Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Political Turmoil in Baghdad

The tenuous authority of the Maliki government in Iraq is being tested on several fronts this morning.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and Tariq Hashimi, the country's Sunni vice president, faced each other across the room as the latter spoke angrily of the bad blood between Sunni and Shiite officials.

A hush fell over the room as Hashimi demanded to know whether the prime minister had been accusing his political bloc of being infiltrated by terrorists.

"Are you talking about us? If you are ... we would ask for proof," said Hashimi, according to his account of a recent closed-door meeting of Iraq's top political and national security officials. "I am treated as an opponent," he said, his voice rising. "If you continue treating me like this, it is better for me to quit."

Maliki sat in silence.

Iraq's government is teetering on the edge. Maliki's Cabinet is filled with officials who are deeply estranged from one another and more loyal to their parties than to the government as a whole. Some are jostling to unseat the prime minister. Few, if any, have accepted the basic premise of a government whose power is shared among each of Iraq's warring sects and ethnic groups.

Maliki is the man U.S. officials are counting on to bring Iraq's civil war under control, yet he seems unable to break the government's deadlock.

Even Maliki's top political advisor, Sadiq Rikabi, says he doubts the prime minister will be able to win passage of key legislation ardently sought by U.S. officials, including a law governing the oil industry and one that would allow more Sunni Arabs to gain government jobs. ...

Interviews with a broad range of Iraqi and Western officials paint a portrait of Maliki as an increasingly isolated and ineffectual figure, lacking in confidence and unable to trust people.

Iraq's intractable problems would challenge even the most skilled of politicians. But skilled politicians are in short supply here. Most of Iraq's current leaders grew to adulthood as members of underground militias, skilled in the arts of conspiracy, not compromise. And many of those leaders appear to believe that their side can still win a decisive military victory in the country's civil war. ...

A breaking point came in February when Maliki fired the head of the Sunni Waqf, or religious endowment, that maintains Baghdad's Sunni mosques. He acted without informing Hashimi after the endowment chief criticized the government.

Hashimi learned of the firing on the television news. "This is unacceptable," he said. "This is humiliating me in front of my constituency: the Sunni people."

By early May, Hashimi and Maliki had gone a month without speaking to each other. The vice president threatened to withdraw the Sunni bloc from the government. Maliki then called him in for a meeting. Both sides pledged greater cooperation, but Hashimi says nothing has changed.

And to make matters worse, an aide to the most respected Shiite religious leader has been assassinated:

A local representative of revered Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, the reclusive spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shia majority, was gunned down outside his home, Sistani's office and police said on Wednesday.

Raheem Al Hasnawi, who represented Sistani in the town of Al Mishkhab, 40 km (25 miles) south of the holy Shia city of Najaf, was killed late on Tuesday, they said. ...

Sistani is the sponsor of the ruling United Alliance bloc to which Prime Minister Nuri Al Maliki and other Shia political leaders belong.

He is acknowledged as the patron of a delicately structured Shia political movement which also includes anti-American cleric Moqtada Al Sadr's political movement.


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