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Iraq's Political Crisis

1 August 2012: Joost Hiltermann, Crisis Group's Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, discusses the political crisis developing in Iraq over the possibility of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki seeking a third term. 6:04

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Welcome to this podcast from the International Crisis Group. I am Ben Dalton, Communications and IT Officer. Iraq has been fraught by a series of political crises in its ongoing transition to democracy, most recently in the current tug-of-war over Prime Minister Maliki’s second term. I’m speaking today with Joost Hiltermann, Deputy Director for Crisis Group’s Middle East and North Africa Program, about what this standoff means for Iraq’s security. 

Joost, can you fill us in on the details of how we got here and how this current crisis is different from those that have gone before?

The current crisis comes out of the failed effort to form a government in 2010. A government was formed and Mr. Maliki is the Prime Minister of it, but the government formation itself was never completed. For example, until now we do not have a defense minister or an interior minister. And other institutions’ procedures that were supposed to be established as part of government formation have not been established. So it is an incomplete process and some of the promises that were made, especially by Mr. Maliki to his coalition partners at the time, he has not fulfilled in their eyes. 

To the contrary, he has continued to amass power at their expense. So they have come out since late last year, but especially these past few months, in an effort to unseat him through a parliamentary no confidence vote. That vote doesn’t seem to be materializing, and I think we can say the effort has failed, but the crisis hasn’t gone away. There clearly is a stalemate between the two sides, the pro-Maliki side and the anti-Maliki politicians and parties. So we can now already look and see in the future a new crisis emerging that would probably erupt around the time of the next elections in two years if not before.

Is there a deeper context to this dispute that extends beyond the current political standoff?

Yeah, there’s two reasons why it has come out now. One is that these political leaders are all sort of the same caliber and any one of them probably would have done what Mr. Maliki has done over the last six years that he has been Prime Minister. But what they are concerned about is that Mr. Maliki will continue to be Prime Minister, that he will not leave and that this may have been the last chance to unseat him. They put no faith in the next elections, that these will be free and fair. They think that Mr. Maliki is exhibiting authoritarian tendencies and wants to stick around forever. And so that’s one reason, they want a regular rotation of power, which is a reasonable demand.

The other thing that points at sort of the greater depth of this crisis is that, you know, this is only the latest chapter of a series of very similar crises. It’s more stalemated now than it has been before, but this is nothing new. It’s all about the origins of the current political order, which lie in the governing processes that were established by the coalition provisional authority -- the US occupying administration – and the drafting of the 2005 Constitution. Many things were wrong with that; there were many conflicts over it; there were major parties that were excluded from the drafting. All of that is now still coming out in these crises. 

Obviously, a lot of tension has been focused recently on the crisis in Syria. What effect is that having on political considerations domestically in Iraq?

What is happening in Syria is quite separate from what has happened in Iraq and shouldn’t normally affect it, except that Syria and Iraq are neighboring states and have a history of enmity between them. Even as recently as three years ago, major bombs went off in Baghdad that the Iraqi government blamed on elements, Iraqi elements, supported and sponsored by the Syrian regime. 

But what is really aggravating the situation in Iraq is the notion, very prominent among the Shiite leadership in Iraq, that the conflict in Syria is essentially sectarian in nature and that what will happen there will have a direct impact on the situation in Iraq. Iraq, as we know, has been deeply sectarian for years, really since 2003. So there is a fear, among the Shiites in particular, that a Sunni regime will take control in Syria after the Assad regime falls. The fear is that that successor regime will empower the Sunnis in Iraq and contribute to a new round of polarization and possibly a new sectarian war.  

What would you recommend must be done in order to mitigate some of these tensions?

Clearly, the Iraqi actors, be they Mr. Maliki or his opponents, have to clean up their own house. They have to have stronger national consensus over how to govern Iraq, in order to protect it from any outside influences, especially a civil war in Syria. And so for that, they would need to go back to the original power-sharing arrangement that was agreed in November 2010 as part of government formation, and actually make it work. They certainly need to reduce their sectarian rhetoric and go back to the drawing board and not try to unseat the Prime Minister by democratic means, parliamentary means, but to actually continue to rebuild the power-sharing agreement. In addition, Mr. Maliki should make a public pledge that he will not stand for Prime Minister again after his second term ends.  

Edited for print.

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