Just a day after cutting a deal to end a lengthy impasse, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's main political rivals walked out of parliament Thursday, illustrating the perils facing a government being built despite a near-complete absence of trust.
Sandwiched around the walkout by Iyad Allawi's Iraqiya bloc, parliament elected a speaker and gave a second term to President Jalal Talabani — who formally asked Maliki to put together a new government. And despite the red faces and bluster, some members were quietly confident that the tempers would be cool enough by Saturday to allow legislators to meet again.
But experts said they could well explode later if security unravels in Iraq and its politicians repeatedly collide over the power-sharing agreements they reached in principle.
"That's why I call it a delicate balance. A lot could go wrong," said former U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, commenting on the difficulty of cooperation among Shiite religious parties, Kurds, and Sunni Arabs, who once were Iraq's elite.
The walkout by the largely Sunni-backed Iraqiya left a collection of mostly Shiite religious parties and Kurds to vote for Talabani, who is a Kurd, and was a reminder of the two groups' dominance of Iraqi politics since 2003. Disenchantment among Sunnis helped fuel the insurgency that was responsible for much of the violence as Iraq descended into civil war in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein.
Iraqiya's move followed a heated argument over the status of four politicians, who had been blocked from running for parliament in the March elections, allegedly because they had been high-ranking members of Hussein's Baath Party.
Earlier in the day, Maliki, Allawi and Kurdistan regional government President Massoud Barzani had signed an agreement lifting the ban on the four Iraqiya politicians, including two of the bloc's leaders — Saleh Mutlak and Jamal Karbouli. But when Iraqiya moved to discuss the matter in parliament before the vote on the presidency, Maliki's backers refused.
Maliki had suggested Wednesday that some Iraqiya members had one foot in the political process and the other in armed violence. In turn, Iraqiya members speak regularly of a conspiracy between Maliki, a Shiite Islamist, and neighboring Iran to marginalize Allawi's bloc and ensure the failure of the one popular secular movement in Iraq.
Analysts on Wednesday had characterized the deal as a victory for Tehran and a defeat for Washington, which had sought to ensure a prominent role for Allawi's allies. U.S. officials on Thursday countered that the election of Usama Nujaifi, a Sunni Muslim from Mosul, as parliament speaker was proof that the process was moving forward.
They also pointed to a new body, the National Council for Strategic Policies, that Allawi is supposed to head, as a limit on Maliki's powers and a rejection of Iranian efforts to create a unified Shiite Muslim state. However, there is so far no legislation establishing the council or any of the other arrangements agreed upon this week. Iraqiya members fear that Maliki will seek to dilute the body, and they complain that decisions will require a very high threshold of support, 80% of the members.
Khalilzad cautioned that the legislation needed to be passed before the government is formed to ensure the new body has real power.
"The challenges are: Will the law pass? Would Maliki and others in the Shia coalition accept it and be consistent ... and not challenge it on constitutional grounds?" Khalilzad said. The former ambassador to Iraq said it appeared that a balance had been struck between U.S. and Iranian interests.
"I think if the package works as intended it would be helpful for Iraq and for us, and for the neighborhood," Khalilzad said.
As Maliki's allies and the Kurds voted inside the hall to give Talabani a new term, Iraqiya members huddled in the parliament's lunchroom and spoke darkly about the situation.
"There is no goodwill," said Mutlak. "Despite the flexibility we showed in order to prove we are positive, and we want to participate, it is clear they don't want the partnership. They want to monopolize the power."
However, other members were more positive, saying compromise would probably be worked out by the next legislative session scheduled for Saturday. Iraqiya member Falah Naquib said they had wanted to demonstrate to Maliki that they would not be pushed around.
"They have to know from the beginning it will not be easy for them like the last parliament," Naquib explained.
As Iraqiya members seethed, the Kurdish and Shiite-led blocs celebrated Talabani's reelection and his nomination of Maliki. Kurdish troops in Baghdad fired celebratory shots into the air.
But the issue of trust and the commitments that had been agreed upon in a series of meetings that began Monday still hung over the proceedings.
The agreement addresses the concerns of all communities. Both Iraqiya and the Kurds have demanded limits on Maliki's powers. The Kurds want guarantees that Baghdad will solve the status of disputed territories in the north within two years and have demanded real power-sharing as well.
Among the agreements in the overall package are a plan to end within two years the process of barring former Baath Party members from state jobs and office, a review of all jail detainees, the creation of an amnesty plan and the establishment of the Allawi-led National Council for Strategic Policies.
But members of Maliki's list already are questioning the idea of canceling the ban on former Baath members. Maliki's supporters also question the idea that his powers and special security bodies he controls should be restrained.
An aide to Deputy Prime Minister Roj Nuri Shawis, who was familiar with the closed-door negotiations this week, said implementation of reforms that each group wants would prove difficult.
"Changes are always painful. As long as there is a will to make political change, it should happen," the official said. "I hope it will happen."
Salman and Zeki are staff writers in The Times' Baghdad Bureau.