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Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. (Mohammed Ameen / Courtesy Reuters)
Last Tuesday, a week before the scheduled Arab League summit in Baghdad, a wave of terror attacks killed more than 50 people across central Iraq. Security forces had been put on high alert in the run-up to the summit, yet terrorists were still able to strike key cities such as Baghdad, Karbala, and Kirkuk with impunity. The al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq claimed responsibility, a deliberate attempt to derail the Arab League summit and undermine the fledgling Iraqi government.
Successfully bringing the Arab League together in Baghdad -- the first such gathering in the Iraqi capital since 1990 and only the second in the country's history -- would signal the return of a modicum of normalcy to a state still emerging from years of intervention and civil war. Foremost on the agenda will be Syria (how to deal with Assad's continued violent crackdown) and Yemen (where the Arab League has been involved in the leadership transition now under way). Also, that the summit will not likely include Iraq as a separate agenda item is a milestone in itself. The reason is very simple: Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and his Shia Islamist alliance argue that more pressing crises are to be found elsewhere in the Arab world. Considering the volatile last decade in Iraq, that is saying a lot.
Yet whatever progress has been made, the summit will take place in a capital shaken by political convulsions. In recent months, Iraqi politics have been upended by the politically motivated arrest warrant issued by the Iraqi judiciary for Tareq al-Hashemi, a member of the increasingly Sunni-backed Iraqiya political party and an enemy of Maliki. At first, the move sparked fears of renewed civil war, even partition. However, Maliki has won the support of some Sunni politicians and tribal forces who agree with him that splitting up Iraq is a bad idea. Talk of Sunni Arab separatism has, at least for the time being, subsided.
In fact, three months after the Hashemi arrest warrant, Iraqi politics have settled, more or less, into an uneasy equilibrium. The political discussion remains heated and severe problems clearly remain, but the cabinet and parliament are functioning again and even recently cooperated to pass the annual budget for 2012. To the extent that Maliki's opponents are defining an alternative to the current situation, it consists mainly of a parliamentary challenge to bring down the prime minister in a constitutional fashion.
That kind of bare-knuckled politics was on display last month, when Iraqiya had barely ended a month-long boycott of the political process and renewed demands the formation of a strategic policy council that would form a check on prime-ministerial power and grant its own leader, Ayad Allawi, a role in the current government. Iraqiya has accused Maliki of politicizing the judiciary to target his political enemies. Iraqiya says that, in Maliki's government, human rights abuses are systematic. Torture, they say, is rampant.
For their part, the Kurds have so far backed Iraqiya's checks on the prime minister to prevent Maliki from getting too strong. But they are also using the opportunity to push their own demands relating to the prerogative of the Kurdish region to develop its own oil and gas sector independently of Baghdad by signing contracts with foreign energy companies.
At issue during the summit is the extent to which Iraq is reclaiming an active role in the Arab state system. In large part, that depends on what participants decide to do about Syria. Since 2011 (when Iraq was largely supportive of Assad), Baghdad has come a long way toward officially accepting the idea of change in Syria, albeit in a gradual fashion, with a focus on elections, constitutional reform, and a power-sharing government.
That position leaves a big gap between Baghdad and Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which openly favor providing weapons to the Free Syrian Army and regime change in Damascus. Any attempt to push a summit decision in this direction will probably leave Iraq on the sidelines. Yet there are non-Gulf Cooperation Council states that remain skeptical about Saudi Arabia's hard-line policy and supportive of the more careful approach of the latest Arab-Russian initiative, which focuses on a gradual transition with international monitoring.
Iraq's relationships with swing states -- Egypt and Algeria, for instance -- will be crucial in determining the extent to which Iraq truly becomes reintegrated in the Arab world. Iraq recently moved to settle debt issues with Egypt relating to the 1991 Gulf War and has made progress on diplomatic ties with several North African states. Eventually, Iraqi engagement in the wider Arab world could also be key to solving its own protracted internal conflicts.
All of this, of course, depends on the Iraqi government holding itself together. In recent weeks, following the successful passage of the annual budget in parliament, the renewed hardening front between Maliki and his sharpest critics among the Kurds and the mostly Sunni Iraqiya has inevitably made him more dependent on other Shia parties, such as the Sadrists, an armed political movement with close ties to Tehran. That could stoke sectarianism and push Shia factions toward Iran. The more the Kurds and Iraqiya push Maliki without actually being able to unseat him, the worse it will get. Considering the breakdown of seats in Parliament, where Maliki's opponents don't have the numbers to actually oust him, this is very much a possibility.
Just as Maliki transformed Iraqi politics when he turned on the militias of fellow Shia parties in 2008, he could once more bring change to Iraqi politics by recalibrating his Syria policy in 2012. By openly challenging Iran on the question of change in Syria, Maliki could win friends beyond his Shia Islamist constituency and enable a much-needed broadening of his own shaky parliamentary alliance. Without such internal stabilization, a successful Arab summit in Baghdad will prove to be of limited value to the Iraqi people.