US vice-president attempts to end Iraq's political impasse


Four months on from elections, Iraq is moving in slow motion towards forming its government, writes Michael Jansen

US VICE-president Joe Biden has continued to meet Iraqi leaders in Baghdad, urging them to speed up the formation of a government four months after the landmark parliamentary election.

He held discussions yesterday with President Jalal Talabani and Ammar al-Hakim, head of the pro-Iranian Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC) which formed an electoral bloc with the movement loyal to radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

This bloc united with prime minister Nuri al-Maliki’s State of Law with the aim of forming a government.

But this grouping has been unable to choose a candidate for prime minister. State of Law insists that only Mr Maliki can fill that post while SIIC and the Sadrists reject him. Ahead of his meeting with Mr Biden, Mr Hakim unleashed a verbal onslaught against Mr Maliki, saying the “country’s interests are more important than personal interests”.

Although this alliance has 159 seats, four short of a majority in the 325-member assembly, it cannot, under the 2005 constitution, be regarded as a political entity unless it has a chairman. SIIC and the Sadrists have so far prevented Mr Maliki from assuming leadership.

They orchestrated mass protests against lengthy power outages, forcing the resignation of the electricity minister. Senior SIIC figures met in Damascus with prominent members of the outlawed Baath party and agreed to block Mr Maliki’s return.

This means Iyad Allawi, whose Iraqiya bloc won most seats, remains the only legitimate candidate for the premiership. But he has only 91 seats. Both SIIC and State of Law have, so far, rejected a coalition with Iraqiya, which is secular and Sunni. Neither wants to loosen the sectarian Shia grip on power, established after the 2003 US occupation.

But State of Law may change its mind. It is reported from Baghdad that it and Iraqiya could join forces, giving them a secure 180 seats. Such a coalition is likely to adopt a strong centralist line by resisting Kurdish demands for expansion of the Kurdish autonomous region at the expense of neighbouring Arab majority provinces and the SIIC’s call for the creation of a Shia autonomous region in the south.

SIIC condemned such a coalition as an “American plot” and Kurdish regional president Massoud Barzani called for a national unity government of all factions. An Iraqi source said a coalition between SOL and Iraqiya could be “very, very dangerous” because SIIC, the Sadrists and the Kurds have militias which can be used to fight the government.

Meanwhile, the post-election political process, as laid down in the constitution, has stalled. parliament, which was convened on June 14th for deputies to take the oath of office and remains in open session because it was unable to elect a speaker on that date. On July 14th, parliament is meant to name a president or three-man presidential council. But these posts cannot be filled until the shape of the new government is decided.

An Iraqi quipped that if Mr Biden seriously wants to break the deadlock, he should go to Takrit and dig up Saddam Hussein.