It seems that a prospective national meeting of political parties in Erbil, the capital of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, is imminent. But questions remain as to whether such a meeting can solve Iraq's increasingly complicated problems.
There are reports of US pressure and Iranian and Arab support for a second meeting among Iraqi factions under the auspices of Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani. Erbil hosted a similar meeting in 2010 with some success: it resulted in what is known as the "Erbil Agreement" that led to the formation of a national unity government, headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
According to Kurdish leaders in Iraq, Barzani is expected to send formal invitations within two weeks to leaders of Iraqi political parties for a comprehensive national conference in Erbil. The conference would discuss the repercussions of the anti-government protests taking place across Iraqi cities, which have increased sectarian tensions across the country.
The announcement of Barzani’s national-meeting initiative was preceded by the visit of a delegation from the National Iraqi Alliance — which includes the main Shiite parties — to the Kurdistan region, where they met with Kurdish leaders. Sources revealed that the Shiite delegation proposed an initiative that included comprehensive reforms.
The visit coincided with another meeting held by Barzani among Ayad Allawi, leader of the Iraqi List, which is supported by the Iraqi Sunnis; Ahmed Chalabi, president of the Iraqi National Congress; and a representative of the “Sadrist current” led by Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The parties discussed the crisis and its repercussions.
The prospective "national meeting" would theoretically require concessions by opposing parties to solve the crisis. But it appears that each party is trying to improve its position in advance of sitting down at the negotiating table.
The Kurds, represented by the Kurdish Alliance, stipulated that the prospective conference must incorporate guarantees that conference decisions would be implemented. The goal is to prevent a repeat of what happened in Erbil in 2010; from the Kurdish Alliance's perspective, the Iraqi prime minister failed to implement most of the elements of the decisions that were issued.
According to the Kurds, commitment to agreements made at the conference will be the benchmark for success. Opposition political parties have accused the prime minister of evading the implementation of agreements, particularly with regard to national partnership.
The Erbil Agreement agreed on establishing a "strategic policies council" and national balance at state institutions; developing rules of procedure for the Council of Ministers; enacting laws pertaining to oil and gas, the Supreme Federal Court and the General Amnesty Law; assigning the position of minister of defense to the Iraqi List; solving the problems of detainees; participating in the management of the state in a way that would preserve all components and factions of the Iraqi people; and other issues that would help to rectify the political process.
The Sunnis, represented by the Iraqi List, will attend the prospective meeting carrying perhaps the most influential card: the anti-government protests being held in the major Sunni cities — Anbar, Mosul, Salahuddin and Diyala — which have resisted attempts to disperse them or to respond partially to their demands, particularly those related to the detainees and de-Baathification measures.
The Sunni demonstrations draw their strength from the fact that they threaten to undermine social peace in the country, which is greatly feared by the Shiite-led government.
Sadr's support of protesters' demands in Sunni governorates has earned him some approval and legitimacy among Sunnis. This might allow Sadr’s bloc to attend the prospective meeting from a position of strength, which he has acquired from his approval by both parties, in addition to a privileged relationship with the Kurdistan region following his visit there last year to participate in meetings demanding the prime minister’s dismissal.
In the midst of these movements, Maliki remains stuck in a fierce battle with his opponents. He wants to ensure the continuity of the power and influence he has built since becoming prime minister.
In an attempt to strip Maliki of one of his main strengths, the Justice and Accountability Commission — which is responsible for excluding former Baathists from government positions, and was formed in May 2012 with seven members who make consensual de-Baathification decisions, but is actually dominated by five members affiliated with the anti-government blocs — made the bold decision to remove Chief Justice Midhat al-Mahmoud. The commission attributed its decision on Mahmoud to the belief that he is an “agent of the former regime."
Maliki's opponents denied that the decision was politically motivated. According to Mohammed Kayani, member of parliament for the Movement for Change, excluding Mahmoud from the Supreme Federal Court is a step in the right direction to make the court neutral and apolitical. Kayani added that “what is known about Mahmoud in recent years is that he has been the godfather of the return of dictatorship to Iraq through this court.”
Regarding Mahmoud’s role in supporting Maliki’s influence, Kayani said: “Mahmoud freezes the laws passed by parliament which do not appeal to the executive authority, and disables the role of parliament through the [judicial] institution, which has become a machine for reinstalling dictatorship rather than democracy in Iraq."
The prime minister responded by sacking the head of the Justice and Accountability Commission, Falah Shanshal, who belongs to the Sadrist movement. Maliki assigned Bassem Sharif al-Badri as chairman in his place.
The commission, which is elected by parliament, claimed the decision was unconstitutional, as the appointment and dismissal of its chairman is the exclusive prerogative of parliament. However, Maliki’s media adviser, Ali al-Moussawi, said that the decision to dismiss Shanshal was taken because the latter was not elected by parliament, as required by law. He said that because Shanshal was appointed, not elected, the prime minister can dismiss him.
The announcement on Feb. 19 that the Discriminatory Authority of the Justice and Accountability Commission vetoed the decision to exclude Mahmoud from government may not end the battle between Maliki and his opponents — the Kurds, the Iraqi List and the Sadrists. But it certainly demonstrates some of Maliki's aspirations in advance the upcoming meeting in Erbil.
The announcement of a prospective conference in Erbil to resolve the crisis, just a month before the provincial elections and less than a year before the parliamentary elections, raises questions about how useful temporary compromises are in an atmosphere with almost no attention to reform or comprehensive state-building.
According to public opinion, Iraq needs comprehensive consensus over reforms on all disputed national issues, including the constitution if required. Meanwhile, there are mounting fears that temporary agreements will fail.
The success or failure of the prospective Erbil meeting depends on whether it can shift the political mood in Iraq from discussions of partial solutions toward solving the major differences that regularly arise. Those include the form of government, the powers of authorities, the boundaries of a federal system, the distribution of wealth, judicial, military, and security reforms, systematic solutions to corruption, and foreign-relations reform.
Bushra Al Mudhafar is a writer and journalist from Baghdad working in both Iraqi and Arab media.