Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki: Iraq within days of ending political stalemate

In an interview with the Monitor, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki says Iraq could announce a new coalition government next week.

By , Correspondent

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    Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki shown during a meeting with members of the Iraqi National Alliance (INA) and the State of Law coalition in Baghdad, on Oct 1.
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Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki says his Shiite coalition is close to forming a government and could announce a new coalition by next week, ending Iraq's long-running political crisis.

“This is not going to be easily determined but the progress of these talks indicates we have come to near the end of these negotiations,” Mr. Maliki told the Monitor today.

Speaking in his first interview since he received the key backing of hard-line Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr last week, Maliki says he expects the results of negotiations with the Kurdish coalition and talks with the secular Iraqiya bloc to become clear in the next two to three days.

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Although the most likely scenario appeared to involve an alliance with Ayad Allawi, whose Iraqiya coalition includes many Sunnis, it was still unclear whether Allawi would accept Maliki’s terms. The proposed alliance with Mr. Allawi also appeared to sideline the Kurds.

Months of political deadlock

Iraqis went to the polls in March in the first national election since they regained full sovereignty. But forming a government that does not exclude major groups and risk reigniting sectarian violence has proved agonizingly difficult.

When none of the candidates won enough seats to form a majority in parliament, Maliki demanded – and obtained – a recount. Seven months after the election, negotiations have just recently swung into high gear.

Maliki, who is still more than 20 seats short of the 163-seat majority that he needs in parliament, looks almost certain to be the next prime minister, unless his main Shiite rival Adel Abdul Mehdi can muster enough votes.

Allawi will not be president: Maliki

Recent reports suggest that Allawi could become president, rather than the next prime minister. But Maliki said Friday that Allawi would not be Iraq's next president.

“The presidency is essentially spoken for,” says Maliki, referring to the Kurdish claim to the position currently held by Jalal Talabani, head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, saying they would have to relinquish the position. “Take it from me in full confidence – the Kurds will not forgo the position of president and the president will be Jalal Talabani.”

Instead, he says, they were offering Allawi the position of head of a powerful new body named the National Council for Strategic Studies, a decision-making body, as well as the position of speaker of parliament and a share of key ministries for members of Iraqiya.

Maliki says all the parties had rejected a proposal made to them by Vice President Biden in which Talabani would become a special ambassadorial envoy, Allawi would be named president, and Maliki would remain prime minister. American officials have publicly said the US has not promoted any plan but privately have made clear that they will back any government that includes Sunnis, Kurds, and Shiites.

The emergence of Shiite power

The war that toppled Saddam Hussein also paved the way for Iraq’s Shiite majority to take power for the first time – sending shock waves throughout the region and within the country’s traditional Sunni political elite. The US decision to disband the Iraqi Army and outlaw the Baath Party is blamed for fueling the insurgency. Now, maintaining a balance of power between Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds is seen as the key to Iraq holding together.

Maliki has had a roller-coaster ride during political negotiations over the past several months. Although popular in the street, he is widely distrusted by most of his former political allies, who have accused him of not consulting them on national security and other crucial issues. The Shiite coalition he oversees has splintered and come back together several times. In its latest incarnation, the rival Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq has split from the coalition, while the Sadrists, who withdrew their support for Maliki, returned to the fold.

The Moqtada al-Sadr factor

Maliki denies reports that he had promised the Sadrists top security posts in exchange for their support, but says they would be given a number of other ministries proportionate to their strength in the alliance. “They want to participate in the political process and distance themselves from the violence, militias, and weapons and other tactics that they used before and we want to encourage them in this matter,” he says.

Mr. Sadr’s paramilitary Mahdi Army, made up mostly of poor and disenfranchised Shiites, fought US troops in the streets in 2004. Two years ago, after the militia seized control of Basra, Maliki sent in the Iraqi Army to retake the city.

The US has publicly warned against giving the Sadrists a strong role in government despite their having won the biggest single bloc of seats in parliament in the March election.

Asked about the likelihood of negotiating a new security agreement with US forces after they withdraw from Iraq at the end of next year, Maliki says it would be up to the new government and parliament to decide whether that was needed.

“Because we have bought American weapons, it would be customary for the country that supplies them to also supply expertise,” he says, giving an example of a possible remaining US military presence here.

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