Mercurial Maliki on cusp of retaining power
By Sami Moubayed
DAMASCUS - After five months of political chaos, with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki presiding over a caretaker government, it seems that light is now emerging at the end of the very dim Iraqi tunnel.
Over the weekend, Maliki hammered out a deal with his former friend turned rival Muqtada al-Sadr, under the watchful eye of the Iranians. Reportedly, the deal says that the powerful Shi'ite leader will drop his veto over Maliki's continuation of the premiership, in exchange for turning a new page between Maliki and the Sadrists.
The prime minister would have to issue an amnesty setting hundreds of members of Muqtada's Mahdi Army free. Muqtada also wants him to grant the Sadrists greater representation and
more power within the government, with crucial ministries like the ones they held in 2006-2008 - Education, Commerce and Health.
Maliki will protect Muqtada from government persecution, allowing his men to maintain arms in the suburbs of Baghdad, while Muqtada will use his tremendous influence among young and poor people within the Shi'ite community to further legitimize and popularize the prime minister.
Iran has reportedly made it clear to all parties concerned in Baghdad, particularly within the Shi'ite community, that "failure in Iraq is a red line that cannot be crossed". As far as the Iranians are concerned, there are only two suitable candidates for the premiership. One is Adel Abdul Mehdi of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC), the other Maliki.
Former premier Iyad Allawi, reportedly, is no longer a serious option, having failed to come up with a cabinet since obtaining 91 seats in parliamentary elections in March. A consensus needs to be reached among Shi'ite politicians and needs approval of Muqtada, given that he controls 40 of the 70 seats of the Iraqi National Alliance (INA).
Although deep down Muqtada is not fond of Mehdi, Maliki or Allawi, if forced to choose he will likely choose Maliki. Twisting the arm of both Maliki and Muqtada into accepting a deal reminds us of a 2006 agreement between the men, which went along identical lines and worked perfectly well until falling apart because of the prime minister's ties to the George W Bush administration.
Regional heavyweights no doubt contributed to the positive momentum coming out of Iraq, with Syria having hosted Ammar al-Hakim of the SIIC last June, followed by Muqtada and Allawi within a 24-hour interval, this weekend, in Damascus.
According to this weekend's deal, Muqtada will give Maliki the benefit of the doubt and approve him as prime minister for a grace period of two weeks, waiting to see if an amnesty and real changes follow at a governmental level.
If Maliki backs out on any of his promises, Muqtada will withdraw support and bring down Maliki's cabinet. Both men have been instructed, however, not to fail. The Iranians after all, believe that each period since 2003 carries broad objectives.
The period 2003-2006, for example, aimed at solidifying Shi'ite power in the immediate post-Saddam Hussein era while 2006-2008 focused on empowering non-state Shi'ite players within Iraq
through the political process, to outbalance and eventually overshadow fundamentalist Sunni players like al-Qaeda.
Now, according to sources in Baghdad, 2010-2012 is an Iranian mission that's been being broadly coined "Getting the Americans out of Iraq". It focuses on filling the vacuum that will be left behind by the US departure before this is done by Saudi Arabia.
To do that, Iran needs to invest in a trustworthy prime minister who has been tested at the job. That means saying no to Mehdi, who is a newcomer, and Allawi, who speaks a language very different from what the Iranians like to hear in Iraq.
Having said that, Iran is implying loud and clear that it has no problem with empowering Allawi on the Iraqi scene, granting him any post that he desires - with the exception of the premiership - for now.
It is not opposed to his domestic program at repairing Iraqi society but feels that the time is not ripe for his assumption of power in Baghdad, regardless of the fact that he obtained a majority in the March elections.
One idea floating in Iraqi circles at this stage - thought to be the brainchild of the Americans - is to maintain Maliki as a powerful prime minister with Jamal Talabani, a Kurd, as a ceremonial president.
Usama al-Najefi, a member of parliament who is close to Allawi, would be given the post of speaker of parliament, while Allawi would be appointed president of the Political Council for National Security.
At first glance, this sounds like a ceremonial job for Allawi - making him a lion in a canary's cage, as some would say. The Americans reportedly believe that if a deal is hammered out between Iran and Saudi Arabia, they could empower the Political Council and grant it veto power, similar to that enjoyed by the Presidential Council and parliament.
It seems unlikely, however, that Iran would ever endorse such an idea unless it were the only way for Tehran to maintain Maliki as prime minister. Otherwise, there is nothing in it for Tehran. It is probably because such ideas are floating within the upper echelons of power in Baghdad that Iran stressed, more than ever since March, that Maliki and Muqtada needed to settle their differences, to come out with a suitable coalition cabinet that is accepted by the INA and Maliki's State of Law Coalition.
Maliki's 89 deputies and Muqtada's 40, however, are not enough for a 163-seat majority in parliament. It would be absolutely crucial for other parties in the INA, like the SIIC, to lend a helping hand to give the incumbent premier the majority he needs.