Iraq: Maliki under pressure to deliver on milestones

U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker yesterday said the Baghdad security plan “buys time for political understandings among Iraqis.” As the plan will only hit its stride (in terms of committed U.S. forces) from June onwards and looks set to be sustained into the autumn, the political space created refers to the summer’s political committee work and the autumnal parliamentary session. However, if the Kurdish/Shia alliance continues to eschew compromise, as seems likely, political reconciliation may remain stalled.

The United States strongly backs Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, but expects him to deliver on his promises. Senior U.S. officials have recently stated the need for Iraq to speed up its political processes in order to hit political milestones set in 2006, which included: approval of key legislation, including provincial election, oil, de-Ba’athification and militia laws in the first quarter; completion of negotiations on amnesty arrangements and constitutional amendments by the end of April; and holding provincial elections by June.

Though many of Maliki’s milestones are plainly unachievable within their previous timelines, Baghdad now faces intense U.S. pressure to pass at least some of its legislative agenda before parliament goes into summer recess on June 30.

Government agenda. Crocker and others have called the Baghdad security plan a strategy for buying time for political progress. The legislative and political agenda being driven by Washington is focused on steps that will reduce Sunni Arab resentment. Near-term initiatives being pushed by Washington include:

Oil law. Under strong U.S. pressure, the government may seek to push the draft hydrocarbons framework law through parliament in late April or early May. However, the political parties are unlikely to submit the law to parliament before consensus is reached on key annexes, suggesting it will be delayed but will ultimately pass parliamentary scrutiny when a consensus document emerges.

De-Ba’athification law. The March 27 draft Law of Accountability and Justice would replace the Supreme De-Ba’athification Commission with a panel of judges and reduce the number of former Ba’athists banned from government service. Maliki and President Jalal Talabani were rushed into presenting the draft law by U.S. pressure, and it received widespread condemnation from the existing de-Ba’athification committee and notables such as Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. The law can expect to be debated and amended at considerable length, and its passage will be difficult.
Provincial elections law. The January 2005 elections were largely boycotted by the Sunni Arab community, resulting in almost no representation of Sunni Arabs on provincial councils, even in predominately Sunni Arab provinces. Shia and particularly Kurdish factions benefited considerably from the situation, and continue to stall the development of electoral legislation. There is little likelihood of elections until the winter.
Other reconciliation measures. The Sunni Arab community is still awaiting a chance to participate in a constitutional amendment process, a precondition for its participation in the December 2005 elections, but amendment continues to be blocked by Shia and Kurdish legislators.

Kirkuk rush. The reverse-Arabization of Kirkuk is the only area in which Washington would like Baghdad to slow down; yet it is the single area in which the Iraqi government appears to be forging ahead. The Maliki government backs the constitutional promise to begin the resolution of Kirkuk’s final status on or before Dec. 31, 2007. The Cabinet recently endorsed a draft law to offer compensation to any eligible Arabs living in Kirkuk if they voluntarily relocate to their original hometowns. The law is highly likely to gather the required 138 votes needed to pass through parliament, whereupon Kurdish factions may begin pressuring Arabs to leave Kirkuk and nearby areas ahead of the region’s referendum on its future.

Reshuffle moves. This year has been marked by constant speculation about coalition politics and an impending Cabinet reshuffle. Former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, head of the 25-seat Iraqi National List, made an unsuccessful play to draw Kurdish, Sunni and breakaway Shia parliamentarians into a cross-sectarian alternative majority grouping in March. The experience demonstrated that the Shia United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) list could only be unseated by a decisive swing by every other faction, most notably the Kurds. In the event, the Kurdish bloc stood firmly behind the UIA.
Almost all political parties are quietly suffering internal schisms and loudly threatening to leave the political process if their needs are not met, particularly in any future Cabinet reshuffle. Jockeying factions include:

Organization of the Martyr Sadr (OMS). The OMS withdrew six ministers from the Cabinet last week, probably to precipitate a reshuffle and indicate the party’s interest in more important ministries than the service ministries it currently dominates. Its 30 parliamentarians continue to support the government through the UIA bloc.
Fadhila Party. In March, the Fadhila Party announced that its 15 legislators would no longer support the UIA bloc, later listing its conditions for support as either the Oil or Trade portfolio in a forthcoming reshuffle. Fadhila has been a petulant participant in the UIA bloc since failing to secure any portfolios in the April 2006 Cabinet formation.
Sunni blocs. The Iraqi Islamic Party, the largest element of the 44-seat Iraqi Accordance Front and the main Sunni Arab participant in parliament, has made repeated threats to leave the political process unless security threats and judicial investigations against its parliamentarians are reduced. Its head, Adnan al-Dulaimi, and a range of other parliamentarians have been investigated by Shia parties, who have sought to strip the legislators of their parliamentary immunity.

Outlook. Coalition politics will have a crucial effect on progress — or lack of it — on U.S.-Iraqi benchmark issues:
Legislative logjam. Washington is seeking to micromanage Iraq’s legislative agenda, but there is only so much it can do to speed along controversial and complex bills on hydrocarbons and de-Ba’athification. Artificial U.S. timelines will likely result in a number of false starts, such as befell de-Ba’athification legislation.
Parliament continues to struggle to achieve a quorum due to the many legislators living outside Iraq or failing to attend, a situation made worse by the April 12 bombing of the parliament building. With the possible exception of the oil framework law, legislative milestones may well be missed by the recess, auguring a busy summer of committee work and a packed autumn agenda. This result will increase congressional pressure for a U.S. withdrawal.

Reconciliation shortfalls. Kurdish demands tend to be met in today’s Iraq; yet they are arguably antithetical to many Sunni Arab requirements. The Maliki government will fail to meet many of its commitments to the Sunni Arabs, furthering their resentment, and new legislation on Kirkuk could spark accelerated ethnic cleansing and serious sectarian conflict in north-central Iraq.

Cabinet reshuffle. After months of speculation, the actions of Iraqi factions suggest that a reshuffle may be close at hand. Maliki will face U.S. pressure to use his Cabinet posts to placate the Sunni Arabs, to reduce Sadrist presence in the government, and to appoint technocrats. Simultaneously, he will face intense pressure from UIA elements such as OMS and Fadhila to improve their representation at the expense of the Sunnis, likely resulting in a compromise suiting no one.

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