerkuk referendum and they join the ISCI/Iraqiyya government Adil Mahdi as Prime Minister (and Fuad Masum as speaker). Besides, al-Maliki was already planning to make Jalal Talabani his President from the start.

  12. Reidar Visser said

    The Baghdad meeting should have been underway now but all is silent so far… Apparently, Iraqi leaders are taking turns talking to US senators instead!!

    OK. They’re at it now, 6:15 PM Baghdad time, just one hour late.

  13. Santana said

    Yup- they are at it….it will either be a very short meeting with nothing to show or a very long meeting with a consensus….it will also determine whether Iraqiya attends on Thursday or not.

  14. Reidar Visser said

    Well they have finished now apparently… I think that means it was a short meeting!

  15. Yeah. Allawi/Hashemi/Abdul Mahdi left too. Maliki wanted a coronation. I wonder what the US senators spoke about?

  16. Reidar Visser said

    “Sunni presidents”, no doubt!

    Hashemi and Allawi didn’t even attend from what I am hearing. Abd al-Mahdi left early. There were wild reports about some kind of great bargain in the immediate aftermath, but things seem to have quitened down now and there is talk of another meeting tomorrow to consider the possibility of having parliament on Thursday.

    Hang on a second, now there’s a report they haven’t ended yet after all, they’re just taking a break!

    Lots of contradictive rumours tonight after the meeting but probably better to wait for daylight and the dust to settle. The meeting tomorrow should clarify whether parliament can go ahead on Thursday or not.

  17. Mohammed said

    Hi Reidar:

    Did you see the Zalmay Khalilzad op-ed in the wall street journal? He is still pushing for the 2 year swap plan between allawi and maliki taking turns as PM. I am sure Maliki would veto such an idea. I cannot fathom the national alliance allowing Allawi to have any control over the military for two years.

    The other problem is that it is very curious as to why Allawi wants to be president with enhanced powers. Again, I go back to my original question. What are these enhanced powers? I doubt that it is just a matter of veto power over legislation like they had in the prior government. Maliki was still able to keep control of thing with al-hashemi, abdul mahdi, and talibani having vetoes…What Maliki really cares about is that if the presidency is seen as being equal to the PM job (and by that I mean having power of commander in chief, and shaping foreign policy, and control over internal security and intelligence), what will happen is that all the neighboring countries except Iran will automatically recognize Allawi as the “real” head of state and simply boycott al-Maliki (it is similar to how the US treats Mahmoud Abbas and ignores Hamas). Bottom line, al-Maliki would be quite foolish to allow Allawi to one up him like that. As long as PM is the only commander in chief and sets foreign policy and internal security, no country can ignore the PM…

    I have been saying in umpteen posts, for Allawi this is all about who controls the military and security services..I dont think he cares about anything else (because maliki and allawi probably see eye to eye on most economic, oil, water, etc laws…) where they really disagree is who they put in charge of military and intelligence…that is my hypothesis as to what Allawi really wants (when he says real partnership)…

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