Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Archive for August 3rd, 2011

Ramadan Agreement Provides Some Answers but Many Uncertainties Linger

Posted by Reidar Visser on Wednesday, 3 August 2011 20:37

As has become usual in Iraqi politics, a nightly gathering of politicians during Ramadan has helped towards resolving certain political issues, although yesterday’s meeting at the invitation of President Jalal Talabani also left many questions unanswered.

The one thing that is clear is that Iraq will now ask some US forces to stay beyond 2011 as “instructors”. The dissenting voices on this were the Sadrists and ISCI, meaning that the decision probably involved something that Iran did not want to happen.  At the same time, the latest move poses a challenge to those in Washington that may have been hoping for a straightforward SOFA extension: Any activity by the US forces in Iraq after 2011 that cannot be plausibly described as “instruction” will now be susceptible to challenges – politically as well as military – precisely from forces such as the Sadrists.

The other points of “agreement” from yesterday’s meeting come with greater ambiguity. Firstly, there is the festering issue of the strategic policy council – demanded by the secular Iraqiyya as a key element in “power-sharing” and resisted by the Shiite Islamist coalition headed by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki who finds it “unconstitutional” (and not without reason, since the council simply isn’t in the constitution). There is now agreement that the draft law will be presented to parliament through the presidency, and apparently there is agreement on the text of the draft that will be introduced. Let’s not forget though that there will be two readings of the law in parliament before it gets voted on, and members of Maliki’s alliance are already signalling that they may bring up again some of their points of opposition to the bill. What has largely escaped notice is that in its current form, the council has such a high threshold for making executive decisions (80% majority) that it is unable to constitute much in the way of an effective check on prime ministerial power anyway. In that context, the demand by Iraqiyya that the head of the council – expected to be Ayad Allawi – be voted on by parliament rather than by the council members seems more like a way of symbolically restoring some of Allawi’s dignity after he won the elections and then lost the premiership last year.

That kind of ambiguity applies also to the remaining points from the meeting. One issue that was agreed to in principle at Arbil in 2010 but so far has yet to be implemented concerns the bylaws for the cabinet. A committee will now be appointed to look into that issue, meaning that the parties are probably as far apart as ever. Much the same seems to be the case with respect to the somewhat elusive concept of “balance” in the state institutions at the levels of director generals and above, for which another investigative committee will be appointed. In the official summary of the latest proceedings, the term “constitutional balance” is used, which is interesting since that word – balance (tawazun) – occurs only once in the constitution, and in that case refers to the proportional balance of the “components” of the Iraqi people in the army and the security forces. Already Turkmen leaders are indicating that they intend to use the latest agreement as a basis for seeking the appointment of security ministers with an ethnic Turkmen background.

Finally, it was reaffirmed at the meeting that Iraqiyya will provide candidates for the defence ministry and the all-Shiite National Alliance will nominate the interior ministry. The reported agreement in the media that Maliki will automatically approve any candidate presented by Iraqiyya for a temporary role as acting defence minister is not reflected in the  official statement from the meeting.

It is important to note that this latest agreement does not reflect any sudden kind of dramatic rapprochement between the main Iraqi parties.  What has happened is that at a time of continuing disagreement, Maliki has agreed at least tacitly with the Kurds and Iraqiyya to keep a limited number of American troops as “instructors” –  and to kick other political problems a little further down the road. It all comes at a time when sectarian fronts could actually be perceived to be hardening somewhat, as seen especially in the latest co-option of the rump of the Wasat alliance, the Sunni Islamist Tawafuq, into the Iraqiyya coalition. This came after the other half of Wasat, the more secular Unity of Iraq, recently joined Iraqiyya, meaning that there are now no Sunni parties that are not nominally part of Iraqiyya. Simultaneously, Maliki has reiterated his belief that the defence ministry must go to a particular sect (Sunni), rather than to a political party (Iraqiyya), which again highlights the way in which politics in Iraq is being reshaped in a more sectarian fashion after the 2010 elections. Indeed, the formally tripartite nature of the latest meeting , with representatives of the Kurds, Iraqiyya and the National Alliance, would seem to suggest a return to more sectarian framework than, say, two years ago.

The two factors that continue to cut across sectarian alliances and prevent a repeat of the Shiite-Kurdish monopoly on Iraqi politics seen in 2005 are the continued desire of Maliki to pursue different policies than ISCI and the Sadrists (which in itself largely invalidates the National Alliance as a real, cohesive political force), as well as the growing Kurdish criticism of Iran, which is sometimes leading them to find common positions with Iraqiyya. It is this kind of tactical shift, rather than the emergence of any kind of coherent, pro-American “moderate coalition” that will now enable the US to keep some of its forces in Iraq as “instructors” beyond 2011.

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