x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Iraqi blocs split over role of strategic council

Prime minister's supporters say key component of unity government will have no decision-making powers, rival Iraqiyya side insist that it will.

BAGHDAD // The political deal that ended eight months of deadlock in Iraq and saw Nouri al Maliki reappointed last month as Iraq's prime minister had at its heart the creation of a new strategic council.

But, with Mr al Maliki currently mulling over the make-up of his administration, exactly what form this council will take remains a mystery. More than that, the ongoing argument over its influence may yet torpedo efforts to form a national unity government.

As the council has not been voted into being by parliament, it does not yet actually exist. MPs have been unable to agree even on a name for it, let alone address the core issue of its function and powers.

The Iraqiyya bloc, led to a narrow, indecisive election victory by Ayad Allawi, reluctantly agreed to join a coalition government led by Mr al Maliki, its political arch-rival, on condition the council be set up and placed under its control.

Iraqiyya insists the power-sharing arrangements it agreed to last month with Mr al Maliki and the Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, guarantees a decision-making body that will be able to form government policy and, with enough strength, act as a check on the premier's authority.

Iraqiyya spokesman Haider al Mullah said: "The council will have executive [decision-making] powers, it will be able to decide on policies. That is what we have an agreement over between Mr al Maliki, Ayad Allawi and Mr Barzani.

"Now we are just waiting for parliament to change the constitution to create the council and give it those powers."

Allies of Mr al Maliki, who now holds greater power than in his last term of office because of the expiry of the presidency's veto powers, are adamant the council will have no such abilities, and was never promised to them.

One MP, Sami al Askari, a close political ally of the Iraqi prime minister, said: "The council will be able to draw up policy recommendations and, if a majority of the council members agree, they will be able to send those recommendations to ministries."

He dismissed any suggestion these policy ideas would be binding, saying the council would only have an "advisory or consultancy" role.

Adnan al Serage, another MP in Mr al Maliki's political alliance, said the council would be given a broad role in long-term strategic planning, not authority comparable with the premier's office.

"The prime minister has executive powers, the parliament decides on legislation, you cannot make another body with higher powers than both, it will just undermine the whole system," he said.

These conflicting interpretations underline the fact that last month's deal that created a government, and was acclaimed by the international community as a significant step forward for Iraq, failed to address the basic problems that had caused the political stalemate in the first place

Mr Allawi and Mr al Maliki both won similar levels of parliamentary support in the March elections, insufficient to set up a government alone. They were therefore obliged to seek out coalition partners in order to form an administration, something they equally failed to do during eight months of deadlock.

Only when the situation had reached crisis point, and only after significant intervention by foreign powers was the incumbent prime minister able to put together a parliamentary majority giving him a second term as premier.

Mr Allawi's Iraqiyya bloc had been outmanoeuvred over control of the country by their ostensibly defeated rivals, but US and Arab states had called for an inclusive government.

The creation of a strategic council, proposed by the US as a way of bringing Iraqiyya into the governmental fold, was seen as a way of ensuring that happened.

However, as is now becoming clear, what that council would be in practice was never clearly defined.

Mohammad Fadhil, an MP from the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, said: "There are no certain commitments about what this council is going to be. Mr al Maliki's people say it will have no decision-making powers, Mr Allawi's say it will.

"The final outcome of this struggle will have major implications for Iraq and the functioning of its new government. If it has executive [decision making] powers, the prime minister and the council will fight each other over everything, every decision, it will be like having two governments," Mr Fadhil said.

Yet if the council is not given real powers, Iraqiyya has said it will be a waste of time and lead to the collapse of the national unity administration. Mr al Maliki will technically be able to govern without Iraqiyya's support - he has the parliamentary seats to do so - but there are fears that will only alienate the Sunni minority that has thus far opposed his leadership and formed the backbone of a resilient insurgency.

Abdul Sattar al Jumaili, an Iraqiyya MP, said: "There is going to be a hard battle about what this council is going to actually be. It will take time to work [out] who will be in the council, and exactly what powers it will have, and it will be up to parliament to finally decide that."

Although Iraqiyya controls the powerful Speaker's position in parliament, allowing it to shape debate within the legislature, Mr al Maliki's parliamentary majority means his rivals face an uphill struggle to give the council teeth.

Mr al Mullah, the Iraqiyya spokesman, said: "We see that Mr al Maliki's side does not want to give important powers to the council, that makes us believe they have no plans to make a national partnership government. They do not give us our rights, we will be out of the government."