Iraq Coalition Pact Hits Snags – Wall Street Journal
Last Updated on Friday, 12 November 2010 12:26 Written by admin Friday, 12 November 2010 12:26
By BEN LANDO, SAM DAGHER and MARGARET COKER
BAGHDAD—Iraqi lawmakers took the first steps of implementing a new agreement to establish a coalition government after an eight-month stalemate, but a chaotic dispute in parliament late Thursday underscored the fragility of the deal and the pitfalls ahead.
From left, Kurdish President Masoud Barzani, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Ayad Allawi in parliament Thursday.
The agreement would see Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, keep his job and establish his chief rival, Ayad Allawi, who leads a secular bloc that represents Iraq’s Sunnis, in a new post intended as a counterweight to Mr. Maliki. The deal keeps the presidency in the hands of Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani.
If the deal holds, Washington will have succeeded in one of its main aims: empowering Iraq’s Sunni minority with a significant stake in the government. U.S. officials hope that will take the wind out of Sunni-backed insurgent groups.
At the same time, Washington has had to accept a likely prominent role for some of its biggest Iranian-backed foes in the new government, including the anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Mr. Sadr’s political followers did well in March polls and, last month, joined forces with Mr. Maliki.
Mr. Allawi decided to accept the agreement after a phone call Thursday morning from President Barack Obama, according to two officials familiar with the situation. U.S. officials said Mr. Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have been in touch with Iraqi leaders over the past two weeks, offering to help tackle obstacles to a deal.
But a major obstacle to implementing the deal is the lingering acrimony and distrust among those slated to share power— and whose political movements are in many cases supported by militias or insurgent groups.
Late Thursday, after lawmakers had elected a speaker of parliament representing Mr. Allawi’s Iraqiya bloc, a vote for president was thwarted by shouting from Iraqiya members calling for lawmakers to vote on some of the bloc’s main preconditions for joining a coalition government.
The session quickly descended into an argument over what leaders had agreed to at a meeting just hours before.
Amid the chaos that followed, bodyguards fanned out in the chamber as Mr. Allawi and most members of Iraqiya stormed out.
“We agreed to vote on these issues before the president, in order to guarantee that this deal would be done,” said Saleh al-Mutlaq, a prominent leader in Mr. Allawi’s bloc. “Now we need to get international guarantees, because we are not going to trust them,” he said of his bloc’s prospective coalition partners.
Later, Mr. Allawi said Iraqiya wasn’t giving up. “Of course this is not the end, this is the beginning,” he said as he left parliament.
After the walkout, the remaining Shiite and Kurdish lawmakers re-elected President Talabani, who in turn gave Mr. Maliki a month to form a new government. That process includes handing out ministry posts—a process that could see Iraqiya and others threaten to quit if they don’t get what they expect.
The power-sharing deal, hammered out late Wednesday between Mr. Maliki’s State of Law alliance, Iraqiya and the powerful Kurdish Alliance, ended a political stalemate that began in March with parliamentary elections in which no one bloc won enough seats to claim a majority.
Iraqiya was promised the post of parliamentary speaker, which it secured Thursday, and the new post of chairman of a new advisory council. However, the new council, known as the National Council on Higher Policy, has yet to be written into law, and its functions and powers remain unknown. That ambiguity left some in the bloc concerned the new council head would occupy a purely ceremonial position.
Iraqiya officials said they would pull out of the deal after one month if lawmakers haven’t finalized the responsibilities of the advisory council and the power of its chairman—or made progress on a number of other demands.
These demands include the release of Sunnis arrested on vague accusations of terrorism and for supporting former leader Saddam Hussein, and reining in a controversial Shiite-led commission tasked with purging members of Mr. Hussein’s Baath Party from the government. Many Baath sympathizers backed Mr. Allawi’s bloc.
Iraqiya was the narrow winner of the March elections but has faced the possibility of being squeezed out of prominent government jobs as Mr. Maliki gained support from different blocs.
Former Iraqi prime minister Ayad Allawi, pictured on April 6, 2010, decided to accept a role in the power-sharing agreement.
The power-sharing deal also empowers Iraq’s Kurdish minority, which served as kingmaker in the tumultuous government-formation talks.
By backing Mr. Maliki, the Kurds are likely to expect big concessions in disputes with the federal government involving contested territory in northern Iraq and oil and natural-gas rights—often in conflict with Iraqiya supporters.
“Each one of us got some of his rights and what he deserves,” said Masoud Barzani, president of the northern Kurdish region and a mediator between Messrs. Maliki and Allawi.
Some Iraqi analysts don’t see a full government emerging until after the new year.
—Chip Cummins contributed to this article.
Write to Margaret Coker at email@example.com