December 27, 2011 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 779

In Iraq, Sectarian Tensions in Government Threaten Maliki Coalition

December 27, 2011 | By Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli*
Iraq | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 779

U.S. soldier riding a tank labeled "Occupation" bids farewell to "Iraqi Government," personified by knife-fighting Iraqi VP Al-Hashemi (right) and PM Al-Maliki (left)[1]


With the dust hardly settled following the departure of the last U.S. troops from Iraq on December 17, 2011, a political crisis of major proportions has erupted, threatening to renew sectarian conflict and undermine Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki's fragile coalition. Underlying the crisis are allegations of terrorism against the country's vice president, Tareq Al-Hashemi, a Sunni politician and member of the Al-Iraqiyya political bloc led by former prime minister Ayad Allawi. An arrest warrant has, in fact, been issued by the High Court, but Al-Hashemi has found his way to safety in Iraqi Kurdistan, where he for the moment remains a "guest" of Iraq's President Jalal Talabani.

Underlying Causes of the Crisis

The most recent Iraqi general election took place in March 2010, and was by most standards fair and transparent. However, it resulted in a stalemate between Al-Maliki's Al-Da'wa Party, which is overwhelmingly Shi'ite, and a coalition of primarily Sunni groups called Al-Iraqiyya, led, as mentioned, by Ayad Allawi. Neither of the two major contenders was willing to cede the top rung of Iraq's political ladder to the other, resulting in an impasse in forming a new government – one which lasted through November of that year, when a new government was formed on the basis of a power-sharing agreement, crafted by Masood Barazani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

Under the agreement, Al-Maliki retained the premiership, and Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, his post as president, while Ayad Allawi was to preside over a curious body called the High Council for Strategic Policies, purportedly meant to shape the country's strategic policies, both military and economic. Al-Iraqiyya, Allawi's political bloc, was assigned the vice presidency, to which they appointed Tareq Al-Hashemi, as well as the ministry of defense – one of the two security ministries, the other being the ministry of interior, which is in charge of the national police and was to be assigned to a Shi'ite politician. The agreement formulated by Barazani has come to be known as the Erbil Agreement, having been finalized in Erbil, the capital city of the KRG.

Once confirmed by parliament as prime minister, Al-Maliki sought to water down the responsibilities of the body to be presided over by Allawi, by insisting that it be restricted to a purely advisory role and demanding that it include numerous government officials, thus making the body unmanageable and hence useless. Al-Maliki went one step further by keeping the two security ministries – defense and interior – under his control, serving as acting minister for both. Numerous candidates submitted by Allawi for the ministry of defense were rejected by Al-Maliki as unqualified. On numerous occasions the Al-Iraqiyya bloc threatened to withdraw its support for the government, but Al-Maliki did not deem these threats credible, and was ultimately proven right.[2] In short, Allawi was completely outmaneuvered by Al-Maliki, who let him twist in the wind. Nonetheless, the crisis in the government did not abate.

The Crisis Gathers Momentum

Claiming that Al-Maliki had marginalized it, Al-Iraqiyya announced, following a meeting of its leaders in Al-Hashemi's home, to suspend its participation in the parliament effective December 17, which coincided with the day of Al-Maliki's departure for a crucial meeting with American President Barack Obama, on the eve of the final withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. A spokesman for Al-Iraqiyya, Hayder Al-Mulla, explained the suspension as a response to the manner in which Al-Maliki was running the country. He asserted Al-Iraqiyya's determination to reform the political process, which he said was being dominated by "solitary leadership [coupled with] a dictatorial style." Al-Mulla also raised the issue of Al-Maliki's failure to implement "legitimate agreements [i.e., the Erbil Agreement] and to resolve the issue of appointing ministers to the security portfolios." The spokesman also denounced a spate of random but widespread arrests of alleged Ba'thist officials across the country under the pretext of thwarting Ba'thist plans for a coup.[3] Three days later, following the issue of a court order to arrest Vice President Al-Hashemi, Al-Iraqiyya announced that it would boycott all cabinet meetings. The announcement was made by Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Al-Mutlak, who was subsequently fired by Al-Maliki and refused access to the cabinet room.[4]

Iraqi High Court Orders Al-Hashemi's Arrest

On December 19, acting at the behest of the interior ministry (as indicated earlier, Al-Maliki is also the acting interior minister), five judges from the Iraqi High Court issued a warrant for the arrest of Al-Hashemi under Iraq's anti-terrorism law. Prior to issuing the arrest warrant, the Iraqi authorities ordered the vice president not to leave Iraq. Under Article 4 of Iraq's anti-terrorism law, it should be noted, those convicted of acts of terrorism are subject to the death penalty.[5]

