Any Sunnis want to be in my government?
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has refused to accept the resignations of the six Sunni members who quit last week, probably because he loves them so much and can't imagine Cabinet meetings without them. That kind of make-believe response may be enough to convince those Americans who want to be convinced that he's trying, though. Bush reportedly had private phone conversations with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Vice Presidents Tareq al-Hashemi and Adel Abd al-Mahdi over the resignations. According to al-Jazeera, Bush told Hashemi that he understood his reasons for quitting Maliki's government (which has got to make Maliki feel good). Talibani reportedly met with Hashemi. But if the AP has it right, Maliki met with Talabani and Abd al-Mahdi, but not Hashemi... which tells you much of what you need to know. They're slated to all get together soon, though, which should be quite a meeting.
Maliki doesn't seem particularly frantic, and it's understandable why. His government won't fall as long as he maintains the support of the Shia bloc (and the Parliament isn't in session anyway to carry out a no-confidence vote). He probably likes seeing Sunnis running around all pissed off better than he likes seeing them around the table at Cabinet meetings. He certainly would rather lose his Sunni cover in the Cabinet than actually make any concessions on the sectarian policies which are kind of the raison d'etre of his government (as if he'd really move against Shi'a militia penetration of the army at a time when, in his view, the Americans are arming Sunni militias in a parallel security force). He probably knows that Bush has no real leverage since he won't withdraw American troops no matter what (one of the Sunni cabinet members who quit complained that Maliki cares more about keeping Bush's support than about Iraq's national interest, but I don't see much evidence that he's all that worried about losing Bush). Personally, I think he's counting on the fact that the Sunni bloc desperately wants to be invited back in to the government, since if they stay out they lose lots of personal privileges plus they will quickly lose what political relevance they've got in the Sunni community. I doubt that Maliki is really willing to offer them enough to even allow them to save face, but that doesn't mean they won't come back anyway.
Adding to the delusional quality of all this, al-Hayat reports that Maliki approached the Anbar Salvation Council to propose that the tribal shaykhs contribute six cabinet members to replace the departed Tawafuq Bloc. They reportedly declined; al-Hayat doesn't say why, but we can safely assume that they saw no point in joining Maliki's government if there was no American cash forthcoming to make it worth their while. The fact that Anbar residents seem to support the Bloc's withdrawal may have had a little to do with it too. I was curious as to whether Maliki could legally even do this. From what I can tell (but correct me if I'm wrong), the Iraqi Constitution is actually quite vague about the composition of the government, so as long as he can survive a no-confidence vote Maliki could probably bring in six Sunni cab drivers and make them Cabinet members (if he could find six Sunni cab drivers willing to work with him, which I doubt).
What makes this so bizarre is that the Anbar Salvation Council is a creature of the American military, not the Iraqi state, and Maliki has publicly objected to the American arming of Sunni tribes outside the armed forces (it's a matter of principle: he doesn't like militias that aren't on his side). The prospect of Maliki talking to the ASC actually throws a spotlight on something interesting. What we're seeing seems to be the escalating irrelevance of formal Iraqi institutions, or at least the escalating public admission of their irrelevance. The US military certainly seems to be acting on that assumption: Gates, Mullin and other top DOD officials seem to have publicly given up on political progress at the national level, while Petraeus is focusing on local level initiatives and tactical alliances which completely ignore - and often are opposed by - the Iraqi government.
Forget for a moment the admittedly vital question of whether the September Crocker/Petraeus report acknowledges these realities (I've been thinking that this report might be more honest than many people expect in that regard, even if few of my smart and well-connected colleagues agree with me). If this were really the trend, what kind of American strategy would follow from a tacit abandonment of the institutions of the Iraqi state and the formal political process? Would this make withdrawal easier and more likely, since the unresolvable political contradictions at the national level could just be ignored? Could the US really maintain its military presence while jettisoning the political system it has created and defended over the last four years? I've got no answers here, just questions worth putting out there.
UPDATE: it's just reported that Allawi is out - ordered his five ministers to boycott the Maliki government. That leaves Maliki with a purely sectarian government, with sectarian-minded Shia allied with the Kurds.