Vice President Joseph Biden, the administration's most senior point official for Iraq, concluded a three-day visit to Baghdad, his seventeenth since the time he served as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. His most recent stay combined a patriotic visit with the troops to celebrate the July 4th Independence Day holiday, and a series of high-level discussions with the political leaders of Iraq about the prevailing stalemate in forming a new government – and specifically about how to break it. The stalemate is four months old, counting from March 7 when Iraq held the general parliamentary election.
By all indications, Biden was well received by Iraqi leaders. One exception was the mercurial young anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who continues to reside in Iran but exerts considerable influence on the political scene of his country through the approximately 40 members of parliament elected as part of the Iraqi National Alliance. Al-Sadr denounced Biden's visit, and some of his supporters demonstrated in the Sadr City neighborhood against the visit. As an exclamation point to the demonstrations, a Katyusha rocket landed on the backyard of the U.S. embassy in the Green Zone, allegedly fired from Sadr City. The Katyusha may have also been intended as a message from Iran that it is watching the visit closely and that it remains a key player in the Iraqi political process.
Ideas, not Proposals
American sources in Baghdad have been quoted as saying that Biden offered ideas, but not specific proposals. Two ideas in particular have been mentioned: The first idea is to rotate the post of prime minister between Nouri al-Maliki, the current prime minister of the caretaker government, and Ayad Allawi, the head of the Al-Iraqiya faction, with the largest number of seats in the new parliament. The second idea is to shift some of the powers from the prime minister to the president, in an attempt to reach a balance between the two without, at this stage, identifying who would ultimately occupy each of the two posts. Ali al-Dabbagh, the spokesman for the Iraqi government, confirmed that Biden "played a major role in closing the gap" between the positions of the two leading factions or political blocks - Allawi's Al-Iraqiya and al-Maliki's State of Law. Perhaps even more significantly, al-Dabbagh observed that "Washington is the most concerned [about the situation in Iraq] but it is the least interventionist in its affairs."
The Outcome and Consequences for the Kurds
One thing is certain: if the second idea should be adopted, the posts of prime minister and revamped post of the president will most likely go to al-Maliki and Allawi, not necessarily in this order, leaving the current Kurdish president, Jalal Talabani out in the cold. This may not please the Kurds but they will have to settle for the post of speaker of parliament, and perhaps be guaranteed some concessions in Kirkuk through the activation of Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution, which calls for holding a referendum in the city to determine its future. In fact, many Kurdish leaders, including Mas'oud Barazani, the president of Kurdistan Regional Government and perhaps the most powerful Kurdish leader, are on record that the Kurds would not be an impediment to any possible political arrangement that would bring together the two leading political factions. In fact, they would rather not take sides between Allawi and al-Maliki. The Kurds don't trust al-Maliki, but nor are they comfortable with the large nationalist Sunni elements in Allawi's faction, who are suspicious and even resentful of Kurdish aspirations. Our own judgment is that the presidency is significant for the Kurds for its prestige, but issues relating to Kurdish autonomy, Kirkuk, and their share of oil revenues, as well as their entitlements from new oil explorations in their region, are far more significant and vital to their interests than having a Kurd as president.
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Regardless of the final outcome of Biden's visit to Baghdad, his ability to get the parties interested in compromise was made easier by the mounting domestic pressures, including demonstrations in the southern provinces against the shortage of electric power, the deterioration of public services in general, the shortage of potable water in some sections of the country, the growing terrorist activities, the border shelling by both Turkey and Iran, and what appears to be a smoldering rebellion by Sunni elements in northern Iraq extending from the Iranian to the Syrian borders.
Adding to the pressure for political comprise is a constitutional requirement that the three so-called sovereign positions - namely those of the speaker of parliament, the president, and the prime minister - must be filled within a month from the date that the new parliament was summoned to its maiden meeting.
On the inter-party front two things are worth highlighting. First, the alliance between the State of Law and the Iraqi National Alliance seems to be foundering over al-Maliki's insistence that he remain the prime minister for a second term and the Alliance's assertion that al-Maliki should relinquish the post to a compromise candidate. In fact, shortly after Biden's departure, the five most significant elements in the Iraqi National Alliance have issued a joint statement that they would not accept al-Maliki as prime minister under any condition. Ammar al-Hakim, the head of the Alliance has also stated that he would not support "a failing government." As the discussions between the two groups reached a dead-end, the spokesman for al-Maliki, al-Dabbagh, announced that the negotiations between the two groups are postponed until further notice. Second, the London Arabic daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat reported, but there was no confirmation elsewhere, that al-Maliki has informed the head of the Iraqi National Alliance Ammar al-Hakim that he is about to enter into a new alliance with Allawi's Al-Iraqiya, the nature of which was not elaborated. We view many of these statements as political posturing.
Possible Outcome of the Allawi-al-Maliki Alliance
If such a political constellation, namely an al-Maliki-Allawi alliance, should materialize, Iraq will have moved from a strictly sectarian government, the Sunnis will exercise more weight in the new government than in any previous government since occupation, the United States will be satisfied with the outcome, Muqtada al-Sadr will be in opposition, Ahmad Chalabi's Commission for Justice and Accountability - which has sought to advance Chalabi's agenda - will be put to rest, and Iran will be left licking its wounds. But this is the picture today. In the uncertain politics of Iraq, a completely opposite picture could emerge tomorrow or the day after. Come what may, there is evidence that the Iraqi people are against Iran's naked intervention in the internal affairs of their country and a government that is nationalist in its orientation rather than a government closely allied with Iran will be welcomed.
In the words of one Iraqi observer, the fundamental problem currently lies in the fact that the Shi'a want to keep their power, the Kurds don't want to lose any, and the Sunnis want more.
Vice President Biden's visit may have helped create, while he was there, a sense of optimism about a breakthrough in the political stalemate. Judging by the number of contradictory statements and conflicting announcements that have continued to dominate the political atmosphere in Baghdad it is hard to say that the visit was a resounding success.
More bargaining and more surprises are in store.
* Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli is a senior analyst at MEMRI.
www.alfayhaa.tv, July 5, 2010; www.iraqhurr.org July 5, 2010; alsumaria.tv, July 5, 2010;al-Sharq al-Awsat, July 5, 2010;al-Hayat, July 5, 2010; al-Zaman, July 6, 2010; Al-Sharq al-Awsat, July 6, 2010; Alrafidayn, July 6, 2010; al-Mada, July 6, 2010;radionawa.com/ar July 6, 2010.