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Al-Sadr Loyalists Resign from Iraqi Cabinet

April 16, 2007 at 6:40 PM EST
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JIM LEHRER: A shakeup in the Iraqi government. We start with some background narrated by NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels.

SPENCER MICHELS, NewsHour Correspondent: Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s political movement dealt Iraq’s fledgling government another blow today, when six cabinet ministers resigned, including the minister of health.

NASSAR AL-RUBAIE, Leader, Al-Sadr Parliamentary Bloc (through translator): We deem it necessary to issue an order to the Sadr bloc ministers to withdraw immediately from the Iraqi government.

SPENCER MICHELS: The head of al-Sadr’s parliamentary bloc spoke to reporters in Baghdad this morning. The main reason behind the move: Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s refusal to set a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal.

NASSAR AL-RUBAIE (through translator): We demand a timetable for the withdrawal of occupation forces. This is an essential topic for us. The government should have a stance towards this matter.

SPENCER MICHELS: But the 30 members of parliament who are loyal to al-Sadr have not offered up their resignations. The bloc makes up about a quarter of that body.

Al-Sadr himself has not been seen since the U.S.-led security plan was put in place in February. In a written statement, he said he hoped new ministers would be free of sectarian agendas. It read, “I ask God to bestow upon the people an independent, devoted government to be like a candle in the night, away from occupation.”

Prime Minister al-Maliki has repeatedly echoed the Bush administration’s refusal to set timetables.

NOURI AL-MALIKI, Prime Minister, Iraq (through translator): We see no need for a withdrawal timetable because we are working as fast as we can. We feel what will govern the departure of international forces are the achievements and victories we manage to obtain on the ground, not a timetable.

SPENCER MICHELS: It was al-Sadr’s support that originally secured al-Maliki’s election to prime minister a year ago, but the alliance has been a shaky one. In November, al-Sadr’s bloc began a two-month boycott of the government, after al-Maliki went ahead with meetings with President George Bush.

Since then, al-Sadr has staged several protests. Last Monday, his supporters rallied tens of thousands to the streets of Najaf, on the fourth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad, to demand the expulsion of U.S. troops.

In Washington, the Bush administration said that al-Sadr’s withdrawal from the government did not mean al-Maliki has lost his majority in parliament.

Rationale for resignations

Rend al-Rahim
Former Iraqi Ambassador
I think, whereas the ostensible reason is the refusal of Maliki to set a timetable, the troop withdrawal, I think the real reason is that the Sadrs have been really battered within this framework of the security plan.

MARGARET WARNER: So what's behind Muqtada al-Sadr's withdrawal of his cabinet ministers? And what does this mean for the government of Prime Minister Maliki?

For an assessment of all that, we're joined by Juan Cole, professor of Middle East history at the University of Michigan. He's author of "Sacred Space and Holy War," about Shiite politics and history.

And Rend al-Rahim, the former Iraqi ambassador to the U.S. under an earlier interim government, she's now a senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace, which works to promote democracy and prevent conflict worldwide.

Welcome to the program, both of you.

Professor Cole, what do you think is behind this move on al-Sadr's part?

JUAN COLE, University of Michigan: Well, the al-Maliki government was a national unity government. The withdrawal of Sadr's ministers is an indication that he thinks it's not a national unity government. And he refuses to have his people serve in a government that won't set a timetable for withdrawal of foreign military forces from the country.

So he's putting pressure on al-Maliki to negotiate a timetable, to commit himself to the ultimate withdrawal of U.S. troops. I think his cabinet ministers also are dismayed by the increasing dysfunctionality of the government. They're afraid it's collapsing.

They were there to provide services to people and get the credit for that. If they're not going to get any credit, then there's no point in holding those posts.

MARGARET WARNER: And what do you think is behind it, Rend al-Rahim?

REND AL-RAHIM, Former Iraqi Ambassador: Yes, I have a little bit of a different take on this, because I think, whereas the ostensible reason is the refusal of Maliki to set a timetable, the troop withdrawal, I think the real reason is that the Sadrs have been really battered within this framework of the security plan.

They've been specifically targeted in Sadr City. They've been targeted in Diwaniya. They've clashed with the British forces in Basra. And they have come under enormous pressure.

And their view is that the Maliki government is not protecting them, that they're exposed, and Sadr needs to take a stand. To retain his credibility with his own people, he needs to be visible against this encroachment on his powers and his abilities.

So I would interpret his resignation really as a protest, as a way to establish credibility in the face of this enormous military pressure that's coming against him. And don't forget: He has been unable to appear in public for weeks and weeks.

Sadr movement's next step

Juan Cole
University of Michigan
I don't think that al-Sadr is doing so badly out of all of this. I think his movement has become more and more popular with the Shiite masses in the south. They want the Americans out.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Cole, do you see the same kind of political motivations underneath this?

JUAN COLE: Well, it's certainly the case that al-Sadr's movement is under a lot of pressure from the Americans, but actually Prime Minister al-Maliki warned al-Sadr that this was coming. I think he got an undertaking from the Sadrists not to respond with violence, and there have been a few hundred commanders arrested. The fighting is there in Diwaniya.

But I don't think that al-Sadr is doing so badly out of all of this. I think his movement has become more and more popular with the Shiite masses in the south. They want the Americans out. The demonstration in Najaf was enormous; perhaps hundreds of thousands came out, as a sign, I think, that the Shiite south is increasingly insisting on a light at the end of the tunnel with regard to this military occupation.

