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Iraqi politics riven by suspicion and intrigue
Welcome to Iraqi politics, where even the most basic issues
are debated in a climate of hot-headed suspicion and intrigue,
and threats of violence are never far from the surface.
Iraq is a much safer place than it was a year ago. But if the deep mistrust on display during four days of ultimately futile bargaining in parliament last week is anything to go by, my country’s fragile democracy has a long way to go.
Parliamentarians were trying to pass a new elections law paving the way for the first provincial voting in Iraq since 2005, a task that might be considered straightforward but in Iraq saw lawmakers openly brandish threats of a bloodbath.
The sticking point was how elections should be held in the northern oil-rich city of Kirkuk, where rival ethnic claims have threatened to explode since Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003.
Each day lawmakers arrived, unsure about proceedings. What proposals would be on the table? Would there be a quorum for a vote? Would there be a volte face by one camp, suspicious their rivals might have stolen a march — but not quite knowing how?
Iraq’s Kurds regard Kirkuk as their ancestral capital and want it to be folded into their autonomous region of Kurdistan. This idea is completely rejected by Arabs and Turkmen who also live in a city whose oil provides a fifth of Iraq’s revenues.
On one side stood the Kurds, often getting a sympathetic hearing from two major Shi’ite parties, Dawa and SIIC. On the other were all the other blocs led by the Sunni Islamic Party along with followers of Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
The rifts start at the top. Parliament’s speaker is a Sunni, opposed to Kirkuk becoming part of Kurdistan. His two deputies, a Shi’ite and a Kurd, are firmly in the rival camp.
A Shi’ite lawmaker accused Sunnis of following a “foreign Arab agenda”. A Sunni accused the Shi’ites of pursuing a “foreign Iranian agenda”. Kurds branded their opponents “the remaining Baathists” — Saddam’s party that ruled through fear.
It was never clear when a parliamentary session would start. Often deputies only managed to keep them going for a few minutes before they broke down. Most of the time lawmakers could not even agree to enter the chamber, meaning no quorum.
If one camp accepted a proposal, the other would reject it. If the second camp shifted its stance in favour, the first would then perform a U-turn — suspicious their rivals had spotted something in it that would give them an edge.
Officials from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI), the U.S. embassy and the British ambassador — desperate to cajole the Iraqis into striking a deal — kept a vigil at parliament’s doors throughout.
“The labour is continuous … but all is in vain,” laughed Shi’ite deputy speaker Khalid al-Attiyah.
Diplomats laboured at behind-the-scenes talks from early in the morning until late at night. Even U.S. President George W. Bush worked the phones, pushing party leaders for a deal. All to no avail. Parliament wrapped up for a break last week with no proposals on the table, no consensus — and no vote — just a pledge to revisit the issue in September.
“You Iraqis are very difficult,” said a UNAMI spokesman.
As an Iraqi reporter covering my country for Reuters since April 2003, I’ve seen this drama play out countless times, as lawmakers fashioned a new Iraq even as an insurgency raged outside the fortified Green Zone where parliament sits.
But my sense is that there has been no progress at all in building trust between rival political groups, with parties trapped in a cycle of obstruction and recrimination.
No doubt Kirkuk will be the issue overshadowing Iraq’s political process for some time. The fear is that it may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, triggering yet another conflict, and bloodshed up to our knees.