If this be Success… Maliki v. Mutlak

Posted by Cutler on May 22, 2006

Not to rain on the parade about the “successful” formation of a new Iraqi government, but it was a failure, not a success. Maliki has thus far failed to reach a deal on the key Interior and Defense ministries. He went ahead with the formation of a government that left unresolved the most contentious issue of all: control of the security ministries.

Presumably, the failure to resolve a conflict might have provoked howls of protest and concern from either Shiite parties or Sunni parties. Both might have reason to fear that Maliki was saving “bad news” for another day. It didn’t happen that way. Maliki’s refusal to name security ministers prompted a Sunni walkout, not a Shiite rebellion. If as I suggested in a previous post, we shall know the score by listening to the protests, then Maliki’s incomplete government is most ominous to elements of the Sunni Arab community.

The Washington Post reported details of the parliamentary protest:

While a man read a verse from the Koran, Khalilzad talked to a Sunni leader, then abruptly stood up and left the room. He returned a few minutes later with Adnan al-Dulaimi and Khalaf al-Elayan, two leaders of the main Sunni coalition, who both appeared to be reluctant to attend.

Seconds after the parliament’s speaker, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, began to speak, another Sunni parliament member stood up and asked for two more days to research the cabinet nominees before a vote on them would take place.

Then Saleh al-Mutlak, head of a Sunni group that is not part of the main coalition, interrupted the session again. He declared that Maliki’s Shiite coalition had offered him ministries in the government but only if he agreed to change his political agenda. Mashhadani tapped loudly on his microphone to try to stop Mutlak’s speech, while grumbling from other parliament members grew louder.

Maliki stood silently at a podium on the stage, waiting to name his cabinet. Once he finally gained the parliament’s attention, he listed the 37 names quickly. After that, Mutlak and his party’s members walked out of the session, along with several members of the main coalition of three Sunni parties, who protested against swearing in an incomplete cabinet.

Mutlak, it may be recalled, was being courted by the US in its effort to find common ground with Sunni Arabs and former Baathists. Recall that in mid-April, Mutlak figured prominently in such efforts. He met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on her trip to Iraq. The Washington Post report of that time helps put Mutlak’s recent parliamentary walkout in some perspective:

After her dinner in Baghdad, which in addition to Hashimi included Kurdish leaders and Saleh Mutlak, a Sunni politician who has long been accused of ties to Iraqi insurgent groups, Rice noted what she called a “considerable maturing of the Sunni political leadership.” Later, in an interview with CBS News, she called the Sunnis’ entry into politics “one of the most extraordinary developments” of the past year.

Mutlak, Hashimi and others say that after months of raising concerns with U.S. officials in Baghdad, they finally feel that their voices are being heard — and echoed in recent statements by Khalilzad and officials in Washington…

Mutlak said he told Rice at the dinner that the sectarian tension between Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites had arrived with the U.S. invasion force in 2003. “I am not sure she agreed or not,” he said. “But she listened to me. When they came to Iraq, absolutely they were biased to the Shiites. I think they are being more evenhanded than what they were before. They realized they cannot solve the problems in Iraq without us.”

Sunni leaders say the new U.S. stance has opened the way for dialogue between U.S. officials and Sunni-led insurgent groups. Khalilzad, while circumspect about details, has acknowledged such contacts in recent weeks.

Mutlak said Americans have held discussions mostly with smaller insurgent groups linked to better-known armed groups. Among the issues on the table, predicated on insurgents laying down their weapons, he said, are amnesty for some categories of insurgents, incorporating more Sunnis into Iraq’s security forces, economic support for impoverished Sunni regions and a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawals.

“I think if they can reach a good agreement with these groups, they can jump to bigger groups,” he said. “But it is just beginning.”

Has that beginning now come to an end? If the formation of a Maliki government was intended to reflect a new accord between the US and figures like Mutlak, it seems to have failed in that regard. If, however, the formation of the Maliki government–over the objections of Mutlak–signals a retreat from attempts to co-opt the Sunni insurgency and a dramatic tilt toward the Shiite majority, it is hardly a bold step in this direction.

Presumably, Maliki will have to name permanent ministers to head the two security ministers. Either Maliki will select weak technocrats in the hope that they will signfy as little as possible (more waffling and delay) or the final shoe will drop and Khalilzad will no longer be able to corral reluctant Sunni leaders back into the political process.

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