Middle East news
IRAQ CRISIS GROWS WITH NEW THREAT
By Sam Dagher
Wall Street Journal
December 27, 2011
BAGHDAD -- Iraq's political crisis entered its second week one step closer to the potential dissolution of the government, with a call for elections by a vital coalition partner and a suicide attack that extended the spate of violence that has followed the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki -- already battling to sustain his Shiite Muslim-dominated government in a standoff with Sunni coalition partners -- faced a new threat on Monday as the party loyal to radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called for the dissolution of Parliament and new polls.
At the center of the crisis are efforts by Sunni-dominated provinces to seek greater autonomy from the central government controlled by Mr. Maliki. Bahaa al-Aaraji, the head of the Sadrist movement's bloc in Parliament, said elections are needed because "present partners [in government] can't come up with solutions in addition to the threat of Iraq's partition."
But Mr. Aaraji said the proposal needed to be discussed further with the movement's Shiite partners, including Mr. Maliki, suggesting that his bloc might not push further.
Mr. Maliki has denounced the autonomy moves as attempts by his opponents to fatally weaken the central government. In recent days, he has sought to head off the Sunni efforts by trying to persuade members of Iraqiya, the Sunni bloc in his coalition, to break away from their bloc, according to representatives of both sides in the discussions. Mr. Maliki has offered several Iraqiya parliamentarians promises of ministerial posts and other inducements to split from the bloc, according to the representatives.
The stakes in the dispute were highlighted on Monday when a suicide car bombing near Interior Ministry headquarters killed five people and wounded at least 39, following a barrage of attacks across the capital on Thursday that killed 60 people and served as a reminder of Iraq's past sectarian warfare.
The political crisis came to a head last week when the government judiciary accused a Sunni Arab leader, Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, of organizing assassination squads targeting Shiite figures. Mr. Hashemi, who denies the accusations, fled to the north of Iraq, where he is being protected by the leadership of the Kurds who control the area.
Mr. Hashemi had backed efforts by the leaderships of two provinces, Salahuddin and Diyala, to set up semiautonomous regions, a process authorized by Iraq's constitution and exemplified by the relative peace and prosperity of the Kurdish region. A third Sunni-dominated province, Anbar, has threatened to move toward semiautonomy next week.
In the past few days, Iraqi politicians have held a series of meetings in Baghdad and the Kurdistan region to try to prevent the unraveling of the political system.
One proposal discussed, according to politicians familiar with the talks, was to transfer control of the investigation of Mr. Hashemi to the Kurdish region, which has its own government, judiciary, and armed forces. The Kurds, who are predominantly Sunni Muslims but ethnically distinct from the Sunni and Shiite Arabs to the south, have at times mediated between Sunni and Shiite Arab communities.
At the urging of U.S. officials, the two main Kurdish leaders, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani, have spent the past several days trying to convene a meeting of feuding political factions.
Mr. Hashemi's Iraqiya faction -- a pillar of the coalition government in Baghdad despite its disputes with Mr. Maliki -- has continued a boycott of cabinet meetings and parliament sessions that began almost 10 days ago.
The boycott was called to protest what Iraqiya leaders decry as increasingly authoritarian moves by Mr. Maliki. They are particularly angry at his efforts to quash the recent push by Sunni provinces for more autonomy from Baghdad.
"Respect your partners or you will be swept away by the Arab Spring and become a thing of the past," said Finance Minister Rafie al-Issawi, one of the boycotting Iraqiya ministers, criticizing Mr. Maliki in a news conference on Sunday in Salahuddin, the first Sunni-dominated province to declare its bid for semiautonomy in October.
Yet several Iraqiya ministers have declined to join the boycott, while others haven't declared that their absence is in protest of the government.
Mr. Maliki, apparently attempting to drive a wedge between the harder- and softer-line ministers, has vowed to fire most of those who don't attend meetings in the coming days.