To bolster the case against Al-Hashemi, on December 19, the Iraqi government's TV channel[6] aired live interviews with three members of the alleged terrorist network to which Al-Hashemi has been linked. The three "confessed" their involvement in the conspiracy and implicated Al-Hashemi, whom they alleged directed them to carry out bombings and assassinations in Baghdad. One of those interviewed, Ahmad Shawqi, who is among the vice president's bodyguards, claimed that Al-Hashemi had instructed him to meet with and receive instructions from his bureau chief, Ahmad Qahtan (who happens to be Al-Hashemi's son-in-law). Qahtan allegedly supplied Shawqi with weapons in order to carry out attacks, the first of which was a bombing carried out in 2009 in northern Baghdad. As recompense for the operation, Shawqi was purportedly awarded a gift of $3,000 by Al-Hashemi himself.[7]

While there is no way of verifying or discrediting the accounts given by these witnesses, doubts should be raised whenever individuals allegedly implicated in crimes offer public "confessions" on government-owned media, whether written or visual, prior to proper legal procedure. Moreover, the acts of terrorism mentioned took place nearly three years before the arrest warrant was issued. At the time, Al-Maliki was aware of the allegations against Al-Hashemi but agreed with President Talabani, following a judicial review, that there were no grounds for a case against the vice president.[8]

To contain the impending crisis, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani invited his two vice presidents, Al-Hashemi and Khudhair Al-Khazza'i, to meet with him in the city of Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan. By orders from the prime minister, the official plane that was to carry the two to their destination was kept grounded at Baghdad Airport for three hours. Following phone conversations between Talabani and Al-Maliki, the plane was allowed to take off, with the understanding that Talabani would, if necessary, guarantee Al-Hashemi's return to Baghdad in order to face trial.[9] While Al-Hashemi was cleared to proceed to Sulaymaniyah, his office in the Green Zone was raided and his computers confiscated. Al-Hashemi's office remains under the army's control.[10]

Al-Hashemi Speaks Out

In a press conference held in Erbil, Al-Hashemi claimed that the allegations of his involvement in terrorist activities had been fabricated and timed to coincide with the departure of U.S. forces, as a means of forcing Al-Iraqiyya out of the government. He further claimed that foreign governments, which he later named as Iran and Syria, were behind the attempts to discredit him. He argued that the Iraqi judicial system was completely politicized, adding that he was ready to stand trial in KRG so long as representatives of the Arab League and other Arab judicial bodies were present to ensure a fair trial.[11]

In a subsequent, more in-depth interview with Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, Al-Hashemi asked why, if his case were criminal, the prime minister should involve himself in it rather than allowing due judicial process to take its course. He said that he was continuing to carry out his duties as vice president from Suleimaniya, and that he considered himself free to travel outside Iraq should his presence be needed abroad. He stressed that he was not an employee of the prime minister and was under no obligation to follow his orders.[12]

The Reaction of the Kurdish Leadership

President Talabani, who arranged for Al-Hashemi to proceed to Sulaymaniyah, described the arrest warrant against the latter as having been issued hastily and without consideration for political agreements or the dignity and status of the presidency.[13] Talabani maintained that he was the last one to know about the pending arrest of his vice president.[14] A statement subsequently issued by the presidential bureau pointed out that Al-Hashemi was Talabani's guest and that he would present himself to the court when procedures were established to guarantee the fairness of the trial. The statement stressed that only the courts could determine the case against Al-Hashemi.[15]

Masood Barazani, who brokered the partnership agreement that facilitated the establishment of Al-Maliki's government, warned against the "collapse" of the political process in Iraq. After meeting with former deputy prime minister Al-Mutlak, recently fired by Al-Maliki, and Minister of Finance Issawi, Barazani issued a statement to the press that read: "The situation is heading toward a severe crisis, and partnership in the government is being threatened." He called on all parties to reconsider their staunch positions and adhere to previous agreements.[16] It was clear that the message was addressed to Al-Maliki.

Al-Maliki has called on the Kurdish leaders to hand over Al-Hashemi for trial in Baghdad, promising him a fair trial like that afforded "the dictator of Iraq, Saddam Hussein."[17] Linking Al-Hashemi's anticipated trial to that of Saddam Hussein demonstrates poor judgment and a lack of sensitivity on Al-Maliki's part. It is doubtful, however, that the Kurds would hand over Al-Hashemi as they have had their own disagreements with Al-Maliki, specifically regarding their share in oil revenues and the status of Kirkuk and the so-called "disputed territories." Al-Maliki has warned the Kurds against facilitating any attempt by Al-Hashemi to seek asylum abroad, warning that this would create problems for the Kurds, though he did not elaborate on this point.[18] The threats, in any case, can be considered empty since Al-Maliki lacks the means to force the Kurds to surrender Al-Hashimi.

