Erbil, Iraq - The takeover of key oil fields in northern Iraq by Kurdish government forces and the ongoing conflict with Sunni Arab fighters have plunged Iraq’s prospects of forming a new government into further uncertainty.
Tensions are mounting as a scheduled meeting of Iraq’s newly formed parliament to select the parliament speaker was postponed on Sunday. Iraq's Sunni blocs have agreed to nominate Salim Joburi, a Sunni MP, for the position.
The next meeting is scheduled for Tuesday. But even if Shia and Kurdish groups approve Joburi's nomination, it remains uncertain when a president and a prime minister will be agreed upon, as an atmosphere of confrontation and accusatory political squabbles persist across the country.
"Any action or use of harsh language before the talks to resolve the current situation and form a new government will worsen the situation," said Aram Mohammed, a parliament member from the Kurdish Gorran (Change) Party.
Mohammed won the most votes among Iraq’s Kurdish electorate in parliamentary elections in April.
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On Friday, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) dispatched its Peshmerga forces to take over oil-producing fields in Kirkuk province and Makhmour district which is officially part of Nineveh province. In a statement, the KRG’s Ministry of Natural Resources said the takeover of the oil fields were due to attempts by Baghdad to “sabotage” a pipeline infrastructure.
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On Thursday, Kurdish ministers boycotted the Iraqi cabinet meetings after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had accused Kurdish authorities in Erbil of harbouring "terrorists" from the Islamic State group and other Sunni groups.
Maliki’s re-election for a third term as prime minister is at the heart of the current political impasse. A Shia, Maliki is widely seen by both Sunni Arabs and Kurds as the one to blame for the current turmoil in the country. But despite this opposition, Maliki has remained adamant about retaining his post.
"They want a weak prime minister so they can dictate their terms on him and implement their own agendas," said Abdulilah an-Naeli, a parliament member from Maliki’s State of Law Coalition, of the attempts to remove Maliki. "They are deepening this crisis just to make more gains."
But even Maliki’s former allies in the Shia Iraqi National Alliance (INA) refuse to throw their support behind him again. Many Shia groups have refused to support the extension of Maliki’s premiership. The highest Shia religious authority in Iraq has also signalled his preference for a new leader.
Maliki’s State of Law Coalition has over 90 seats in the 328-member council of representatives in Baghdad. But in order to form a government, the ruling coalition must have at least 165 seats. In 2010, it took Maliki around nine months to form the government.
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Iraq’s Kurdish citizens have had an uneasy relationship with Maliki throughout his second term in office. KRG President Massoud Barzani spearheaded a campaign to unseat Maliki in 2012, but the attempt to pass a no-confidence motion in parliament failed to get a majority of support.
The future of Kurdish relations with Baghdad is unclear. Barzani recently asked the Kurdish parliament to prepare a referendum on Kurdish independence, but has not yet set a timeframe. Some senior Kurdish officials have argued that if Kurds forgo independence at this moment, they will not accept anything less than a confederation.
The Sunni Arab community, meanwhile, has also been at odds with Maliki for the better part of the last eight years, as Sunni leaders have routinely lashed out at Maliki for what they describe as his "sectarian" policies. Both Sunni tribal leaders and parliamentarians have conditioned taking part in any new government, and fighting the Islamic State group, on Maliki stepping down. They also want a reformed political process to be designed.
Ironically, by trying to recentralise the state and creating a powerful prime minister, Maliki and his supporters have permanently weakened Baghdad and the Iraqi state.
In a statement released on Friday, Usama al-Nujaifi, the former Sunni speaker of parliament, warned of a "civil war" if a new government, headed by a new leader, was not formed soon. "The opportunity for genuine partnership has not emerged," read the statement, which came after Nujaifi met with Egypt’s foreign minister in Baghdad on Friday. "Unilateral acting, domination, exclusion, marginalisation and violations of the constitution have given birth to a climate of rebellion and revolution especially in the Sunni provinces."
"I don’t think there is anyone among Sunni Arabs who can represent the community or even a party as they are internally very divided,” said Arif Qurbani, a commentator for Iraqi Kurdish media. While Qurbani said that all of Iraq’s ills shouldn’t be blamed on Maliki, he explained that if the prime minister stays on, "the crisis will deepen and the situation will be further complicated".
The last time Maliki formed a government in 2010, many credited neighbouring Iran and the United States with exerting the pressure to convince other groups to support him. But with the country even more divided this time around, and a bloody conflict raging, it is uncertain if outside pressure will have an impact.
"Ironically, by trying to recentralise the state and creating a powerful prime minister, Maliki and his supporters have permanently weakened Baghdad and the Iraqi state," said Feisal Istrabadi, a former Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations who now serves as the director of the Center for the Study of the Middle East at Indiana University-Bloomington.
Istrabadi said that Maliki "is not the only politician responsible for this situation", but that for any solution to emerge, he must leave because "he is not trusted either by the Sunnis or the Kurds".
"[Iraq] needs genuine constitutional reforms, including a leadership genuinely committed to democratic constitutionalism."