As Iraqi Political Crisis Deepens, Kurds See Role as Kingmaker

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Sectarian tensions in Iraq eased a bit today. Members of the Sunni political bloc, Iraqiya, ended their boycott of parliament. They had refused to attend the legislature since mid-December. That was when the government of Iraq's Shiite Prime Minister ordered the arrest of a Sunni vice president on terrorism charges. The move, which came just days after the last US forces left the country, threatened to ignite a new round of sectarian violence in Iraq. But the end of Sunni boycott in parliament today doesn't mean the political crisis is over in Baghdad, and the tensions between Iraq's Sunnis and Shiites is still very high. Reporter Jane Arraf is in Erbil, in the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq. Jane, does the political crisis in Baghdad seem far away there in the somewhat autonomous north? What's the mood in Kurdistan?

Jane Arraf: This is being seen as the biggest political crisis since Saddam Hussein was toppled. And the reason the Kurds are involved is that we ended up here with a coalition government engineered by the United States in part because nobody could really agree on who should form the government. Now, the coalition includes the Kurds, it includes the Sunnis, and it includes Prime Minister al-Maliki's mostly Shia parties, and the Kurds have been the "kingmakers." They're being looked at again as the people who could possible solve this, but there are so many missing pieces in this puzzle that no one is entirely sure it actually can be solved.

Werman: Well, just a few examples of the political crisis in Baghdad, and then I want to ask you how the Kurds might solve it. I mean we've heard about the vice president's arrest, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki trying to fire his deputy for calling him a dictator, no interior or defense minister for almost two years, so what exactly can the Kurds do?

Arraf: Well, the politicians who are supposed to be leading this country cannot sit down in the same room and have a conversation. I spoke with vice president Tariq al-Hashemi, who's in exile here in northern Iraq, and he said the last time he really spoke to the prime minister was a year ago. They've been communicating through text messages and things like that, and also of course, through arrest warrants. So what the Kurds want to do is convene a conference that would bring together the Kurdish president, the prime minister, the head of the Sunni-backed party, possibly Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr, and actually have them hammer out beforehand how they're going to solve this.

Werman: Now, Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, as you say, he went into exile in the north several weeks ago; that was after the Iraq government issued an arrest warrant against him. Tell us where he is.

Arraf: I would love to tell you where he is, but as I was leaving the interview they said, please don't say exactly where he is. However, he is a guest of President Masoud Al Barzani, the Kurdish President here in the north of Iraq.

Werman: And Vice President al-Hashemi is taking it quite personally. Let's hear how he characterized, for you, his treatment at the hands of Iraq's Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki.

Tariq al-Hashemi: Arresting my bodyguard, not allowing and asking all my staff to leave, confiscating my private computers, and I am a vice president. I'm really shocked about the behavior of al-Maliki.

Werman: Jane, let me ask you first of all, is there any evidence supporting the notion that Hashemi was running death squads?

Arraf: That is the question and he says these are politically engineered charges that he will answer, but he won't go back to Baghdad. He says he won't receive a fair trial there, but what he does say and is well, interesting, is he's an ex-army officer and he says he has imposed strict discipline, but at the same time he says he cannot swear that none of his guards were involved in this. What he does say is they're not being given a fair trial.

Werman: Jane Arraf, can Iraq's vice president, Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni, now in exile, return to Baghdad to work with Iraq's Shiite prime minister? I mean do you see any scenario where they and the factions they represent pull together?

Arraf: This has become so bitter and this has become very personal as well between President Barzani and Nouri al-Maliki. Barzani, the Kurdish president, believes that he actually handed al-Maliki his job. The Kurds backed Maliki when he didn't have enough support to form a government. And now Barzani feels that Maliki has betrayed them, and a lot of people feel that way. So what we've got really is a prime minister fighting for his job, a very polarized political system, and really not very much at all getting done in the country, which is why a lot of Iraqis are really fed up.

Werman: Correspondent Jane Arraf in Erbil in northern Iraq, thank you for speaking with us.

Arraf: Thank you, Marco.