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Iraq without key mediator as new crisis looms

By AFP - Dec 22,2012 - Last updated at Dec 22,2012

BAGHDAD — With President Jalal Talabani being treated in Germany after a stroke, Iraq is without a key mediator as a new political crisis brews between the secular Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc and the Shiite premier.

Talabani’s stroke may in itself also spark turmoil — his resignation or death could cause a protracted dispute over his successor.

The 79-year-old has sought to bring together feuding politicians, Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Arabs and Kurds, during political crises that have plagued Iraq.

After at least nine of Finance Minister Rafa Al Essawi’s guards were arrested for alleged terrorism offences on Thursday, Talabani’s mediation skills will be sorely missed.

Essawi, a Sunni member of Iraqiya, told a news conference a “militia force” raided the ministry and his home “in an illegal act, without a judicial order”, held Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki responsible and demanded that he quit.

Essawi spoke to journalists alongside Parliament Speaker Osama Al Nujaifi and Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Al Mutlak, fellow Iraqiya members.

Maliki, meanwhile, expressed “astonishment” at “linking the issue of the detainees with political disputes” and “trying to pull the whole country toward sectarian strife”.

He slammed the idea that the arrests were sectarian, and warned of past years of bloody confessional violence.

“Have you forgotten the day we were collecting bodies from the streets? Have you forgotten the day we were collecting severed heads from the streets?” he asked.

Iraqiya and other members of Maliki’s unstable national unity government have accused him of concentrating power in his own hands and moving towards dictatorship, leading to calls for his removal from office.

Maliki’s opponents ultimately lacked the parliamentary votes to remove him, but Essawi called on Thursday for no-confidence proceedings to be reopened.

The arrest of Essawi’s guards comes almost exactly a year after Sunni Vice President Tareq Al Hashemi’s guards were arrested and accused of terrorism.

Hashemi himself — like Essawi, an Iraqiya member — eventually took refuge in Turkey and has since been given multiple death sentences for charges including murder, as have some of his guards.

Talabani, a Kurd, was hospitalised last Monday after suffering a stroke, and was airlifted to Germany on Thursday for specialist treatment.

“While on paper [Talabani’s] role is somewhat limited, his influence and mediation skills have gone a long way in smoothing over the country’s troubled political scene,” said John Drake, an analyst with AKE Group.

“Some may describe his position as ‘ceremonial’ but he has made it a lot more active, simply through dialogue and discussion, which play a strong role in Iraqi politics.”

Should Talabani require replacing, choosing a successor would probably be drawn out, contentious and messy.

“If Talabani were no longer president... we would likely see a lot of negotiation between different political players, not just over the simple act of replacing him, but over the terms and conditions of selecting an approved candidate,” said Drake.

“If an ethnic Kurd is to be selected, political groups affiliated with other communities in the country may only allow it if concessions are made elsewhere. The discussions could last weeks, if not months.”

Under Iraq’s constitution, the vice president takes over if the presidency becomes vacant, and a new president must be elected by parliament within 30 days.

Vice President Khudayr Al Khuzaie, who is filling in for the president as he undergoes treatment, would take charge temporarily if Talabani stands down or dies.

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