FACTBOX: Iraq’s volatile politics

Iraq’s parliament is deadlocked over passing key legislation, including the 2008 budget. At the same time, the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is under mounting pressure to take advantage of better security to improve the delivery of basic services and speed up reconciliation by pushing through important laws.Following are answers to questions about Iraq’s current political situation:

WHAT IS HAPPENING AT PARLIAMENT?

MPs stormed out of parliament on Tuesday after blocking a vote on the 2008 budget and other bills including an amnesty law that could free thousands of prisoners. That triggered calls for parliament to be disbanded and new elections held. The crux of the problem is that Shi’ite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish factions do not want to be the first to make compromises needed to get a package of laws, including the budget, passed. Despite the acrimony, parliament was expected to convene later on Wednesday, the legislature’s media office said.

WILL PARLIAMENT BE DISBANDED?

Parliament speaker Mahmoud Mashhadani said he might ask the presidency council to dissolve it unless the row was resolved. The council comprises Iraq’s president and two vice presidents. According to the constitution, parliament can dissolve itself only with the consent of the absolute majority of its members, or upon the request of the prime minister and with the approval of the president. Mashhadani did not elaborate, but given the upheaval a dissolution would cause, such a scenario at this stage seems unlikely. Many MPs would also be unwilling to give up their jobs, which they have held for less than two years.

HOW STRONG IS MALIKI’S POSITION?

As in 2007, speculation persists that some factions want to launch a no-confidence motion against Maliki, a Shi’ite Islamist. One official close to Maliki believes his position is stable and that any no-confidence measure would fail.

A U.S. official in Baghdad agreed.

“I think that as dissatisfied — as in some instances even some of his close partners are — they recognize that a change in government entails inevitably a prolonged period of lapse in the ability of the government to deliver services and that is what everybody says is the key thing to do,” said the official.

HOW IS MALIKI GOVERNING?

Maliki has been criticized for keeping decision-making confined to a small circle of Shi’ite advisers. But since mid-January, he has held weekly meetings with the president, who is a Kurd, and the two vice presidents, respectively a Shi’ite and a Sunni Arab. This “Executive Council” has a secretariat and officials who follow up on decisions.

“We see Maliki willing to act in a more collaborative fashion, recognizing he needs to reach out beyond his very narrow base of support, even within his own party and to govern in a different manner than he had been,” said the U.S. official.

WHAT ABOUT FACTIONS WHO QUIT THE CABINET?

Maliki’s government was hit last year by walkouts from ministers representing nearly half his cabinet. This included six ministers from the main Sunni Arab bloc, the Accordance Front, and ministers loyal to Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

The Front says it is ready to return, but wants certain demands met, such as the release of thousands of security detainees, who are mainly Sunni Arabs. A small, secular party called the Iraqi National List might also rejoin.

But Maliki is frustrated with the delays, and may appoint other ministers to fill the vacant posts.

A NEW POLITICAL MOMENTUM?

Despite the parliamentary crisis and the government’s failure to make good on promises to improve basic services such as electricity supply, the United States believes Iraq’s leaders have become more effective.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, once highly critical of the slow progress toward reconciliation, said enroute to Baghdad on Sunday that Iraq’s leaders “seem to have become energized in the last few weeks”. The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, also believes the leadership has found new momentum.

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