At the end of December 2011, Iraq’s President Jalal Talabani, backed by the United States, called for a national conference of all of Iraq’s ruling political parties to try to resolve their on-going disputes. At first, it seemed like this would happen as planned, but nothing is that easy in Iraq. First, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law and the National Alliance led by the Sadrists demanded that the meet happen in Baghdad, while the Iraqi National Movement (INM) and the Kurdish Coalition said it should occur in Kurdistan. Then, the INM demanded Vice President Tariq Hashemi’s terrorism case by dealt with at the conference; something that they had previously said should be excluded. Third, Maliki suspended the National Movement ministers that were boycotting the cabinet, escalating tensions once more. Finally, the INM is making empty threats about replacing Maliki, which only exposes their already weakened position. All together, it does not look like the conference will resolve much, as the soap opera of Iraqi politics continues.
The national conference that is supposed to bring all of Iraq’s major political parties together may not even get off the ground, because of arguments about where it is take place. The National Alliance made up of the Sadrists, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the Fadhila Party, and others demanded that the meeting happen in Baghdad. Iyad Allawi of the Iraqi National Movement (INM) on the other hand, said it should be in Kurdistan. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani threatened not to attend if it was in the capital. Allawi in turn, has stated that he would not go to the meeting if Barzani, and all the other party leaders were not there. There was a preliminary meet on January 15, 2012 to prepare for the main one, but it did not go anywhere, because nothing substantial was discussed. Members of the Kurdish Coalition have also expressed reservations about whether anything would be accomplished from the conference, because of the increasingly accusatory rhetoric between the INM and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law. Iraq’s President Jalal Talabani originally suggested the idea for the national get together on December 25, 2011. The United States pushed the idea as well. At first, all the parties expressed interest in the meeting. When it came down to actually planning it, and coming up with the details however, all the divisions between the lists quickly came to the fore, which is why all the arguments are emerging about even the simplest of matters such as where it should happen.
Another sticking point in the national conference is what role the case against Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi of the INM will play. A State of Law parliamentarian said that it and the National Alliance had agreed not to allow Hashemi’s charges to be discussed at the meeting, while the INM has asked that it should be. Not only that, but State of Law has threatened to try Hashemi in absentia if he did not appear at a court in Baghdad. The Vice President has refused to go to the capital, because he does not trust the integrity of the judiciary there, and said he would like the charges to be heard in Kurdistan instead. The Vice President has been there since the end of December to avoid the arrest warrant for him. To add to the drama, the government claimed it would air new confessions by some of Hashemi’s bodyguards charging him with more tales of terrorism. One officer in the security forces told the Guardian that all of Hashemi’s guards that had been arrested were tortured, but not confessed anything. He said the stories that three bodyguards aired on state-run TV implicating Hashemi in violence were all made up. Wanting to include Hashemi’s case in the national conference was a reversal for the INM. Before, it demanded that Hashemi have his day in court to prove his innocence, and rejected any political deal to resolve it. Now, they are asking for what they had earlier said no to. The change might come from the fact that it is looking increasingly unlikely that Hashemi can have his trial anywhere else, but Baghdad, and that means he could be found guilty of charges the INM believes are trumped up. A political arrangement may be the only way Hashemi can get out of his mess.
The dispute over the Iraqi National Movement’s boycott of the cabinet is continuing as well. The missing ministers were suspended by the rest of the cabinet, told they could not manage their ministries, nor make any decisions. This action has been a divisive issue within the INM, with some of its ministers not following the party’s orders. For example, one National Movement minister attended a cabinet session on January 17. Still, the INM has complained that Maliki does not have the power to suspend any boycotting ministers. The ministries hold tremendous power over jobs, services, and patronage for the political parties that run them. That’s why the premier is threatening to take away the INM’s positions, because it would cost their members dearly. That’s also a reason why several ministers have not followed the boycott.
Finally, Allawi and Deputy Premier Saleh al-Mutlaq have threatened to replace Maliki and hold new elections if the national conference fails, something they don’t have the power to do. For instance, the Iraqi National Movement held a meeting of its major leaders in Baghdad, and afterward, Allawi accused Maliki of moving towards a dictatorship. He went on to say that if the political dispute were not resolved, either a new premier should be named, or an interim government should be formed to hold new elections. INM members such as Mutlaq have been calling for new voting for quite some time now. There were even rumors that the National Movement was holding talks with the Kurdish Coalition, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, and the Sadrists about this matter. However, Speaker of Parliament Osama Nujafi, who is a leader within the INM, told the press that a new government was not feasible, because the list did not have the votes to replace Maliki. It is also impossible to form an interim government to hold elections unless Maliki steps down or is voted out, neither of which is going to happen at this time. Allawi, Mutlaq, and others of the National Movement are making bold statements against the prime minister, but they cannot back them up. The list can’t even decide amongst itself about what approach they should take. Some like Allawi and Mutlaq want to continue with their confrontational stance. The problem is they are acting from a position of weakness, because they don’t have the votes or support in parliament to take on the premier. Others like Speaker Nujafi, and some of the party’s ministers would like to work out the differences with Maliki, so they can maintain their positions. This also highlights the haves and have not’s within the list. Allawi doesn’t even have a government job, and is only a parliamentarian who rarely attends the legislature. Mutlaq also lacks any real authority. Nujafi and the ministers however control services, and what happens in parliament. That’s why they are more willing to compromise with Maliki, than others in their party.
The idea of a national conference never seemed to be a good concept. The problem is that Iraq’s political parties have been having meetings off and on since the parliamentary elections in March 2010. Besides the conference that finally created the government in December 2011, nothing much has come of them. In fact, that agreement, known as the Irbil Agreement, has not even been fully implemented with Maliki holding onto the security ministries for himself, and a National Council for Strategic Policy that Allawi was supposed to head torpedoed. Maliki was able to remain in office in part, by buying off members of the INM by offering them top spots in the new government. That created divisions within the list, which he has been able to exploit ever since then, keeping his main opposition weak. That’s why things like boycotting parliament and the cabinet have largely not worked against Maliki. He can still run the government, and some members of the National Movement haven’t even followed their party’s ban on continuing their work. If and when this national conference occurs then, it will likely solve nothing, and Iraq’s leaders will continue with their bickering.

With an MA in International Relations, Joel Wing has been researching and writing about Iraq since 2002. His acclaimed blog, Musings on Iraq, is currently listed by the New York Times and the World Politics Review. In addition, Mr. Wing’s work has been cited by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Guardian and the Washington Independent.