Lost in the reporting of the unbelievable horrific terrorist attack in northern Iraq is a bit of a political bombshell. Al-Arabiya is reporting that the emergency political summit of Iraq's leaders has failed to produce even nominal political reconciliation. This is a devastating outcome for the Maliki government and for those Americans who hoped to have some political progress to show in the upcoming Crocker/Petraeus report. There's no other way to spin this: this summit was billed as the last chance, and it has failed.
The background is that Iraqi President Jalal Talabani had called an emergency political summit to deal with the political crisis sparked by the withdrawal of the Sunni al-Tawafuq Bloc and the suspension of participation by the members of Iyad Allawi's Iraq Bloc from Maliki's government. Much of the Iraqi and Arab press portrayed this as a last-chance effort to salvage the Maliki government, certainly before the Petraeus-Crocker report but probably for good. Talabani summoned Maliki (Dawa, in his capacity as Prime Minister), Massoud Barzani (in his capacity as head of the Kurdish region), Adel Abd a-Mahdi (SIIC, in his capacity as Vice President), and Tareq al-Hashemi (Iraqi Islamic Party/Tawafuq Bloc, in his capacity as Vice President). Hashemi, after much back and forth about the invitation, agreed to attend. Iyad Allawi's bloc was pointedly not invited, despite his public indications that he was quite available. Nor were the Sadrists.
don't bother trying to spot the Sunni. (picture courtesy of al-Arabiya)
I thought there was at least a chance that they would cobble something together out of desperation and find ways to lure the Sunni parties back in - if for no other reason than that, by the accounts I've seen, American officials on the sidelines were heavily pressuring them to come back with something. It probably wouldn't have resolved the underlying problems (government spokesman Ali Dabbagh made it clear in advance that no substantive issues would be discussed), but I thought they might well emerge with a face-saving compromise. They did not. Instead, Talabani announced the formation of a new four party coalition in support of the current government without any Sunni representation. What's left is a government stripped to its sectarian base - the two Kurdish parties and the two major Shia parties - and a world of political hurt.
Sunni impatience has become overwhelming. The Saudis are growing impatient. Adnan Dulaimi recently issued a somewhat frantic appeal for Sunni Arab states to come to the rescue of Baghdad. Hareth al-Dhari of the influential Association of Muslim Scholars has called on the Americans to sever their ties with the Maliki government. The Reform and Jihad Front (the Islamic Army of Iraq's recent political initiative) issued a statement calling on the Tawafuq Bloc to take its 'last chance' to conclusively renounce any dealings with the current government and to join with the RJF in a unified front to coordinate a coherent, united Sunni strategy. And the Iraqi Islamic Party, according to al-Malaf Press, warned of the formation of a "counter-alliance" to the four party agreement. The IIP and other Sunnis are not ruling out a return, and Maliki says that the door remains open, but it doesn't look promising.
There are several ideas on the table right now to replace the Tawafuq Bloc. One of the most widely discussed is that Maliki would invite members of the Anbar Salvation Council and other Sunni tribal personalities to take the place of the Tawafuq Bloc in his cabinet. This would be an unmitigated political disaster: the Anbar Salvation Council and its peers are seen by most Iraqi Sunnis as an American proxy; they would not be seen as politically representative by most Sunnis; and it would be a full end-run around the democratic elections by which the current Iraqi government claims its mandate. The criticisms (and jokes) about American puppets would write themselves. I don't think that Petraeus or Crocker are stupid enough to endorse this, even if a superficial case could be made that it would break the strategy/tactics tension that I identified last week (and Jim Hoagland, um, popularized over the weekend, thanks) by bringing these local actors into the central state. But they could be trapped if Maliki puts the idea forward, since they would be hard-pressed to admit that their chosen interloctuors in the Sunni community are not legitimate representatives. At any rate, while the ASC has offered mixed signals on the idea, their most recent position has been negative.
There's still some minor chance that Maliki can pull this back from the brink, but it looks deeply unpromising. The Kurdish-Shia four party alliance has taken to calling itself "the majority" - perhaps learning from the smashing success of Siniora's government in Lebanon? - which does not bode well for their willingness to attend to the demands or concerns of "the minority." The failure of this emergency summit should be receiving serious attention because it pretty much guarantees that Iraq's political system will be mired in sectarian deadlock when September's showdown in Washington over Iraq policy commences.