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Al-Maliki Copes with Demands for Autonomy, New Elections

With the US out, the situation in Iraq has quickly deteriorated, threatening the country's unity.
By Aryeh ben Hayim
First Publish: 12/28/2011, 1:15 AM

As soon as the US totally withdrew its forces from Iraq claiming victory, the country faced growing chaos. Not only did the bombings resume with a vengeance, but the government and the entire country appear on the verge of unraveling.

A de facto Kurdish autonomy already exists and now the Sunni provinces of Iraq are clamoring for and claiming semi-autonomy status for themselves.

Some key members of the cabinet, including Finance Minister Rafie al-Issawi, are boycotting the cabinet for its refusal to grant the autonomy requests. Al-Issawi told the Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki "Respect your partners or you will be swept away by the Arab Spring and become a thing of the past".

Rather than employing persuasion and dialogue, the Prime Minister is trying to buy off members of Al-Issawi's party by promising them cabinet posts and other perks.

Maliki has turned down the autonomy moves, claiming that they will gut the central government of authority. He is trying to use Sunni tribes opposed to the autonomy to push back against the rival tribes who are backing autonomy. The support, however, will come at a price because one of the tribes is demanding more jobs for Sunnis in the security forces and a halt to the harassment of people suspected of belonging to the banned Baath party of Saddam Hussein.

Now Maliki faces a new threat from his own Shiite camp. The party representing the political wing of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi army has called for the dissolution of Parliament and new elections.

Bahaa al-Aaraji, the head of the Sadrist movement's bloc in Parliament, said elections are needed because "present partners [in government] can't come up with solutions in addition to the threat of Iraq's partition."

With US troops out, the Americans have diminished leverage. They are trying to use the Kurds to mediate between the Shiites and Sunnis over the outstanding issues. They are also using pending arms deals and relations with the predominantly Sunni Gulf States as bargaining cards.

The deterioration in Iraq will undoubtedly provoke criticism of the Obama administration's decision to cut back US forces. This criticism will, however, be offset by American public opinion which predominantly shares Barack Obama's appraisal that the US has done its share to provide Iraq with an opportunity and it is now up to the Iraqis. This perception will only be reversed if the deterioration in Iraq begins to visibly harm American interests.