Parliament's (very) short session underscores tensions pulling at Iraq (+video)

As Prime Minister Maliki grapples with a powerful Islamic State insurgency – as well as intensifying sectarian and ethnic divisions – many are worried he has become too polarizing a figure.

By , Correspondent

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    Newly elected parliament members attended the first session of parliament in the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad Tuesday. The session quickly descended into chaos.
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Iraq’s new parliament convened Tuesday in a bid to confront the country's potential fracturing. But in an indication of deepening political rifts, calls for unity in the face of severe security threats were drowned out by shouting between Kurds and members of President Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite coalition.

Despite talk of a boycott ahead of the opening, all but members of Ayad Allawi’s Sunni bloc showed up. But things quickly soured, with the session lasting little more than half an hour before descending into chaos. Dozens of Kurdish and Shiite lawmakers failed to return after a half-hour break, forcing the session to be rescheduled for the following Tuesday.

“We will crush beneath our shoe anyone who tears down the Iraqi flag,” shouted Kathim al-Sayadi, a member of Prime Minister Maliki’s coalition, more or less accusing a Kurdish member who complained that Baghdad’s economic policies were hurting the Kurdish people of treason.

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Other Maliki supporters accused the Kurds of not doing enough to keep Iraq from disintegration – an indication of the tensions deepened by the fall of much of northern Iraq to fighters declaring an Islamic state.

“They should push ISIS from Iraqi soil, and after that they can come and demand their rights from the Iraqi government,” says Mohammad Naji Mohammad, a member of Maliki's State of Law coalition. “In the disputed areas they are moving forward to occupy them, but in other areas they are just standing and watching.”

Mr. Maliki’s political bloc won the largest number of seats in April elections, but not enough to govern without alliances. His uphill battle to form a government and win a third term as prime minister has lately become even more difficult as militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), now renamed the Islamic State, have taken over a wide swath of territory in Iraq's northwest, including the major city of Mosul.

Now, as Maliki grapples with Iraqi security forces struggling to hold back the Islamic State – as well as sharp dissatisfaction with his government and intensifying sectarian and ethnic divisions – many are worried he has become such a polarizing figure he will be unable to lead an effective government.

No agreement, tight security

Today, outside the chamber where Saddam Hussein once held meetings of his Revolutionary Command Council, members of parliament said there was still not enough agreement in private negotiations on who should head the next government to hold a public session to elect a speaker.

Under Iraq’s confessional system first overseen by the United States, the prime minister is Shiite while Kurds have taken the presidency and Sunnis the parliamentary speaker's position.

Leading candidates to replace Maliki include former vice-president Adel Abdul Mehdi and Ahmed Chalabi, the controversial leader of the US-backed Iraqi government-in-exile before the war in 2003.

To reduce traffic and the risk of car bombs, the government declared a public holiday as parliament met. Access to the fortified green zone, normally tightly controlled, was even further restricted. At one checkpoint, soldiers turned back a UN official for not having a special badge created for the session.

Outside the parliament buildings, guards reinforced by search dogs added to a mounting pile of confiscated items. “We are punished if they find any of these,” said one of the searchers, pointing to a hand-written list that included hand sanitizer, medication, food, and even paper tissues. ‘You can have one or two Kleenex but not a package,” she explained.

Challenges to the north

The security underscored that Baghdad remains a major target. But the battle with the Islamic State (IS) is still far from the capital.

North of Baghdad, in Samarra, IS fighters on Monday night launched mortars at the al-Askari shrine, one of Shiite Islam’s holiest sites. Thousands of Shiite volunteers called by religious leaders to protect the shrines are in and near the largely Sunni city, which has been essentially partitioned since Al Qaeda's 2006 bombing of the Samarra shrine set off Iraq’s civil war. The volunteer armies and Shiite militias that have sprung up amid the collapse of entire divisions of the Iraqi Army have added to Iraq’s sectarian tensions.

Shifting political dynamics pose perhaps an equally daunting challenge. Since the fall of Mosul to ISIS fighters earlier this month, the balance of power in Iraq has tilted north. Kurdish forces became the only viable security presence in large parts of the north, including in territory claimed by both Kurds and Arabs. 

The Kurdish government has moved its forces into the remaining parts of the disputed oil city of Kirkuk it did not already control. Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani has pledged to hold a referendum to decide the fate of Kirkuk this year but has said the Kurdish forces will stay.

Sunni politicians – including Atheel Nujaifi, the governor of Nineveh Province, of which Mosul is the capital – have taken up part-time residence in Erbil, the capital of the semiautonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan. Mr. Nujaifi, elected five years ago pledging to roll back Kurdish expansion in the disputed territories, is now discussing a new security arrangement with the Kurds, as well as a status that would give Nineveh Province the same autonomy as the Kurdish region. If Nineveh goes its own way, other Sunni majority provinces would seem certain to follow – further dismembering the country created by the British and French a century ago.

“We need to establish a new security and economic relationship between us and the Kurds, and that is what we are working on,” says Nujaifi.

Although the Iraqi government’s forced reliance on Kurdish security forces is a potential windfall for a Kurdish leadership perpetually embroiled in political conflict with Baghdad, the presence of the IS on the Kurd’s doorstep is seen as a crisis.

“Every moment is a pivotal moment for the Kurds living in this neighborhood but we have to be very careful,” says Barham Salih, former Iraqi deputy prime minister and a front-runner for Iraqi president. “We need to be deliberate about how we move from here - our main obligation is to defend our communities, our people, but also be mindful of what is going to happen in the rest of Iraq is of consequence to us.” 

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