Maliki's public feud with Sunni official highlights Iraq's divisions

BAGHDAD — The sniping is incessant, the skirmishes bruising. For months, the verbal warfare between Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite Muslim, and his Sunni vice-president, Tariq al-Hashemi, has been escalating.

Now Iraqi politicians and American diplomats and analysts fear that the very public feuding between two of Iraq's most influential leaders will doom even the minimal hopes that exist for progress on a host of key benchmarks — such as holding provincial elections and equitably sharing oil revenues.

"This is not merely about personalities quarreling over something trivial," said Anthony Cordesman, an expert on the Middle East for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. "It's about control of the state. ... It's about basic interests, factional and sectarian, and survival."

Despite a dramatic decline in violence, there's been no sign of reconciliation among Iraq's leaders and no progress on many key issues, according to U.S. and Iraqi assessments. Without progress, the open warfare between Iraq's many factions that seems to have eased in recent weeks, is likely to resurge, once the United States begins reducing the number troops in Iraq.

And while the fissures of Iraqi society are much deeper than the sniping between Maliki and Hashemi, their dispute shows neatly why the American troop surge hasn't ended Iraq's troubles, despite a 55 percent decline in violent attacks since June.

Maliki's latest lob came Tuesday when he accused Hashemi of using his position on Iraq's presidency council to block legislation passed by Iraq's Shiite-dominated parliament. The prime minister also belittled Hashemi's party, the Iraqi Sunni bloc, as unrepresentative of the country's minority Sunni Arab population — despite being parliament's largest Sunni bloc.

Hashemi has clashed with Maliki on a number of human rights and security issues. A former military officer who never joined Saddam Hussein's Baathist Party, he's pushed for amnesty for thousands of Sunnis who've been detained. He recently visited crowded prisons, with television cameras in tow, to criticize Maliki's government over alleged mistreatment of detainees, the vast majority of whom are Sunni Arabs.

Maliki called it political grandstanding.

Hashemi, who lost three siblings to sectarian violence, charges that Maliki's government has turned a blind eye to the activities of Shiite militias and promotes sectarianism — a charge that enrages Maliki.

"It's becoming more than political; it's becoming personal, and that's unfortunate. I blame both of them. I hope they can just get over it, because it's affecting the credibility of the government," said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of parliament. "At this moment, they should be together now that the security situation is better. Iraq needs teamwork."

U.S. officials express frustration that Iraqi leaders aren't acting quickly enough to resolve long-simmering disputes. The chief U.S. Embassy spokesman earlier in the week urged Iraqi officials to put their differences aside.

Iraq's "leaders have to take advantage of this opportunity to continue serious work in focusing on the most important matters at hand to move the country forward," the spokesman, Phil Reeker, said. "I think it's very important that the Iraqi people are looking to their leaders to provide them with progress, with security, with services, with jobs, and it is legislative activity that is going to lead to that."

A status report released last month by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that the Iraqi government continues to be woefully behind its goal of achieving most of the 18 benchmarks established by the United States as signs of progress.

The GAO blamed sectarianism within the government for undermining the reconciliation effort. Few see a quick resolution.

Cordesman said the disputes are deeply historical — among Iraq's population of Shiite and Sunni Arabs and Iraqi Kurds. "There is not going to be reconciliation because of some magic agreement that will make everybody forget" past grievances, Cordesman said.

Othman, the Kurd member of parliament, agreed.

"The lack of trust is the main issue," he said. "Maliki is not ready to have Sunnis as part of the decision-making process. There is a distrust there."

Maliki's latest attack on Hashemi came in an interview with the London-based Arabic-language newspaper Dar al-Hayat. In the interview, Maliki accused Hashemi of blocking 26 pieces of legislation under review by the three-person presidency council, of which Hashemi is a member. The other members are President Jalal Talibani, a Kurd, and Vice President Adel Abdulmehdi, a Shiite. Under Iraq's constitution, the council must unanimously approve legislation before it becomes law.

Jalal al Deen al Sagheer, a Shiite member of parliament who belongs to the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, Iraq's largest Shiite bloc, defended Maliki's attack.

"The prime minister has the right to inform people about the problems facing the government — and the presidency council is one of them," he said.

But Hashemi's daughter and press secretary, Lubnah Hashemi, disputed the charge. She said her father had blocked only 13 pieces of legislation. The others fell victim to other members of the presidency council, she said.

Most of Hashemi's vetoes, she said, involved minor legislation that was duplicative of current Iraqi law. The most important veto was his rejection of a proposal that Hashemi felt would hand too much control over the country's oil to foreign companies and could diminish the central government's authority over crucial natural resources.

She said Hashemi also blocked legislation that would have given judges and prosecutors in the Supreme Criminal Court pensions identical to their working salaries and benefits - as opposed to the 80 percent that other top state officials, such as the president and prime minister, receive.

"Objecting to legislation, for whatever reason, is a constitutional right of the presidency council," Lubnah Hashemi said. "He did not violate his authority nor is he taking any authority from anyone. He is performing his constitutional duties as a vice president."

"The objection of Mr. Tariq Hashemi to any law was never personal," she said, "and it was never personal between Mr. Hashemi and Mr. Maliki. It's all about running the state."

(Calvan reports for The Sacramento Bee. McClatchy Special Correspondents Mohammed al Dulaimy and Hussein Kadhim contributed to this report.)