Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri Maliki fights off attempt to push him out of office


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The Independent Online

Iraq's embattled prime minister has fought off an attempt to push him out of office, aided by divisions among his opponents and Iranian intervention on his behalf.

Nouri Maliki's tactical victory averts a potentially destabilising contest to replace him, at least for the time being, but perpetuates the sectarian-based deadlock that has paralysed the country for years.

In the latest setback for those trying to unseat Mr Maliki, the country's president said yesterday that he would not ratify a petition for a no-confidence vote because it lacked the needed number of signatures.

An Iraqi politician who supports the prime minister said Iran is helping him by trying to buy time. Tehran is pushing for a two-month grace period during which Mr Maliki, who has close ties with the Islamic Republic, would ostensibly try to appease coalition partners who accuse him of monopolising power.

At the root of the stand-off is the unresolved power struggle between Iraq's three main groups - the majority Shiites and minority Sunnis and Kurds - following the ousting of Saddam Hussein in the US-led invasion of 2003.

Elections in March 2010 were inconclusive. Mr Maliki was able to form a national unity government but its component parties do not trust and in some cases detest each other.

The continued impasse has raised the possibility of renewed sectarian violence and hampered plans for rebuilding the country ravaged by a decade of fighting.

Six months after the departure of the last US forces, hopes seem to be fading that oil-rich Iraq can quickly transform into a functioning democracy.

“It's a sensitive and tense situation and anything could go wrong,” analyst Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group said of the ongoing political crisis.

Mr Maliki, a Shiite, is under fire for breaking promises to share power with his partners in a unity government which includes the Sunni-dominated Iraqiya bloc, Kurdish parties and loyalists of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Sunnis who believe he is targeting their leaders with politically motivated prosecutions and Kurds who think he is hostile to their northern autonomy have their own reason to dislike the prime minister.

Mr Maliki's erstwhile partners have been pushing to unseat him with a no-confidence vote in the 325-member parliament, but appear to be struggling to muster the required 164 votes.

Last week, they said they sent a petition for a no-confidence vote with 176 signatures of politicians to President Jalal Talabani - a Kurd with ties to Iran who is apparently reluctant to see Mr Maliki replaced.

Yesterday, Mr Talabani said the petition only had 160 valid signatures, falling short by four. He said 13 politicians told him they were withdrawing or suspending their signatures.

The rebels in Mr Maliki's coalition can also force a no-confidence vote without Mr Talabani's help, but it is a longer, more cumbersome process.

After Mr Talabani's ruling, Mr Maliki called for more talks to resolve the coalition crisis.

Mr Maliki's main foreign backer, Shiite-ruled Iran, is also trying to keep him in power, according to several Shiite politicians. Mr Maliki is a key guarantor of Tehran's influence in Iraq and forged close ties with Iran's leaders during two decades in exile there in the Saddam era.

The push to unseat Mr Maliki hinges on Mr al-Sadr, whose loyalists have 40 seats in parliament. The mercurial young cleric has a long history of conflict with Mr Maliki, but is also particularly vulnerable to Iranian pressure.

Mr al-Sadr left the Shiite political camp several weeks ago to side with Iraqiya and the Kurds. Shortly after that, he was summoned to Tehran, where he was asked to give Mr Maliki two more months to work out his coalition problems, according to Shiite politician Humam al-Hamoudi, a Maliki supporter.

To add to the pressure, Mr al-Sadr's Iranian-based spiritual leader issued a religious edict that would rule out having Mr al-Sadr side with Sunnis and Kurds.

Mr al-Sadr's response to the pressure remains unclear.

Mr al-Hamoudi said he expects Mr al-Sadr will eventually return to the Shiite fold, for fear of losing support among his constituents.

Before departing for Tehran, Mr al-Sadr tried to unify the ranks, asking senior members of his movement and the Mahdi Army militia to sign a loyalty oath to him with a fingerprint dipped in blood, said a senior militia commander, Abu Ali Rubai.

Meanwhile, the push against Mr Maliki is likely to continue.

The coalition rebels said in a statement they would “continue to mobilise lawmakers”, while Mr al-Hamoudi suggested that a lack of trust will make it hard to solve the coalition's problems.

“The problem is that al-Maliki has signed so many signatures before, but the level of commitment will only be seen in the future,” Mr al-Hamoudi said, hinting at broken pledges of the past.

In the original coalition deal, reached after nine months of political wrangling following the 2010 election, Mr Maliki made sweeping concessions in a bid to form a government.

“What he signed up to was very theoretical and not achievable,” said Reidar Visser, a Norway-based analyst who writes for the blog

Among other things, Mr Maliki promised to set up a body that would have the final say on legislation and be headed by the leader of Iraqiya, but later reneged. Mr Maliki also failed to appoint defence and interior ministers, jobs he kept for himself as he tightened control over the security forces.

The deadlock has meant parliament is not passing important Bills - key among them those that regulate oil revenue-sharing.

The uncertainty has fed a number of Iraq's ongoing crises, such as the conflict between the autonomous Kurdistan region in the north and the central government in Baghdad over the oil rights.

Mr Hiltermann said Iraq's lack of effective government has been cushioned by its oil riches - an income tens of billions of dollars a year.

He said he expects Iraq to muddle through as long as oil keeps flowing. “It's not a good situation for Iraq,” he said. “Just more of the same.”