Iraqi government in deepest crisis

US and Iraqi officials are trying to prevent complete disintegration.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Iraq is in the throes of its worst political crisis since the fall of Saddam Hussein with the new democratic system, based on national consensus among its ethnic and sectarian groups, appearing dangerously close to collapsing, say several politicians and analysts.

This has brought paralysis to governmental institutions and has left parliament unable to make headway on 18 benchmarks Washington is using to measure progress in Iraq, including legislation on oil revenue sharing and reforming security forces.

And the disconnect between Baghdad and Washington over the urgency for solutions is growing. The Iraqi parliament is set for an August vacation as the Bush administration faces pressure to show progress in time for a September report to Congress.

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At the moment, Iraqi politicians are simply trying to keep the government from disintegrating. On Friday, top Iraqi officials were set to convene in the Kurdish north for a crisis summit, in the hopes that talks held outside of Baghdad's politically poisonous atmosphere may bring some resolution to the current political standstill. President Jalal Talabani and his two deputies, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the president of the semiautonomous Kurdish region, Massoud Barzani, were set to meet at the Salaheddin summer resort at the end of a difficult week.

On Wednesday, the Iraqi Accordance Front said it pulled out of Mr. Maliki's coalition government, but would return its six cabinet members if the prime minister met a list of demands. The Sunni bloc says it wants, among other things, pardons for detainees not facing specific criminal charges and for all militias to be disbanded.

"We are frankly in the midst of the worst crisis," says Fakhri Karim, a close adviser to Messrs. Barzani and Talabani who also publishes the independent Al Mada newspaper. He says he doubts the Friday meeting will find any resolution because of the new political tussle with the Iraqi Accordance Front.

"Most of the political blocs have failed to operate within the framework of national consensus. They can't even properly formulate their positions and proposals, let alone realize the very serious dangers that surround everyone."

The gravity of the situation was underscored by several officials. "We have a governmental crisis. Our people expect better performance," said Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari.

And since Saturday, US Ambassador Ryan Crocker has been shuttling between Iraq's top leaders, but an embassy spokesperson said this was not necessarily indicative of a crisis.

"The surge has done well in making a difference in security conditions. But it isn't a light switch for reconciliation; there are no quick fixes to years of bitterness and violence," he said.

Some US military officers have expressed concern privately that Iraq's leadership has failed to take advantage of some of the breathing room offered by the US-led surge against insurgents and militants.

The crisis is also fueling discontent and alienation among Iraqis.

"They are making us regret we ever voted for them ... they should learn something about unity from our soccer team," said an anonymous caller on a state television program on Wednesday after Iraq's victory over South Korea in the Asian Cup semifinals.

Iraq's two rounds of elections in 2005 were historic in many ways. They empowered once-marginalized Shiites and Kurds, but the experience also enshrined and even codified in the new Constitution a consensus-based system that is built on a delicate division of authority along sectarian and ethnic lines.

This was meant mainly to accommodate the embittered Sunni Arabs who were slow to embrace the political process and continue to fuel a violent insurgency that has spiraled into a bloody sectarian war.

But 14 months after Maliki, a Shiite, formed his so-called government of national unity, Iraq's quest for democracy has hit a wall. Political leaders, mainly Shiites and Sunnis, are now trading a barrage of very serious recriminations.

"The partnership experience has been dealt major blows ... we tried to maintain our good intentions and patience ... but we have been faced with arrogance, a monopoly over power, and efforts to eliminate [us] in every way," said Khalaf al-Olayan from the Iraqi Accordance Front at a press conference announcing the suspension of six cabinet members from the government.

If they pull out, it would bring to 12 the number of vacancies in Maliki's 39-member cabinet.

"We are firmly convinced after this bitter experience that this government represented by its prime minister is incapable of joining a truly patriotic project," added Mr. Olayan, surrounded by Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi and the front's other leaders.

He said the pullout would become finalized in a week unless Maliki showed willingness to fulfill a list of 12 conditions that boil down to releasing thousands of detainees held in US and Iraqi prisons without charges, ending what the front considers the indiscriminate targeting of Sunnis.

Sami al-Askari, a parliamentarian and close adviser to Maliki, said all the accusations and demands by the Sunni bloc are merely a smoke screen for one thing: "Hashemi's desire for more powers than what has been accorded to him under the Constitution."

Mr. Askari accused the Sunni bloc of operating from the get-go more like opposition than a partner. Maliki and his Shiite allies have repeatedly charged that the Sunnis want to bring down the government and reverse the current political equation with the help of regional Sunni Arab powers Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Before the withdrawal of the Sunnis from the government, there had been efforts last week to contain the crisis, namely by resuscitating a proposal to create a coalition of so-called moderates to back the government and "isolate the extremists on both sides, Sunnis and Shiites," according to Foreign Minister Zebari.

Robert Springborg, director of the Middle East Institute at the University of London, says the heart of the problem was that no one is truly committed to a strong and unified government.

"The actors involved have their own agendas, the central government and its resources are a tool for their own aspirations ... none are committed to a government for all Iraqis," he says.

Pointing to the growing disconnect between Washington and Baghdad, Askari, Maliki's adviser, says, "Washington believes that passing the oil law will impact on reconciliation and the security situation. We beg to differ. This matters little to the armed groups that kill Iraqis every day. Their sole agenda is to reverse what we have achieved so far."

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