BEIRUT

Middle East

Iraq PM tries one-size-fits-all to solve problems

A youth with an Iraqi flag painted on his face (C) during an anti-government demonstration in Falluja, 50 km (30 miles) west of Baghdad,February 1, 2013. (REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani)

BAGHDAD: Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s efforts to solve myriad issues, including angry rallies against him, with a one-size-fits-all approach is likely to prolong Iraq’s perennial crises, experts say.

More than six years into his rule, the premier is no stranger to standoffs.

But the latest crisis pitting him against many of his erstwhile Cabinet partners as protests have raged for more than a month in the north and west is decidedly more dangerous, one analyst believes.

“This is around the 10th crisis since he became prime minister again,” said Crispin Hawes, Middle East and North Africa director at the Eurasia Group in London. “He doesn’t have a new strategy for each situation.”

“It’s a replay to a certain extent of the same approach, which is to say, ‘Give a little back, take it back, give a little bit to someone else. Sit back and wait, and if necessary arrest a few people,’” Hawes said.

“And it has served him very well.

“But the longer this strategy continues to work, the less likely he is to do anything different and the more difficult he will find it to adapt to more dangerous situations. ... And I think that may be where he is now.”

Maliki, a Shiite like the majority of the population, had seemed to be on the upswing last year after a military faceoff against Iraq’s northern Kurdish region appeared to win him support among the country’s minority Sunni Arabs.

But the arrest in December of a group of guards serving Finance Minister Rafa al-Essawi, a senior Sunni leader, sparked protests that continue to rattle the north and west.

Every Friday, Sunnis gather in their thousands to rail against the alleged targeting of their minority and, more recently, to demand Maliki’s downfall.

Fresh protests erupted Friday, with the army in particular tightening security at checkpoints along the route from Baghdad to Fallujah, where eight demonstrators were killed by soldiers a week ago, dramatically raising tensions.

The prime minister has tried a variety of tactics to curb the rallies.

But many overtures have been criticized by his opponents, who point to his dismissing protesters as remnants of Saddam Hussein’s regime, Al-Qaeda militants and sponsored by neighboring countries opposed to his rule.

“It is just a smokescreen – nothing has changed,” said Azhar al-Janabi, a protest organizer.

Officials say they have released nearly 900 prisoners in recent weeks, and a senior minister has publicly apologized for holding detainees without charge.

However, no details have emerged on whether the freed inmates’ prison terms had finished, or if charges had been laid against them.

Maliki has sought to coax Sunni tribal leaders to side with his government rather than protesters, but at least one top Sunni tribesman has complained his government-provided security detail has been suddenly withdrawn.

Ministers have raised the salaries of anti-Al-Qaeda militiamen who have long complained of delays over their incorporation into the civil service and security forces, but have also charged that militant organizations and Saddam loyalists have infiltrated the protests.

So far, Maliki has stopped short of calling for a national conference of the type often mooted by ailing President Jalal Talabani a year ago, when Iraq was again in crisis.

For Pierre-Jean Luizard, a researcher at the Paris-based Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, the premier has a razor-thin margin for error.

“He is caught between personal ambitions that led him to ally himself with Sunni leaders, and his base, his sect which is pushing him in the opposite direction, toward confrontation,” Luizard told AFP.

Amid all the problems, parliament has struggled to pass any significant legislation since elections in 2010.

In the mind of Essam al-Fayli, a professor of political history at Baghdad’s Mustansariyah University, there is only one way forward.

“The next prime minister should be a technocrat,” he said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 02, 2013, on page 12.

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