Rafe al-Essawi found himself at the center of an inflating media bubble as his convoy rolled by Samarra, where al-Qaeda’s 2006 destruction of the Al ‘Askarī Mosque nearly plunged Iraq into outright civil war. Barely two days had passed since The New York Times profiled an ongoing struggle between Iraq’s Prime Minister and Finance Minister, creating the impression that someone didn’t want him to return to Baghdad. The Times was also following up its own scathing op-ed from al-Essawi, Iraqiya leader Ayad Allawi and Osama al-Nujaifi, Iraq’s Parliamentary Speaker.
The timing between these reports and last Sunday’s IED blast outlined the factors currently at work.
Given that an IED doesn’t necessary select its target, laying immediate blame on al-Maliki’s government would extend beyond the available forensic evidence. Yet a well-placed IED also offers an ideal masking agent for political assassination, provided that its traces are scrubbed by security forces. Confusion quickly escalated after Salahuddin Operations Command denied “any security breach,” prompting local police to accuse Baghdad of “hiding” the blast.
Salahuddin’s regional authorities declared autonomy under Iraq’s constitution in October 2011, citing interference from the central government. al-Maliki is staunchly opposed to Sunni autonomous regions.
Cautious of sparking another political battle with limited information, al-Essawi held the government accountable for “a violated security situation” and requested an investigation from the Ministry of Interior. However al-Essawi is acutely aware of the target on his head - he remains a backbone of Iraqiy’a suspended boycott - along with the fact that al-Maliki maintains control of the Interior. He could be reserving an official accusation until Baghdad’s political crisis enters its next stage.
al-Maliki’s government has, for the moment, averted political catastrophe by placing Iraqiya on leave rather than firing the Sunni bloc. The move follows his threat to replace Iraqiya with his own allies, conjuring an illusion of progress. Al-Maliki's spokesman, Ali al-Moussawi, told reporters that “steps are being taken to try to persuade the Iraqiya lawmakers to return.” If and when they do, Baghdad is expected to hold a national dialogue mediated by the Kurds and sponsored by Washington.
"The political process, in spite of all the weaknesses it suffers, is still the only solution," Nujaifi said during a televised address on Monday. "The national conference that (Iraqi President) Jalal Talabani has called for is the right way to resolve the crisis, and we hope it will succeed."
However many obstacles remain in the path of a stable, equitable government. The Kurds refuse to hand Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi over to al-Maliki after being charged with funding a Sunni death squad, and “are not happy about being dragged into the dispute between Sunnis and Shiites.” The three sides have yet to agree on a meeting place to hold negotiations, with al-Maliki pushing for Hashimi’s return to Baghdad. Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish regional government, also rejected a political alliance supposedly explored by al-Maliki’s coalition.
“This would be the most dangerous step,” he warns. “It has to be a partnership between the Shias, the Sunnis and the Kurds. Anything contrary to that would be disastrous.”
Meanwhile the Sunnis have assumed their position out of necessity, not because they seek a compromise with al-Maliki. Not wishing to abandoned Iraq’s central government to al-Maliki or instigate a sectarian crisis, Iraqiya still hopes to change Baghdad from the inside. They see no compromise to broker; al-Maliki must relinquish the authority that he illegally maintained after 2010’s power-sharing agreement. Although supportive of national reconciliation, Nujaifi held a televised address to declare, "Human rights have not been achieved amid the deteriorating of the political process in Iraq."
His joint op-ed with Allawi and al-Essawi came with a list of political demands: “Mr. Maliki’s office must stop issuing directives to military units, making unilateral military appointments and seeking to influence the judiciary; his national security adviser must give up complete control over the Iraqi intelligence and national security agencies, which are supposed to be independent institutions but have become a virtual extension of Mr. Maliki’s Dawa party; and his Dawa loyalists must give up control of the security units that oversee the Green Zone and intimidate political opponents.”
In spite of the mounting popular pressure against al-Maliki, Iraq’s Premier is unlikely to back down without the addition of external pressure. Nor will Sunnis be convinced by al-Maliki’s words - they must see concrete action towards national unity and power sharing. Understanding the need for outside assistance, Iraqiya’s political face welcomed Washington’s support for “another national conference to resolve the crisis.” Now the Obama administration must pursue a genuine policy of national reconciliation, a response that has yet to develop since 2010’s parliamentary election.
“The United States must make clear that a power-sharing government is the only viable option for Iraq and that American support for Mr. Maliki is conditional on his fulfilling the Erbil agreement and dissolving the unconstitutional entities through which he now rules. Likewise, American assistance to Iraq’s army, police and intelligence services must be conditioned on those institutions being representative of the nation rather than one sect or party.”
Counterproductive as increased publicity may appear, the White House must intensify its diplomacy and step deeper into Iraq’s political crisis. Tasking Vice President Joe Biden to coordinate a “dialogue” represents a failure in public diplomacy; Washington is too deep into al-Maliki’s regime to feign neutrality. The problem isn’t a failure to extend the presence of U.S. troops, as Hashimi observed: “It’s not that they left too early. In fact, they left too late. The problem is what they have left behind.”
American favoritism for al-Maliki is the root of U.S. instability.
“We are glad that your brave soldiers have made it home for the holidays and we wish them peace and happiness. But as Iraq once again teeters on the brink, we respectfully ask America’s leaders to understand that unconditional support for Mr. Maliki is pushing Iraq down the path to civil war.”
Last month U.S. officials heralded a “new opportunity” as the last combat troops exited Iraq, seemingly oblivious to al-Maliki’s ongoing consolidation of power. The Obama administration has yet to abandon this political narrative despite a vocal Sunni reaction to al-Maliki’s reception at the White House, and the subsequent crisis surrounding Hashimi, Deputy Premier Saleh al-Mutlak and Iraqiya in general. Ultimately the White House doesn’t want to be seen as active because its officials want Iraq to fade away, but this process will keep the war in U.S. consciousness.
“Unless America acts rapidly to help create a successful unity government,” Iraqiya’s leadership warns, “Iraq is doomed.”