[Update 1:14 am 1/15/08 by LithiumCola]: I think the speculation in this post is incorrect. In the thread MO Blue links to a Juan Cole post with important info, and some other stuff I’m looking at leads me to think there is a more complicated struggle going on than is being accounted for by the sources in this essay and in this essay itself.
Sami Moubayed, a Syrian political analyst who writes for the Asia Times, provides the first explanation that has made any sense to me for the Iraqi parliament’s recent passage of a reversal of de-Ba’athification law.
In brief, Prime Minister Maliki is running out of friends willing to support him, and therefore running out of options. With Kurds running out of patience, the Prime Minister needs factions in his camp, and Sunnis are about the only untried group left.
First, some background.
The bill, set to reverse portions of Bremer’s de-Ba’athification initiative, has passed parliament and is nearly certain to be signed into law by Iraq’s presidency council. This amounts to the appearance of the passage of a Bush “benchmark” . . . and therefore is a minor coup for the White House. Voice of America described Bush’s reaction like this:
The news from Baghdad reached President Bush in the midst of a Middle East tour, and just hours after he visited a U.S. army base in Kuwait that acts as a staging ground and support center for American forces in Iraq.
By the time he reached Bahrain and sat down for talks with King Hamad Bin Isa Al-Khalifa, Mr. Bush was jubilant – hailing the achievement of a key U.S. benchmark.
“I’m pleased to inform you, your majesty, that the Iraqi Council of Representatives passed a de-Baathification law today,” Mr. Bush said.
The Bush administration has been pushing the Iraqis for months to pass a law that would remove restrictions on members of the Baath Party, allowing some to return to government jobs they held under Saddam Hussein.
For Mr. Bush, passage was a personal victory.
The Los Angeles Times described the factions in the Iraqi parliament, and their attitudes to the bill:
The vote itself showed how divided Iraqis remain on the matter. Barely 150 members of the 275-seat parliament attended the session.
Mutlak’s National Dialogue Front, with 11 seats, and some members of another Sunni bloc, the 44-seat Iraqi Accordance Front, boycotted the vote. All major Shiite parties in attendance voted for the legislation, including 30 lawmakers loyal to anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada Sadr. But if some endorsed the measure, others skipped the session rather than vote for a proposal they vehemently opposed.
“I consider this law as a pure American law aiming to restore the Baath Party to the political process,” said Sadr lawmaker Maha Adil Mehdi, who boycotted the session. “I refuse this law completely.”
Others whose parties have been associated with the mass purges and even attacks on former Baathists backed the law.
“From the beginning, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council was backing this law because there are many people suffering from this law and others are using this law to revenge and to gain more authority,” said parliament member Hamid Mualla, a member of the party.
The Iraqi Islamic Party, the largest Sunni party in parliament, endorsed the legislation as a compromise. “We want to push the national reconciliation ahead and calm things down among the Iraqis, and this might not help a lot,” said Nureddine Hayali, a lawmaker with the party.
This description of the Iraqi parliament, confusing as the factions are, sounds like the same-old same-old of division and distrust. So, why did Prime Minister Maliki and the enough Shiites decide, now, that they wanted a bill allowing many ex-Ba’athist Sunnis back into government jobs?
According to Sami Moubayed, Prime Minister Maliki had no choice. The Kurds are on the verge of abandoning him, and several Shiite factions have already done so. To put it simply, Maliki needs someone, anyone, who will support his position, and Sunnis are the only choice left.
Unlike any other time since Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki came to power in 2006, his tenure is under real threat. This time, Maliki’s exodus is not being engineered by his long-time rivals in the Sunni community, but rather by the Kurds: friends of yesterday, enemies of today. This is what he was reportedly told by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown during his recent visit to London.
The Kurds had been counting on Maliki to deliver Kirkuk to them by the December deadline, and also to keep Turkey out of the Kurdish north. Maliki could do neither.
Simply put, the Kurds have lost faith in Maliki. Last December, they sent him an ultimatum, showing grave concerns over his failed policies with regard to the Kurdish issue. Barzani visited him in Baghdad to demand more action on the issue of Kirkuk, but returned to Irbil empty handed. Commenting on the failed meeting, he said; “Sadly, the Kurdish delegation returned without achieving any results.”
Maliki is therefore struggling to cobble together a new coalition to support him. Pickings are getting slim, as he has lost many friends. He needs a few good Sunnis.
Additionally, Maliki’s team is trying to put together a new alliance that excludes the angry Kurds, composed of the National Dialogue Front (Sunni) that is led by Saleh al-Motlak, the Iraqi National List (secular) that is lead by Allawi, the Sadrist bloc headed by Muqtada, the Iraqi People’s Congress, led by Adnan al-Duleimi, and the Da’wa Party, headed by Maliki himself.
He has also backed a law originally advised by former US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad – bringing thousands of Ba’athists (all Sunnis) back into government. And so it was that on Sunday Parliament passed a bill allowing lower-ranking former members of the Ba’ath party to reclaim government jobs. Washington has been pushing for the legislation, which will become law after being processed by the sluggish Iraqi bureaucracy and approved by the presidential council, consisting of the president and two vice presidents.
The passage of Bush’s “benchmark”, then, seems to amount to another momentary shift in balance of power between Shiite, Sunni, and Kurd, while Maliki tries to balance on top of the pyramid.