Remember that we're all concerned, as we should be, about these events at Virginia Tech today. In Iraq this is a daily event. Imagine how horrible it would be if this kind of massacre were occurring every single day. And the people of Iraq feel that either the Americans are not stopping it or they're actually causing it.

MARGARET WARNER: Rend al-Rahim, the leader of Sadr's bloc in parliament said, "Now we will set the timetable for withdrawal in parliament." What do you think that really means? Sadr's people are staying in the parliament. Do you think they mean to try to wrest control of that policy from the Maliki government?

REND AL-RAHIM: Yes, well, you know that they did try that in January and February. Actually, all of the Sadrist bloc withdrew from parliament for two months. And this did not stop parliament from continuing to function. Actually, it was in recess for part of the time.

But they came back without the Sadr members, and they managed quite well. And at that time, when the Sadrists came back, they tried to list the withdrawal on the agenda of parliament, and there was no response from parliament.

Remember, they only have 13 members out of 275. And they really need a majority, not only to be able to vote something like that in, but also to get it to a debate point. They're going to find that very difficult.

So, although they may try, They failed in February, March. They're probably going to fail again. And they're very aware of that, by the way. I think that they may try, because part of their credibility in the Iraqi street is precisely this political posture, the kind of moral high ground that they take. But in terms of being able to affect anything, I don't think that's possible for them.

Future of al-Maliki government

Rend al-Rahim
Former Iraqi Ambassador
I do not think their withdrawal is going to impact anything. And, indeed, I think if Maliki goes ahead and appoints technocrats and independents in those cabinet seats, we will probably find a much better performance than we have had so far.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Professor Cole, what impact do you think this has on the Maliki government? And weave into that, if you would, the basis of Sadr's support, which is still the poorer segment of the Shiite population, is it not?

JUAN COLE: Well, Sadr's movement is a poor people's movement. Its original base of support was the slums of Baghdad, the Marsh Arabs of Amara and so forth. But it has increasingly grown beyond that. A lot of middle-class people in the south are beginning to adopt it. I think, if there were provincial elections in the south, it would sweep to power in the provinces.

And I disagree. I think the Sadr movement, when it withdrew from parliament, was able to prevent there being a quorum on a number of occasions. I think this is one more sign that the al-Maliki government is gradually collapsing.

The Sunni-Arab delegates to parliament are talking about withdrawing. The Fadhila Party, or the Islamic Virtue Party from Basra, has withdrawn from al-Maliki's coalition. I think we're near to the point now where you could imagine a vote of no confidence against al-Maliki in parliament.

And 121 delegates to parliament have, in fact, signed off on a demand that a timetable be set for U.S. withdrawal. It's not quite a majority, but that has been reported into committee and will come back out for the whole parliament to consider.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think that's possible? I know you think this is not so terrible for the government, but can you envision a scenario, as Professor Cole sketches out, in which this could actually lead to the collapse of the government?

REND AL-RAHIM: No, I think it's hardly likely. I don't think that they withdraw -- remember, the members of parliament are still there in parliament. It is those three ministers and three ministers of state, by the way. All in all, they control a little bit more than 10 percent of government and of parliament. And I do not think...

MARGARET WARNER: I'm sorry, I thought they were a quarter of the seats in parliament?

REND AL-RAHIM: No. They're a quarter of the seats of the Shiite United Alliance...

MARGARET WARNER: Oh, United Alliance.

REND AL-RAHIM: Yes, so they're 30 out of 130 or something like that, but they're just a little more than 10 percent of the parliament. I do not think their withdrawal is going to impact anything.

And, indeed, I think if Maliki goes ahead and appoints technocrats and independents in those cabinet seats, we will probably find a much better performance than we have had so far.

Moving towards reconciliation

Juan Cole
University of Michigan
I think this demand for a timetable, as the demonstration in Najaf showed, as these resignations show, is growing in importance in Iraqi politics. I think there's some possibility that this government just ends up dysfunctional.

MARGARET WARNER: So let me ask you both -- and I'll begin with you, Professor Cole, briefly -- what steps do you expect to see from Maliki to respond to this?

JUAN COLE: Well, I think al-Maliki will appoint technocrats to replace the Sadrist ministers. I think that weakens him, because the way the Iraqi government has been set up, the ministries are sources of patronage. They're ways of rewarding political allies. Technocrats are just individuals; they don't bring any political capital.

I think al-Maliki is in a very difficult position. He clearly has thrown in with the Bush administration. He won't ask for a timetable. And I think this demand for a timetable, as the demonstration in Najaf showed, as these resignations show, is growing in importance in Iraqi politics. I think there's some possibility that this government just ends up dysfunctional.

REND AL-RAHIM: Yes, I think Sadr, in fact, has painted himself into a corner. He's regarded by everyone as the maverick, black sheep of Iraqi politics. I don't know that he has anywhere to go from here.

MARGARET WARNER: But I'm asking about Maliki. Does he have anywhere to go? I mean, has he made any progress on the political reconciliation that this surge is designed to create political space for him to...

REND AL-RAHIM: I think Maliki needs to move forward on political reconciliation now. I don't think -- the Sadrists weren't necessarily the only roadblock, although they were part of the roadblock to political reconciliation.

They were against the new law on de-Baathification that has been tabled in parliament. I must say, they were not the only ones against it, but they were a major voice against it. And it may well be that -- of course, they're still in parliament, but it may well be, if they're weakened, he can move forward a little more quickly.

MARGARET WARNER: Rend al-Rahim and Juan Cole, thank you both.

REND AL-RAHIM: Thank you.