Friday, May 21, 2010

Iraqi Politicians Break Bread, but Not the Standoff

Holly Pickett for The New York Times Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi of Iraq expressed his frustration over the stalled government. By STEVEN LEE MYERS BAGHDAD — Iraq’s leading politicians — government ministers, clerics and sheiks, not a single woman among them — gathered Thursday over a lunch of roasted meat and rice at the arabesque Peace Palace on the bank of the Tigris. It was an effort to foster reconciliation after the country’s intensely disputed election, but ended with little of it in evidence. Notes from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and other areas of conflict in the post-9/11 era. Go to the Blog » Enlarge This Image Holly Pickett Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki of Iraq greeted President Jalal Talabani before a lunch meeting of Iraq’s main political players in Baghdad on Thursday. Most conspicuous by his absence was Ayad Allawi, the man who still claims the right to form and lead the next government but who slowly appears to be falling short of that goal. Mr. Allawi departed Iraq for Jordan on Wednesday evening and the next day sent his regrets in writing, explaining that he had already twice postponed a meeting with an Arab head of state and could not possibly do so again. The gathering, described by one newspaper as “a political feast,” came 74 days after Iraqis went to the polls and emerged with an inconclusive result that is still the subject of mostly behind-the-scenes jockeying. Despite several recent developments that raised hopes that the post-election impasse was easing, including the completion on Sunday of a partial recount, the formation of a new government still appeared to be months away. That government will have to guide the country through the planned withdrawal of American troops next year. Public pledges of brotherhood and unity aside, the tensions over who will lead the country were palpable after the Thursday lunch, as was frustration that the process continued to drag on. “It’s a shame on Iraq,” one of the two current vice presidents, Tariq al-Hashimi, said, comparing his country to others that recently held elections. “The United Kingdom formed a government in five days. Despite the political conflicts in Sudan, they were able to form a government quicker than us.” It was left to Mr. Hashimi to explain the absence of Mr. Allawi, whom he joined in an electoral coalition known as Iraqiya. Iraqiya won a narrow victory over the bloc led by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki — 91 seats to 89 — but has failed to rally enough support to have its leader be elected as prime minister. The animosity between Mr. Allawi and Mr. Maliki is such that they have not spoken in years. “What makes me sad,” Mr. Hashimi went on, “is that the media is only concerned about talking about figures. Iraq’s concerns are larger than any political figure in the political process.” The gathering took place even as what concerns Iraq most relentlessly exacted another toll. At least six roadside bombs exploded in Baghdad, wounding two dozen people. A suicide bomber in the northern city of Mosul killed one person and wounded 12. Turkish warplanes battered northern Iraq, reported Anatolia, the semi-official Turkish news agency, striking what it said were Kurdish rebels who use Iraqi territory as a refuge. The acting government of Mr. Maliki did not immediately respond. The gathering was at the initiative of President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd who hopes to remain in office, and Ammar al-Hakim, the scion of a respected religious family who is a leader of a largely Shiite coalition that allied with Mr. Maliki after the election but seems not to want him to return as prime minister. “There is no doubt the general atmosphere was optimistic,” Mr. Hakim said. Whether the gathering was a step toward a political resolution — or a meaningless footnote in Iraq’s byzantine politics — remains to be seen. No further meetings were announced, pending the official certification of the election results. That is expected within days, after which the new 325-member Parliament can convene. Even then, few expect it to agree on a new prime minister, let alone the rest of the cabinet, for months. Despite its uncertain effect, Thursday’s meeting spoke volumes about Iraqi politics today. It took place inside the manicured grounds of the Kurdish enclave of Mr. Talabani, something like a (heavily) gated community, far removed from the dangerous, gritty, trash-filled reality that daily confronts most Iraqis. As official after official arrived, the parking lot began to look like an auto show featuring armored Land Cruisers and Suburbans. No women walked up the red-carpeted steps to greet Mr. Talabani. Despite a legal requirement that women occupy one in four seats in the new Parliament, the struggles for power here clearly remain the domain of men. While Mr. Allawi did not attend, several other aspirants to the job of prime minister did. They included the country’s other vice president, Adel Abdul Mahdi, and a former prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, both of them members of the Shiite alliance allied now with Mr. Maliki. That alliance is a handful of seats short of a controlling majority, but the alliance’s factions have been unable to agree on even the method for choosing who among them will become prime minister. Vice President Hashimi restated Mr. Allawi’s insistence that their Iraqiya coalition’s narrow majority gave it the right to be the first to try to forge a coalition, as allowed by the Constitution. Mr. Maliki did not speak publicly after the meeting, but in a newspaper interview published Thursday, he pointedly accused Mr. Allawi’s coalition of delaying the formation of a new government, even though it was Mr. Maliki’s bloc that demanded a recount that took nearly three weeks to complete, with no effect. “You’re wasting time on yourselves and delaying the political process,” the newspaper, Al Mada, quoted him saying, referring to his rivals.

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