Walkout puts Iraq's unity deal in jeopardy

Iraqiyya MPs who stormed out give parliament a one-month ultimatum after a procedural vote fails to go through.

BAGHDAD // Hopes that Iraq can form a national unity government are now hanging by a thread amid signs that a power-sharing deal has already collapsed.

Some 50 MPs from Iraqiyya, the Sunni-backed nationalist bloc headed by Ayad Allawi which narrowly won the March elections, walked out of Thursday's parliamentary session, protesting against the deal they said had been broken.

"We had an agreement on the procedures and that agreement was not honoured," said Hassan al Allawi, an Iraqiyya MP, yesterday. "We will give parliament one month to honour the agreement and we will use that month to decide if we will be involved in the political process or not."

This latest political crisis erupted even as the US president, Barack Obama, hailed the creation of an "inclusive" government as a "milestone" for the war-torn nation.

All appeared to be well on Thursday night as Iraqi MPs elected Osama al Nujaifi to the position of speaker, the first procedural step in the formation of a new administration.

Immediately afterwards, members of Iraqiyya had expected a parliamentary vote to endorse the details of the power-sharing agreement struck between the major factions the previous evening.

But a majority of MPs voted against that and, instead, moved quickly to re-elect Jalal Talabani as president. He then immediately reappointed Nouri al Maliki as prime minister, a step that in effect by-passed the deal Iraqiyya said it had agreed to, in exchange for joining a unity government.

That deal, Iraqiyya MPs say, included the creation of a National Council for Political and Strategic Policies (NCPSP), to be headed by Mr Allawi, with veto powers over government decisions, and a pledge to reinstate three Iraqiyya members banned from parliament over alleged links to the outlawed Baath party.

The walkout had occurred before Thursday's presidential vote had taken place, by then however, Mr al Maliki, Iraqiyya's archival, had already been handed another term of office.

If Iraqiyya does pull out, it would, once again, mean the country's Sunni Arab minority - the backbone of a continued insurgency - would be largely unrepresented in government, something that could fuel rebel violence.

MPs loyal to Mr al Maliki and the Kurdish bloc, which has thrown its weight behind his reappointment to a second term as prime minister, insist the power-sharing deal has not been broken.

"I'm sorry that some of the Iraqiyya members walked out of the parliament meeting, I wish they had more patience," said Ali Shlah, an MP with the National Alliance coalition, headed by Mr al Maliki.

"We want to continue with the deal, we have not broken the agreements," he said. "It is impossible to think that all of these problems were going to be sorted out in the first parliamentary session. We are going to sort them out, but it will take other meetings of parliament."

Mahmoud Othman, a senior Kurdish MP said he sympathised with Iraqiyya's concerns the agreement had been reneged upon, but said they were not valid and that the deal would be upheld.

"The Kurds understand Iraqiyya's fears," he said. "Trust is very weak between the political blocs but Iraqiyya has to understand this will take more time. If they pull out of the political process they will have made the wrong decision."

The crisis has only underscored a series of major questions that have dogged efforts to conclude a power sharing deal. In the absence of precise details, there appear to be radically different interpretations about the strength of the NCPSP, for example.

Iraqiyya insists the to-be formed NCPSP will have decision-making prerogatives and the powers to rein in the prime minister, claims Mr al Maliki's bloc has never publicly confirmed. That was why Iraqiyya had insisted upon a parliamentary acknowledgement of the deal before Mr al Maliki was formally reappointed.

And, as things stand, the NCPSP does not even exist. It will take time consuming constitutional amendments to bring it into place, and parliament, controlled by Mr al Maliki, will get to decide on its precise remit.

Since being made prime minister and tasked with the job of forming a cabinet - he has 30 days to name his ministers - Mr al Maliki is, once again, the most powerful man in the country and, in fact, more so even than before.

Previously, the president, Mr Talabani, wielded veto powers over parliamentary decisions, a check on Mr al Maliki's authority. Constitutionally those powers expired with the end of the last government, leaving the presidential post now largely ceremonial.

Ahmed Janabi, an independent political analyst from Baghdad, said Mr al Maliki and his backers had outmanoeuvred his rivals and effectively gained uncontested control of the government.

"They have voted in the speaker, the president and the prime minister without meeting Iraqiyya's demands," he said. "Ayad Allawi has had the carpet pulled from beneath his feet, he's going to get nothing, the national council [NCPSP] will be toothless."

While Iraqiyya does control the influential post of parliamentary speaker, giving it the power to shape the legislative process and control what laws go before MPs, there are indications that Mr Allawi's bloc is fragmenting and may well break apart entirely.

While more than 50 Iraqiyya MPs walked out of the Thursday parliament session, including Mr Allawi, another 40 remained in their seats, refusing to join the protest.

Mr al Nujaifi, the parliament speaker and an Iraqiyya member, appeared to be in mixed mind. He initially refused to join the walkout, then left parliament, only to return when his deputies carried on the business of voting for president without him.