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 al-Maliki’s tactical victory averts a potentially destabilizing contest to replace him, at least for the time being, but perpetuates the sectarian-based deadlock that has paralyzed the country for years.
In the latest setback for those trying to unseat al-Maliki, the country’s president said on Sunday he would not ratify a petition for a no-confidence vote because it lacked the needed number of signatures. An Iraqi lawmaker who supports the prime minister says Iran is helping him by trying to buy time.
Tehran is pushing for a two-month grace period during which al-Maliki, who has close ties with the Islamic Republic, would ostensibly try to appease coalition partners who accuse him of monopolizing power.
At the root of the standoff is the unresolved power struggle between Iraq’s three main groups — the majority Shiites and minority Sunnis and Kurds — following the ouster of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in the US-led invasion of 2003. Elections in March 2010 were inconclusive.
Al-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.
Al-Maliki, a Shiite, is under fire for breaking promises to share power with his partners in a unity government that includes the Sunni-dominated Iraqiya bloc, Kurdish parties and loyalists of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada 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.
Al-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 lawmakers to Iraqi President Jalal Talabani — a Kurd with ties to Iran who is apparently reluctant to see al-Maliki replaced.
On Sunday, Talabani said the petition only had 160 valid signatures, falling short by four. He said 13 lawmakers told him they were withdrawing or suspending their signatures. The rebels in al-Maliki’s coalition can also force a no-confidence vote without Talabani’s help, but it’s a longer, more cumbersome process.
After Talabani’s ruling, al-Maliki called for more talks to resolve the coalition crisis.
Al-Maliki’s main foreign backer, Shiite-ruled Iran, is also trying to keep him in power, according to several Shiite politicians who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of those efforts. Al-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.