Mr. Maliki has also redoubled efforts to head off provincial semiautonomy plans. In some areas, he has worked closely with tribal figures opposed to the moves.
Mr. Maliki met with a delegation of the Jubour, one of the main tribes in Salahuddin, over the weekend. They promised to push against rival tribes spearheading autonomy if Mr. Maliki fulfills a list of demands, including more jobs for Sunnis in the security forces and an end to what they regard as the marginalization and indiscriminate arrest of people suspected of ties to Saddam Hussein's banned Baath Party, according to people familiar with the meeting.
--Ali A. Nabhan and Munaf Ammar contributed to this article.
SADR FOLLOWERS CALL FOR NEW ELECTIONS IN IRAQ
By Dan Morse
December 26, 2011
BAGHDAD -- A group of Iraqi lawmakers linked to anti-U.S. cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called Monday for the dissolution of their country’s parliament and said elections should be held within six months.
The move signals a growing rift between Sadr and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki -- both leading Shiites -- and underscores the political uncertainty that has swirled around Baghdad since the departure of U.S. troops from Iraq more than a week ago.
Just a day after the formal end of the nearly nine-year U.S. effort here, Maliki’s domestic security forces accused Tariq al-Hashimi, the country’s Sunni vice president, of running a hit squad, prompting him to flee the capital. The political crisis here had been playing out mostly along Shiite-Sunni lines, but Monday’s move by the Sadrists marks the first crack in Maliki’s Shiite coalition since the troop pullout.
The political maneuvering came as Baghdad was again rocked by violence. On Monday, a suicide bomber blew up his car outside the main gate of Iraq’s Interior Ministry -- a compound that houses the domestic security forces -- killing at least five people and injuring at least 39, according to government officials.
At least one of those killed and 14 of the injured were police officers. The attack followed a wave of bombings here Thursday.
Vali Nasr, a Tufts University professor, Iraq expert and author of *The Shia Revival*, said by e-mail that the events are conspiring to form “a complicated mix of inter-Shia bickering and escalation of Shia-Sunni fighting.”
In calling for a new parliament, Baha al-Araji, head of the Sadrist Trend political bloc, said the government is not addressing basic needs in the country. But others here said the dissolution of parliament was a long shot and dismissed the Sadrists’ move as simplyan attempt to draw attention to themselves amid the political turmoil.
Omar al-Mashhadani, a political analyst in Baghdad who has worked for the Sunni-supported Iraqiya political bloc, said the Sadrists don’t really think they can dissolve the parliament -- and they know it would take at least a year to pull off new elections. “It’s just lip service,” he said Monday.
The Sadrists are simply trying to distance themselves from Maliki and cast themselves as problem solvers, Mashhadani said. “They are trying to put the focus on themselves.”
Sadr remains a popular figure among Iraqi Shiites and for years championed the U.S. departure from Iraq. On Sunday, he listed 10 problems with the ongoing feud between the prime minister and Hashimi. Number six was that it could “lead to forgetting about the people and their suffering.”
Separately, in Najaf, a radical group long accused by the United States of attacking U.S. forces said it would join the political process -- and possibly run candidates for parliament.
“The political process is a limp one, and it doesn’t give enough to the Iraqis,” said Qais al-Khazali, a leader of Asaib Ahl al-Haq.
The United States has said the group received training, money, and weapons from Iran. It became a top concern for U.S. officials in January 2007 after they accused it of killing five American soldiers based at a government building in the southern city of Karbala. The group used armor-piercing roadside bombs and powerful rockets to attack U.S. troops.
All the political maneuvering could help Maliki strengthen his hand, one analyst said. “I predict that Maliki might come out of this conflict more authoritarian than ever,” said Babak Rahimi, assistant professor of Iranian and Islamic studies at the University of California at San Diego. “Just like 2008, he will again focus on themes of law and security and try to crush or marginalize his rivals.”
