As expected, negotiations in Baghdad between Iran and the P5+1 (permanent five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) on the Iranian nuclear file have ended without any major breakthrough.
For Iraq, this means the country can get back to its normal politics, perhaps without the added distractions that inevitably come with a major regional event involving Iran. There has been plenty of speculation as to the causes for the conspicuous synchronicity between the nuclear meeting and the apparent peak of the crisis of the current cabinet headed by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Has Iran somehow exploited the opportunity to send a not so gentle reminder to international players about its leverage in Iraqi politics?
Whatever the external pressures, the Iran nuclear file has for now been consigned to Moscow as its next destination in the second half of June. Maliki no longer has any major external event that can remove attention from internal problems and threats about unseating him. And those threats are gaining momentum. On 28 April, an unprecedented gathering of leaders of the Kurds, the Sunni-secular Iraqiyya and the Shiite Islamist Sadrists issued a letter at Arbil calling for Maliki’s own Shiite alliance to make Maliki change his ways within 15 days or else take steps to withdraw confidence in him. The ultimatum wasn’t presented to the parliamentary head of the Shiite faction, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, until 3 May, meaning that it expired on 18 May. One day later,on 19 May, a second summit was held in Najaf. Barzani and Allawi did not elect to descend from their Arbilian heights but the political representation at the meeting was broadly identical to the 28 April summit. After that meeting another letter was sent to Jaafari. It contained a message to the Shia alliance that their previous (very jejune and non-committal) answer to the first ultimatum didn’t really address their concerns. Accordingly, the Arbil signatories now asked Jaafari to identify a new prime minister candidate. It is widely understood that another deadline of 1 week was imposed, although this is missing in the draft of the letter that has been published.
This takes us on to Saturday 26 May as the new deadline for Maliki. Or, maybe we should say, “for the Arbil signatories”. Their bluff has already been called once and unless there is action this time (the second letter is more of an order than an ultimatum) doubts as to the parliamentary punch of their alliance will set in. Come Saturday and it will be crunch time. Already, there are rumours about a planned third summit of Maliki critics, this time in Mosul.
The problems are however about more than the sheer timing of the no confidence initiative. A second set of issues relates to the modalities for getting rid of Maliki envisaged in the proposal. In the leaked letter the Shia alliance is given the job of finding a suitable replacement, because “it is considered the framework for choosing the prime minister”. Not so fast, please! The constitutional problems here are perhaps best understood through a little bit of prospective history writing. If indeed the Shia alliance votes to change Maliki, it will likely break apart. Now, if all or nearly ally of Maliki’s alliance defects in solidarity with him, the rump National Alliance is no longer the biggest bloc in parliament, and hence has no right to appoint the next PM. Nor has Iraqiyya, which has already dwindled in size to 85 deputies with indications it would be further reduced to at least 75 if an attempt were made to force out Maliki. To avoid Maliki’s bloc getting hold of the nomination of the next PM, Iraqiyya would need to first form a bloc with the Kurds or the Shiite Islamists, agree on a bloc leader and so on. Incidentally, this would imply a negation of their own interpretation of article 76 of the Iraqi constitution on the prime ministerial nomination procedure (which Iraqiyya in 2010 saw as belonging to the biggest electoral list).
Also, there seems to be a prevailing theory that the current Shiite alliance can simply swap Maliki and someone more likable as premier with the rest of the cabinet remaining in place. Again, this is erroneous. Constitutionally, the whole cabinet is considered resigned if a vote of no confidence in the prime minister succeeds. Accordingly, every single member of the cabinet will have to leave their posts and it is for the Iraqi president to identify the next prime minister on the basis of the “biggest bloc”. This is what makes it so hard to understand another bargaining chip used by the opponents of Maliki these days – that of the possible resignation of the current president, Jalal Talabani of the Kurdish alliance. Such a scenario would leave the current deputy president that remains within Iraq, Khudayr al-Khuzaie, in charge for the next 30 days until parliament has elected a new president. Khuaie is a Maliki ally. Also, attention would inevitably be deflected from the prime ministerial question.
The most recent developments have seen Ahmed Chalabi assume a leading role among Shiite critics of Maliki, with frequent meetings of the original half of the Shia alliance known as the Iraqi National Alliance (INA) that was formed in August 2009 with Iranian backing. Some even consider Chalabi a forerunner for replacing Maliki! We should soon find out who they have in mind, because it will be very hard for the Maliki critics to backtrack for their latest string of ultimatums without stultifying themselves in a serious way.