The Threat of Sectarian Conflict

The absence of a national consensus in Iraq is bound to exacerbate the existing political conflict, which is acquiring an increasingly sectarian flavor. The Sunnis have often argued that the ongoing efforts to arrest former Ba'thists under de-Ba'thfication law has, in reality, turned into a process of "de-Sunnification," – a factor "largely responsible for the swelling of the ranks of the Sunni Arab insurgency."[19] The attempt to arrest and try Al-Hashemi, a key Sunni political figure, alongside the concurrent dismissal of Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Al-Mutalk, has intensified Sunni protest against Al-Maliki. In fact, the Sunnis argue that the two cases are intertwined and meant to strengthen the Shi'ite grip on the levers of government.[20]

As a reminder that the political crisis in Iraq could trigger a sectarian conflict similar to the one that rocked the country in 2006-2007, leaving thousands of Iraqis dead on both sides, 16 simultaneous explosions shook the Iraqi capital three days after the arrest warrant was issued against Al-Hashemi. As a result of these acts of violence, which reportedly struck in predominantly Shi'ite areas, at least 69 Iraqis were killed and another 200 wounded. Iraqi officials were quick to describe the attacks as "a political message driven by the current crisis between Al-Maliki and Vice President Tareq Al-Hashemi, whom Al-Maliki has accused of terrorism." Al-Maliki issued a statement saying that "the timing of these crimes and the choice of locations once more confirm to all skeptics the political nature of the objectives [of the attacks]."[21] Iran's mouthpiece in Iraq, Shi'ite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, characterized the attacks in Baghdad as "American terrorist explosions under official international cover and international silence."[22]

A Possible End to the Crisis

Seeing himself faced with a potentially fatal conflict on two key political fronts – namely with Al-Iraqiyya and the Kurdish alliance – Al-Maliki hastily backed down. A laconic statement issued on December 25 by the same High Court that issued the arrest warrant against Al-Hashemi only a few days earlier said the warrant was based on an investigation carried out by a single judge, and that a five-judge panel would now review his findings. Shortly thereafter, a spokesman for Al-Maliki announced that his Islamic Da'wa Party respected the integrity of the judicial process and would abide by it, even if it declared Al-Hashemi's innocence.[23] Just a day later, the same five-judge panel issued another order confirming the effectiveness of the warrant for the arrest of al-Hashemi.[24]


The recent events in Iraq underscore the following points:

  • The fragility of the political system and process in Iraq, and the general sectarian division of its government institutions. A recent visitor from Baghdad told this author: "The word watani [nationalist] has disappeared from the political lexicon in the country. In today's Iraq, one identifies with one's sectarian community or with one's tribe." Political consensus in the country is weak to nonexistent.
  • Nouri Al-Maliki has repeated his threats to establish "a political majority" in place of a national unity government, a code for a Shi'ite government, which would further alienate the Sunni minority and push them inexorably into the arms of violent resistance groups. At the same time, there are Shi'ite militias armed and supported by Iran that would exploit the mayhem in Iraq to increase their influence on and involvement in its domestic affairs. The possibility of an armed conflict not unlike the civil war that rocked Iraq in 2006-2007 cannot be discounted.
  • There were hints in some Iraqi dailies that Al-Maliki might seek to amend the country's constitution and introduce a presidential system of government. With no parliament to contend with, it was claimed, "president" Al-Maliki would wield enormous political power toward silencing his critics.
  • The new situation in Iraq is a serious challenge, if not a downright embarrassment, for President Obama, who, on the eve of the departure of the last U.S. forces, declared, "We have left behind a stable country." The Iraqis answered his greetings with "a tsunami" of political discord.[25] The attempt by Vice President Joseph Biden to contain the conflict has not been a greatly successful one. Al-Maliki has a difficult task ahead of him in navigating between the United States and Iran, two mortal enemies that are each seeking to assert its influence in the country.
  • Al-Maliki and the Al-Iraqiyya bloc disagree over the issue of Iraq's support for Bashar Al-Assad's regime in Syria. The question arises of whether Al-Maliki's attempt to free himself of Al-Iraqiyya, and particularly Finance Minister Issawi, may have been driven by a hidden agenda to provide financial support to the Syrian regime, which Issawi would have prevented.

* Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli is a senior analyst at MEMRI.


[1] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), December 22, 2011.

[2], July 20, 2011.

[3], December 17, 2011. Those arrested were residents of primarily Sunni provinces in northern and western Iraq. See Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, December 20, 2011.

[4], December 20, 2011;, December 20, 2011.

[5] Al-Arab (Qatar), December 20, 2011.

[6] The channel is also known as Al-Iraqiyya.

[7], December 19, 2011.

[8] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 26, 2011

[9] Al-Zaman (Iraq), December 19, 2011.

[10], December 20, 2011.

[11], December 20, 2011.

[12] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 26, 2011.

[13], December 21, 2011.

[14], December 22, 2011.

[15], December 25, 2011.

[16] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 20, 2011.

[17] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), December 21, 2011.

[18] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), December 21, 2011.

[19] The term "de-Sunnification" was introduced by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi in "Assessing the Surge in Iraq." See, December 22, 2011.

[20] Al-Arab (Qatar), December 24, 2011.

[21] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 23, 2011.

[22] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 24, 2011.

[23] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 26, 2011.

[24] December 27, 2011

[25], December 22, 2011.

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