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Maliki's Sectarian Politics Show Saddam-like Skills

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By Nicholas Noe & Walid Raad

Before the U.S.-led overthrow of Iraq's Saddam Hussein, a main argument against invasion was that it would be hard to keep the factionalized country together without his iron-fisted methods.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's solution, according to his critics, is to adopt them. Wrote columnist Ahmad al-Muhanna in the Iraqi daily Al-Mada:

It looks as if Iraq’s fledgling democracy is following in Saddam’s footsteps. For one thing, Maliki seems to have the same talent for making enemies and inventing rivalries as the late Iraqi dictator.

Muhanna was referring to the bitter power struggle between the Shiite Maliki on the one side and the main Kurdish and Sunni leaders on the other. In addition, Maliki is in a scrape with his fellow Shiite Muqtada al-Sadr, whose parliamentary bloc forms the ruling coalition with the PM's party. Sadr, who unlike Maliki is a determined foe of the U.S., has openly criticized Maliki for isolating Shiites by monopolizing governing powers. He joined Maliki’s opponents recently in issuing the Irbil Paper, a list of demands including one that Maliki not run again after his current term expires in 2014.

Thankfully, Muhanna wrote, Maliki doesn't have Saddam's capacity to wage regional war, although “he has contented himself with leveling accusations at Turkey and maintaining tepid relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council countries.”

Turkey is hosting Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni, whom the Iraqi judiciary is seeking on murder charges. Hashemi has said Maliki fabricated the accusations to reduce Sunni power and that they illustrate the prime minister's unilateral control over supposedly independent branches of government. The Hashemi affair has aggravated relations with Gulf countries, some of whom have posited that Maliki is a pawn of Iran and therefore a danger to the GCC states.

“The strange thing about Maliki is that he picked up where Saddam left off," Muhanna wrote. By choosing Iran and Syria as his closest allies, Maliki joined the club of pariahs to which his predecessor belonged. "What would Iraq get from relations with regimes that have lost the whole world and can't win over even their own people?”

Other Iraqi commentators saw a wider problem in the sectarian politics that Iraqi power brokers, and not just Maliki, are playing. Columnist Omran al-Obeidi of the Iraqi daily As-Sabah wrote that all Iraq's main players are engaged in the same power grabbing as Maliki.

“Those tending to political affairs,” he wrote, “no longer care about the size of the problems sweeping the country. Many Iraqis would have preferred that the Irbil Paper signatories had threatened to withdraw their confidence from the government because it "could not meet its promises to improve the level of services. But all the threats surrounded clauses featuring special and extremely private privileges.”

These disputes, Obeidi wrote, were "mere camouflage" for differences over the informal, post-invasion system of dividing power by assigning certain posts to specific religious groups. The prime minister, for example, should be a Shiite, the vice prime minister a Sunni, the foreign minister a Kurd, and so on. Because the quotas encouraged and solidified sectarian differences within the country, they are commonly seen as a mistake within Iraq. They are, wrote Obeidi, "loathed by the entire public and sought by everyone in secret.”

The system, agreed columnist Mahdi Qasim in the Iraq daily Sot al-Iraq, is “the true source of all the crises and tensions our country is facing today. We have clearly and simply replicated the same hateful ethno-sectarian power-sharing system that has kept Lebanon entangled in a maze of political disputes, wrangles and confrontations for more than half a century.” As long as this system remains in place, Qasim despaired, “there is no point in replacing Maliki.”

Khodayer al-Awad, also a columnist at Sot al-Iraq, agreed and added that there was another complication with the growing movement to oust Maliki. Even if sufficient parliamentary deputies vote no-confidence in Maliki's government, it would remain in charge as a caretaker until a new, stable coalition took shape, Awad wrote. During that period, he noted, it would enjoy more freedom than the existing government since, as a caretaker, it could not be brought down .

For now, Iraq is likely to muddle through, not quite pulled apart into warring sectarian pieces but not united in national purpose.

(Nicholas Noe and Walid Raad are the Beirut correspondents for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are their own.)

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-0- May/14/2012 21:56 GMT