Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 2

Recap of last update:  The Institute for the Study of War’s last update on the emerging political crisis in Iraq described the timeline of events by which Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Baghdad Brigade surrounded Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi’s home in Baghdad.  It explained the escalating reactions of the Sunni parliamentarians and the prime minister, including the withdrawal of the Iraqiyya party from parliament, the issuing of an arrest warrant for Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, and his flight from Baghdad to Arbil in the Kurdish region. It also covered Diyala province’s decision to declare itself a federal region. 

Crisis escalates in Iraqi Media:  Maliki and his opponents have engaged in a war of public opinion this week.  Iraqi state television broadcast the coerced confessions of the bodyguards of Vice President Hashemi which Prime Minister Maliki used to obtain the warrant for his arrest. In response, Iraqiyya leader Ayad Allawi stated that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was becoming like Saddam and that confessions accusing Hashemi of involvement in terrorism acts were “fabricated.” Hashemi has strongly rejected the charges that his office ran a hit squad that killed Iraqi officials, saying it was a smear campaign fabricated against him. Hashemi spoke to reporters while in Arbil on Tuesday December 20th. He suggested the involvement of “neighboring countries” with political agendas, most likely referring to Iran. A spokesman for the Iraqi Islamic Party, Hashemi’s former party, criticized the attacks on their former leader.

Maliki Confronts the Kurds:  The Baghdad Operations Center (BOC) has called on Kurdish forces to arrest Hashemi.  According to a statement by the BOC, “Security forces are bound by implementing judicial orders to arrest the accused Tariq al-Hashemi across the country without exceptions.” Hashemi said he was ready to prove his innocence in a court in the Kurdish region, saying that judges in Iraq are unreliable and were under the influence of political parties.  Iraqi President Jalal Talabani reportedly gave Hashemi assurance that he would be responsible for his security, for which the latter thanked him.

Maliki Abuses the Constitution:  On Tuesday December 21st, Maliki sacked Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, who had criticized Maliki as moving the country towards a dictatorship during a CNN interview the previous week. Maliki cited Article 78 of the Iraq Constitution as a legal basis for removing Mutlaq. The article states that the prime minister reserves the right to dismiss ministers in his cabinet with the consent of parliament, which Maliki may choose to define as a plurality of the lawmakers in attendance on account of the ambiguity of the language. Because Iraqiyya had suspended its participation in parliament, Maliki believed he would have the plurality of lawmakers in any vote that took place.  The Iraqi Parliament is in recess, however, and has not actually voted no-confidence in its Deputy Prime Minister.  Maliki has therefore removed Mutlaq through fiat, not through constitutional process.

Maliki Calls for a De-Facto Sectarian Majority Government:  On Wednesday December 22nd, Prime Minister Maliki gave a press conference in which he asserted the role of the Prime Minister as the chief executive in Iraq. He also suggested that he might abandon the national partnership government in favor of a political majority.  Such a move would sideline Iraqiyya, and consequently Iraq’s Sunni community would view it as an effort by the Shi’a to marginalize them. The new government could also include members of the Iranian-backed militant group Asaib Ahl al-Haq, which agreed on Wednesday to join the political process. The Maliki government has also announced that they were investigating allegations that Minister of Finance Rafa al-Issawi was linked to terrorist activity in Fallujah.

The political crisis escalated further following a series of major explosions throughout Baghdad on Thursday December 22nd. Car bombs and other improvised explosive devices detonated in Sunni and Shi’a neighborhoods throughout Baghdad, killing more than sixty and injuring close to two hundred more in the worst attack in more than a year. It is not known who is behind the attack, and no group has claimed responsibility. Nujaifi called for an emergency session of parliament for Friday December 23rd, but this was later cancelled as reports surfaced that the National Alliance, the Shi’a parliamentary coalition comprised of the State of Law and the Iraqi National Alliance, would not meet until the Iraqiyya list lifted its boycott of cabinet and parliament meetings. The deadly attacks heightened fears of a return to sectarian conflict and worsened the political standoff. The next day, a representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani blamed Iraq’s political squabbles for worsening security situation. Thousands of protesters also demonstrated in the predominantly Sunni areas of Samarra, Ramadi, Bayji and Qaim against Prime Minister Maliki and his moves against the Iraqiyya leaders. In Baghdad, roughly 500 people protested in Baghdad’s central Tahrir Square, calling for Hashemi’s arrest.

