Iraq’s political uncertainty intensifies

December 26, 2011

A group of Iraqi lawmakers linked to anti-U.S. cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called Monday for the dissolution of their country’s parliament and said elections should be held within six months.

The move signals a growing rift between Sadr and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — both leading Shiites — and underscores the political uncertainty that has swirled around Baghdad since the departure of U.S. troops from Iraq more than a week ago.

Just a day after the formal end of the nearly nine-year U.S. effort here, Maliki’s domestic security forces accused Tariq al-Hashimi, the country’s Sunni vice president, of running a hit squad, prompting him to flee the capital. The political crisis here had been playing out mostly along Shiite-Sunni lines, but Monday’s move by the Sadrists marks the first crack in Maliki’s Shiite coalition since the troop pullout.

The political maneuvering came as Baghdad was again rocked by violence. On Monday, a suicide bomber blew up his car outside the main gate of Iraq’s Interior Ministry — a compound that houses the domestic security forces — killing at least five people and injuring at least 39, according to government officials.

At least one of those killed and 14 of the injured were police officers. The attack followed a wave of bombings here Thursday.

Vali Nasr, a Tufts University professor, Iraq expert and author of “The Shia Revival,” said by
e-mail that the events are conspiring to form “a complicated mix of inter-Shia bickering and escalation of Shia-Sunni fighting.”

In calling for a new parliament, Baha al-Araji, head of the Sadrist Trend political bloc, said the government is not addressing basic needs in the country. But others here said the dissolution of parliament was a long shot and dismissed the Sadrists’ move as simplyan attempt to draw attention to themselves amid the political turmoil.

Omar al-Mashhadani, a political analyst in Baghdad who has worked for the Sunni-supported Iraqiya political bloc, said the Sadrists don’t really think they can dissolve the parliament — and they know it would take at least a year to pull off new elections. “It’s just lip service,” he said Monday.

The Sadrists are simply trying to distance themselves from Maliki and cast themselves as problem solvers, Mashhadani said. “They are trying to put the focus on themselves.”

Sadr remains a popular figure among Iraqi Shiites and for years championed the U.S. departure from Iraq. On Sunday, he listed 10 problems with the ongoing feud between the prime minister and Hashimi. Number six was that it could “lead to forgetting about the people and their suffering.”

Separately, in Najaf, a radical group long accused by the United States of attacking U.S. forces said it would join the political process — and possibly run candidates for parliament.

“The political process is a limp one, and it doesn’t give enough to the Iraqis,” said Qais al-Khazali, a leader of Asaib Ahl al-Haq.

The United States has said the group received training, money and weapons from Iran. It became a top concern for U.S. officials in January 2007 after they accused it of killing five American soldiers based at a government building in the southern city of Karbala. The group used armor-piercing roadside bombs and powerful rockets to attack U.S. troops.

All the political maneuvering could help Maliki strengthen his hand, one analyst said. “I predict that Maliki might come out of this conflict more authoritarian than ever,” said Babak Rahimi, assistant professor of Iranian and Islamic studies at the University of California at San Diego. “Just like 2008, he will again focus on themes of law and security and try to crush or marginalize his rivals.”

Special correspondents Aziz Alwan and Asaad Majeed contributed to this report.

Dan Morse covers courts and crime in Montgomery County. He arrived at the paper in 2005, after reporting stops at the Wall Street Journal, Baltimore Sun and Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser, where he was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. He is the author of The Yoga Store Murder.
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