Iraq: pending troops agreement background to sectarian struggle

A suicide bomber on a bicycle in Iraq’s northern city of Mosul targeted a protest against the Israeli air-raids on the Gaza Strip, killing one civilian and wounding 16 on Dec. 27. The protest was sponsored by the Sunni-backed Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP). (AFP, Dec. 28) The attack came days after raucous parliamentary sessions over the pending agreement allowing foreign troops to remain in Iraq.

The Iraqi parliament’s speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani resigned last week after days of tense negotiations over the pending agreement to allow more than 5,000 foreign troops to remain until July 29. If the resolution is not passed before the UN mandate expires on Dec. 31, those troops will have no legal authority to remain in Iraq. Al-Mashhadani demanded that in return for his resignation he be named head of a human rights commission—andthat his post is filled by someone not from the IIP.

Debate over the agreement last week degenerated into a shouting match between legislators over the arrest of an Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at President George W. Bush. Al-Mashhadani angered lawmakers from all parties by using abusive language and insulting a number of lawmakers. (AP, Dec. 24)

The Shi’ite Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) is fighting Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s drive to centralize power in Baghdad and pushing to give more to the provinces—where the party has important power bases, particularly in the south. This struggle is seen as behind the recent detention of 24 Interior Ministry employees in Baghdad who were reportedly accused of plotting a coup. Maliki’s office denied that that was the reason for the detention. But several senior Iraqi government officials charged that the detentions of at least some of the 24 were politically motivated.

In Diyala province, about 50 people were detained earlier this month at a rally protesting the detention of a local Sunni political leader. Ten were members of the IIP.

Also controversial is Maliki’s plan to form tribal councils with a direct relationship with his office and paid from his budget. The groups, known as “support councils,” are being created both in predominantly Shi’ite an Sunni areas. Maliki’s Shi’ite Dawa Party is not particularly influential in the provinces, and the move is seen as a stratagem to counter the regional power of the IIP and ISCI. (NYT, Dec. 26)

With al-Mashhadani’s resignation, his Iraqi National Dialogue Council announced its withdrawal from the major Sunni parliamentary bloc, the Accordance Front. Party leaders especially cited differences with the IIP. Mashhadani told reporters that he will form a new political entity of technocrats “who prefer working for their country to serving their parties” to take part in the next parliamentary elections in late 2009. (Xinhua, Dec. 24)

Last month, parliament approved a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the US, which likewise sparked protests, controversy and violence.

See our last post on Iraq and the sectarian war.

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