American Response in Baghdad:  U.S. officials have attempted to de-escalate the crisis, urging Maliki to reconsider the Hashemi arrest warrant and pressuring Iraqiyya to rejoin the government. CIA Director David Petraeus reportedly visited Baghdad and met with both Maliki and Iraqiyya senior officials, including Council of Representatives Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi and Minister of Finance Rafa al-Issawi, on Monday December 19th.  Vice President Biden spoke with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani on Thursday, following calls with Maliki and Nujaifi earlier in the week. U.S. Army Chief of Staff and former Commander of Multi-National Force-Iraq General Raymond T. Odierno met with Nujaifi and Maliki in Baghdad. U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Jim Jeffrey has also met with a number of Iraqi leaders. Yet, American efforts have been unable to diffuse the political crisis, which continues to worsen.

Possible Courses of Action

Maliki Continues to Escalate: Maliki has shown no indication that he will back down. He has instead escalated the conflict through his moves against Hashemi and Mutlaq (a course of action predicted in the last ISW update). Despite U.S. efforts to restore Iraqi politics to the status quo ante of a national unity, this is an unlikely outcome as the political realities in Iraq have changed dramatically. If Maliki were to back down, he would likely face a concerted push for his removal by his rivals. His likeliest course of action is to escalate again. This might entail bringing charges against other Iraqiyya leaders, such as Issawi or Nujaifi. He might also use the recent bombings to launch an even wider scale arrest campaign. Maliki could also position forces in the areas that have expressed their intent to federalize. This might include a build-up along the Green Line aimed at intimidating Kurdish leaders from allying against the prime minister.

The Kurdish Response: The Kurds can have a primary role in de-escalating the conflict, or they might use the crisis to advance their interests, possibly including a bid for independence. The Kurdish bloc in parliament is an important swing vote that could restore or pull confidence from the prime minister and deputy prime minister. Without Kurdish support, Maliki’s majority in the parliament is razor thin, but the Kurds and Iraqiyya alone are insufficient to form a majority. They would need to pull elements from one of the two Shi’a blocs, as well as minority seats, to achieve the 163 seats required for a majority. The Kurds are unlikely to be able to bring a no confidence vote against Maliki in the short term. They can also make it hard for Maliki to get the votes he would need to remove Mutlaq with an absolute majority, rather than a manipulated plurality.

To review, the parliamentary blocs break out as follows: Maliki’s State of Law Coalition holds 89 seats. The Iraqi National Alliance is holds seventy seats total. It is comprised of the Sadrist Trend, which holds forty seats, and other Shi’a parties, including the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (nine seats), Badr (nine seats), Fadilah (seven seats), the National Reform Trend (one seat), the Iraqi National Congress (one seat), and three other individuals. The Iraqiyya list won 91 seats, but eight members broke from the list to form White Iraqiyya. The Iraqi Islamic Party and Unity of Iraq list formed the Wasat alliance post-election and control ten seats in the parliament. They are close to Iraqiyah. The Kurdish bloc has 57 seats total, and while there are several Kurdish parties they generally vote together. There are also eight seats in the parliament dedicated to ethnic minorities.

De-Escalation: It is conceivable that through international pressure or internal political negotiations the current crisis could de-escalate. However, this would require a level of trust between political parties that does not exist, especially now that Maliki has actually tried to remove Iraqiyya leadership from his administration. To restore a political accommodation that includes both Maliki and Iraqiyya leaders will require a number of difficult actions to reduce the power of the executive and reverse the policies that allowed Maliki to concentrate power. This would include a demobilization of the Baghdad Brigade and other units that report directly to the prime minister’s office, a restoration of Sunni and Kurdish officers in the security and intelligence forces, confidence-building releases of those detained in mass arrests, and some guarantee that Prime Minister Maliki will not issue or enforce arrest warrants against his rivals. There is no reason to believe that Maliki would agree to such moves unless his opposition had a viable vote of no confidence.

For a comprehensive look at the first two months since U.S. troops left Iraq, read Ramzy Mardini's backgrounder, " Iraq's Recurring Political Crisis."  To read a transcript from the Feb. 29 event "Policing Iraq," click here, and to read a transcript from the Feb. 16 event "Iraq After the U.S. Withdrawal," click here. To read past and future weekly updates, click here.