As Americans leave, Iraq faces domestic crisis

Prime Minister Al-Maliki moves against two coalition partners.

US soldiers leaving Iraq 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
US soldiers leaving Iraq 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In the annals of coalition disputes, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki’s government is setting new standards: In the space of three days, his government leaked plans to arrest Vice President Taqiq Al-Hashimi on charges of terrorism, caused a key ally to begin boycotting parliament and sought permission to dismiss Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Al-Mutlak.
Both Al-Hashimi and Al-Mutlak are Sunnis who sit uncomfortably in a coalition dominated by Shiites like Al-Maliki that has held together largely by pressure from Washington and Tehran. But as American’s role in Iraq has diminished, sectarian disputes and naked power struggles are coming to the fore of the country’s politics, creating a volatile situation at a time when the country faces surging violence and the threat of increased Iranian intervention.
RELATED:Last convoy of US soldiers leaves IraqIraq sends delegation to Syria for crisis talksThe events of the last few days come in sharp contrast to the optimism broadcast by US President Barack Obama when Al-Maliki visited the US last week to mark the withdrawal and signals the challenges ahead both for Baghdad and Washington.
“We are leaving behind a sovereign, stable, and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people,” Obama said last Wednesday.
“Only days after Maliki’s Washington photo-op and with the US withdrawal formally sealed, Iraqi politics is alive again – but for all the wrong reasons,” Reidar Visser, an Iraq expert based in Norway, said in a comment called “Towards Full Political Disintegration in Iraq?”
 “Perhaps the most troubling aspect in all of this is that Maliki is targeting people with a record for compromise. Both Al-Mutlak and Al-Hashemi have at times taken chances with their own constituencies for the sake of cooperating within the Iraqi political system,” Visser said.
But as the last US convoy was traveling the road to Kuwait at dawn -- secretly to prevent attacks by militants - a bomb placed under a pile of garbage exploded on a street in eastern Baghdad killed two people and served as a reminder that while violence has declined from its peak in 2006 and 2007 the militant groups responsible for it remain active.
Meanwhile, Al-Maliki’s actions seemed to be striking at Iraq’s nascent democracy. While his government quickly backtracked on the terrorism charges against Al-Hashimi, saying that a judicial committee would first explore the allegations, it nevertheless kept up the pressure on the vice president and deputy prime minister.
Officially seeking the intervention of leaders in the semi-autonomous Kurdish north, the two flew to Kurdistan on Sunday night. But Baghdad was rife with speculation that the two were seeking refuge. Before Al-Hashimi could leave he was briefly escorted off the plane and two of his bodyguards were arrested for “suspected terrorist activity.”
Tanks have been deployed outside the homes of Al-Hashimi, Al-Mutlak and a third Sunni politician, their guns pointed toward the gates of the houses to eliminate any pretense that they are there to defend the occupants. On Monday, state television said Al-Hashimi was banned from traveling abroad. The Washington Post that more soldiers and armored vehicles were on streets all over Baghdad in recent days.
Al-Matlak said the move to dismiss him from the government is due to comments he made in a CNN interview last week calling the prime minister the “biggest dictator ever” and comparing him unfavorably to Saddam Hussein. Al-Matlak has been accused of supporting Saddam’s Baathist Party, which is officially banned but remains the object of concern to the government.
Those fears were fanned in October by alleged intelligence from Libya’s interim government, which asserted that former Baath leaders were planning a coup. That sparked a wave of arrests of mostly Sunnis, prompting charges that Al-Maliki was using the report to engage in a political crackdown.
Al-Matlak for now is safe after Al-Maliki failed to get a quorum in parliament, which will reconvene on January 3. Visser termed the failure a “symbolic blow” and attributed it to Kurdish lawmakers, who he said may be seeking either to clip the prime minister’s wings or hold out for something in exchange for their support.
Al-Maliki’s government sits on top of sectarian and ethnic divide that pits Iraq’s majority Shiites against the Sunnis who dominated the country during the Saddam years. Iraqi leaders are elected, but the voice of the voters is constrained by ethnic and sectarian quotas where ideology takes a back seat.
Iraqiya, the mostly Sunni party of Al-Hashimi and Al-Mutlak, was the largest bloc in March 2010 elections and holds 82 of the 325 seats in parliament. But the party lost the premiership to Al-Maliki, who finished second in the elections but rose to power base by creating a coalition from his narrower parliamentary base.
Iraqiya, which controls nine ministerial posts, has not pulled out of Iraq's national unity government. But it did issue a warning over the stationing of tanks outside the homes of its leaders, saying the display of power will “drive people to want to rid themselves of the strong arm of central power as far as the constitution allows them to.”
“It's not in the interest of the country for him [Al-Maliki] to escalate because the country could plunge into the abyss at any moment,” Al-Mutlak was quoted by The Wall Street Journal as saying. “He came about as a result of consensus, not majority vote, as per the will of Iran and America. Now that the Americans have withdrawn, his stay in power depends on the will of the country's political blocs.”