AFP: Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and his arch rival for the premiership Iyad Allawi met on Tuesday, aides said, in a bid to thrash out a row that has stalled coalition talks for months.
By Steve Kirby
BAGHDAD (AFP) — Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and his arch rival for the premiership Iyad Allawi met on Tuesday, aides said, in a bid to thrash out a row that has stalled coalition talks for months.
The meeting was only their second head-to-head since an inconclusive March 7 general election that has created a prolonged power vacuum and fears insurgents intent on derailing constitutional politics might exploit the uncertainty.
“It was an exchange of points of view,” said Hassan Sneid, a member of parliament from Maliki’s State of Law alliance, who was present at the meeting.
Sneid said there “was no political deal” behind the meeting and its importance had been exaggerated.
But he added both Maliki and Allawi “expressed their wish to speed up the formation of a government before July 14,” the deadline for parliament to hold its first session since MPs were sworn in earlier this month.
US ambassador Christopher Hill said the hard bargaining between the two declared rivals remained at a “preliminary stage,” but that he was encouraged both sides were talking to each other constructively.
“Obviously there is going to be a lot of bargaining and discussion about ministries,” Hill told reporters.
“There are questions whether we have a presidency position which is changed,” he added, referring to suggestions that the deadlock be resolved by giving more power to the presidency to take the sting out of the dispute over the currently far more powerful premiership.
“The important thing from our point of view is that discussions are still ongoing,” the US ambassador added.
Hill welcomed the fact that both sides were agreed that all factions should have a stake in the new government, not just Maliki’s Shiite-led State of Law and Allawi’s Iraqiya faction which swept Sunni Arab provinces, but also the Kurds and the Iraqi National Alliance, a Shiite religious grouping.
“The Kurdish alliance have some of their own desiderata,” the US envoy said in allusion to the longstanding ambitions of Kurdish leaders to incorporate the oil province of Kirkuk and other districts into their autonomous region in northern Iraq, aims that are strongly opposed by many Iraqi Arabs.
Hill described the coalition talks as like a “four-dimensional game of chess.”
The pro-Maliki MP insisted that the head-to-head with Allawi was not an attempt to sideline either the Kurds or the INA, with which the prime minister’s list formed an uneasy parliamentary alliance in May.
“The meeting was not against our presence in the National Alliance (Shiite mega party) or our relations with the Kurds,” Sneid said.
A pro-Allawi MP said that the two rivals for the premiership had not gone into the nitty-gritty of sharing out political positions.
“The meeting did not discuss details about presidency or ministerial posts,” Iraqiya MP Mayssun Damaluji said.
A Western diplomat expressed concern that Allawi’s faction and its Sunni supporters might have overestimated their real strength after narrowly topping Maliki’s faction in the share of seats to become the largest single faction in parliament.
“The problem is that you have some Sunnis who say that he (Maliki) is weak as he is coming to us, let’s wait until he’s weaker,” the diplomat said.
“Our hope is that Iraqiya won’t overplay their hand,” he added, suggesting that the list should content itself with two important ministries and perhaps the speakership of parliament.
The diplomat said that Maliki’s chances of hanging on to the premiership have been underestimated by rival politicians, despite his inability to win the endorsement of even his own Shiite allies.
“The problem with saying that Maliki doesn’t have a shot is that there is no one else,” the diplomat said.
“Nobody likes Maliki but nobody has a red line against him.”
The diplomat contrasted the incumbent’s position with that of one mooted compromise candidate, Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi of the INA.
“Adel Abdul Mahdi, everyone likes him but… I still don’t think he represents a real political power right now,” the diplomat said, alluding to the INA’s poor showing in the election compared with Maliki’s list.