--Special correspondents Aziz Alwan and Asaad Majeed contributed to this report.
SADR BLOC CALLS FOR EARLY ELECTIONS IN IRAQ
By Suadad al Salhy
December 26, 2011
BAGHDAD -- The head of the political bloc of anti-American Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called on Monday for new elections in Iraq after the biggest crisis in a year saw Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki move against two senior Sunni rivals.
Tensions are rising after Maliki, a Shi'ite, sought the arrest of Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi -- accused of running death squads. Maliki also asked parliament to fire Sunni Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq.
The head of Sadr's bloc, part of the ruling Shi'ite-led government, said parliament should be dissolved to try resolve the spat, which has raised concerns about a return to sectarian strife since U.S. troops withdrew a week ago.
Seven people were killed earlier on Monday when a suicide car bomber attacked Iraq's interior ministry in Baghdad. It followed a series of explosions on Thursday in the capital in which 72 people were killed.
"We are in a new phase and have found a lot of problems which give no stability to Iraq . . . so we will discuss this subject with the National Alliance because we are part of it," Bahaa al-Araji, the head of Sadr's bloc, said in a statement in which he also called for "new and early elections."
Support from Sadr's bloc helped Maliki to a second term following nine months of wrangling after an inconclusive election in March 2010. The National Alliance is the powerful bloc formed when Maliki's party linked with the Sadrists and other Shi'ite groups.
The latest turmoil threatens to scupper Iraq's fragile power-sharing deal that splits posts among the Shi'ite National Aliance, the mainly Sunni-backed Iraqiya party and a bloc representing Kurds.
Hashemi and Mutlaq are two of the most senior figures in Iraqiya, which announced a boycott of parliament ten days ago.
Two senior Sadrist lawmakers said early elections were just one of the possible actions being considered in efforts to try resolve the crisis.
"It is one of the solutions that was presented in case the crisis continues and political blocs fail to reach a solution and Iraqiya insists on continuing to boycott parliament and cabinet sessions," said senior Sadrist lawmaker Amir al-Kinani.
Iraqiya will give an important signal about the future of the power sharing agreement on Tuesday when its members decide whether or not to attend a cabinet meeting.
The party, which is led by secularist Shi'ite former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi but is supported by many Sunnis, said in a statement on Sunday it was willing to participate in talks to resolve the crisis.
"We have received many positive signs from the Iraqiya leaders," said Mushriq Naji, a senior Sadrist lawmaker. "They said they are willing to end this crisis but asked for more time to talk to their top leaders. They asked for two more days."
Violence in Iraq has dropped since the sectarian civil war of 2006-2007, when Shi'ite militia and Sunni insurgents often killed thousands of civilians a month.
Many Iraqis fear that the latest political dispute -- on clear-cut sectarian lines -- could reignite the slaughter, without the buffer of U.S. troops to separate the sides.
Turmoil in Iraq would have a larger impact on the region, where a crisis in Syria is taking on a more sectarian tone and Shi'ite Iran, Sunni Turkey, and Sunni Arab Gulf states are looking to increase their influence.
Iraq's Sunni minority has felt marginalized since the rise of the Shi'ite majority after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
Sadr, whose Mahdi Army militia once fought U.S. and Iraqi troops, said in a statement on Sunday that the crisis may lead to one-party rule and hurt Maliki's reputation as a statesman.
Sadr ordered his militia to disarm when he joined mainstream politics in recent years, but splinter groups have continued attacks.
On Monday, an Iraqi official said Asaib al-Haq, the biggest Mahdi Army militant splinter group, had offered to lay down arms and form a political movement to take part in the next election.
"They are willing to lay down their weapons and join the political process after the bilateral security agreement was executed and U.S. troops completed their withdrawal," said Mohammed al-Hamed, spokesman for Maliki's National Reconciliation Advisor. The group could not be reached for comment.
(Writing by Serena Chaudhry; Editing by Peter Graff)
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