End of the road for Iraq’s leader?

The forces arrayed again Maliki are growing, but Iran remains loyal.

Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki  370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
When news surfaced at the end of last week that a majority of Iraq’s lawmakers had signed a letter demanding a no-confidence vote against Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, it looked like the days of the embattled leader were numbered.
A day later the powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr joined the ranks of Maliki’s opponents, which include Sunni and Kurdish parties as well as Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. “We say, complete your [good work] and announce your resignation, for the sake of the people ... and for the sake of partners," Sadr said in a statement.
That leaves Maliki with a motley assortment of backers: his own State of Law coalition, which commands less than a third of the seats in parliament; Tehran; and Washington. Yet, followers of Iraq’s murky and ever-shifting politics say, Maliki isn’t a goner yet.
“The combination of groups advocating the no confidence vote is a very big concern for him, indeed, although there are questions whether they would go through with it,”  Gareth Stansfield, an Iraq expert at Britain’s University of Exeter, told The Media Line. “We’re looking at very interesting and tense times for him.”
Stability in Iraq is critical at a time when other parts of the Middle East and North Africa are gripped by Arab Spring turmoil and the West is locked in controversy with Iran over the latter’s nuclear ambitions. Growing Iraqi oil exports are playing an important role as a substitute for Iranian crude as Western-led sanctions go into effect.
For now, however, the power struggle between Maliki and his opponents has brought the Iraqi government to a standstill. Parliament has passed no important legislation, except for the state budget. Meanwhile, sectarian tensions are flaring up, with at least 25 people killed in a bombing apparently linked to a Sunni-Shiite dispute over control of a religious shrine in Samarra.
Maliki’s opponents accuse of him of failing to share power under the terms of the according that forms the basis of his coalition. He has chased Sunni politicians, including the country's highest-ranking Sunni politician, Vice President Tariq Al-Hashemi, who were once his allies from office.
Yet, concern that Iraq could unravel has created a rare confluence of interests between Washington and Tehran, both of whom look at Maliki as the only one who can hold the country together. Analysts say the domestic opposition to the prime minister isn’t quite ready to oust him either, even if they are employing threats of a no-confidence vote to press their case.
Reidar Visser, an Iraqi specialist at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, noted that the letter calling for a no-confidence vote, for instance, has no legal standing, even though the prime minister himself took the trouble to call for an investigation into whether the signatures were forged or obtained by coercion. No one has seen the letter, but local media said it contains the signatures of at least 164 of 325 lawmakers. Others say it has 176 and others as many as 200.
“The signatures to Talabani are no more binding than an opinion poll. Talabani may listen to them if he likes to, or he may reject them and ask them to work via a 65-member petition instead,” Visser said in a posting on his Iraq and Gulf Analysis blog. The 65-member petitions refers to a rule that allows as few as 65 lawmakers to ask the speaker of parliament for a non confidence vote without the intervention of the president.
Sadr’s call for Maliki to step down may also be a tactical measure rather than a real change-of-heart, some analysts say. He was a late-comer in joining Maliki’s coalition and did so only under pressure from Tehran. He moved back into the Maliki camp in recent weeks, but his movement is close to Iran and he has not quit the prime minister’s coalition where his 40 followers in parliament make him a key backer.
An indication about how strongly Tehran backs Maliki, hours before Al-Sadr issued his statement, Ayatollah Kazim Al-Haeri, a spiritual mentor of his based in Iran, published a religious edict declaring it forbidden to vote for secular politicians -- an apparent reference to Maliki's opponents and widely understood as providing indirect backing for the prime minister.
Iraq’s growing oil exports may be hurting Iran as it battles Western sanctions, but Tehran has good reason to look the other way. Al-Maliki is a Shiite, as is the Iranian regime and Iran is having trouble with its other important regional ally, Syria. It cannot afford to lose Iraq, too.
Tehran helped engineer the coalition deal eighteen months ago that brought Maliki to a second term as prime minister. In April, Maliki was welcomed in Tehran and last month it enhanced the prime minister’s and Iraq’s prestige by holding a round of nuclear talks with world powers in Baghdad.
Iraqi President Talabani, another figure who holds Maliki’s fate in his hands, doesn’t seem anxious to act either. An Iraqi Kurd with close ties to Iran and the US, he has held talks with anti-Maliki factions but has declined to allow the no confidence vote in parliament, as he is entitled to do under the constitution.
Stansfield of Exeter University said Maliki will probably have to meet some of his opponents’ demands, especially those coming from the Kurds. But, in the end, the prime minister will keep office for lack of an alternative and because he remains popular with much of the Iraqi public. “He is the least worst candidate for everyone,” Stansfield said.