Iraq’s watershed March 7 election
Mar 5, 2010 | AIJAC staff
March 5, 2010
Number 03/10 #01
Iraq has received less news coverage in recent months as the security situation there has continued to improve, but on March 7, Iraq goes to the polls for national parliamentary election for the second time. This Updates looks at the implications of the election, amid widespread comment that, despite problems, democracy in Iraq is looking more established.
First up is a good feature from Newsweek on the improving state of Iraqi democracy. The three authors point out that, despite a controversy over the barring of certain candidates it is claimed are associated with Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party, there were no threats of violence or other undemocratic actions, and indeed there seem to be few such threats overall. The story also points to other positive developments, including growing ability to work together and compromise politically across sectarian lines, widespread support for the apolitical Iraqi armed forces, growing freedoms for students and women, and increasing oil revenues and ability to share this wealth without violence. For this snapshot of the improving political situation in Iraq, and its possible regional implications, CLICK HERE.
Next up, noted American Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami comments on the development of democracy in Iraq and the shortcomings that some have noted. He argues that the issue over Baathism is somewhat misunderstand, and that de-Baathification is overall necessary and positive, even if applied poorly in some cases. Meanwhile, he says, concerns about growing Iranian influence in Iraqi politics (noted also in the Newsweek article above) are overblown – that Iranian efforts to interfere are inevitable, but there are strict limits to what the Iranians can hope to get from Iraq given Iraqi sentiments. For Ajami’s overall case that what is emerging is “a representative government, a binational state of Arabs and Kurds, and a country that does not bend to the will of one man or one ruling clan,” CLICK HERE. More on the significance of this apparent success in Iraq comes from former Bush-era White House official Peter Wehner.
Finally, J. Scott Carpenter and Ahmed Ali of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy look at the likely aftermath of the election in terms of the formation of a new Iraqi national government. They point out that the process is likely to take a considerable period of time – probably at least four months – given the schedule set out by the Iraqi constitution, the experience of the previous election, and current polls suggesting no party coalition is likely to win a majority. They predict a deal will ultimately done, and counsel patience and non-interference from Washington until a government is formed and urgent business can be again negotiated. For this important look at the complexities of the election aftermath, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in:
- A look at the Dubai assassination of Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh as an example of an intelligence operation from the intelligence newsletter “Stratfor.”
- Law Professor Alan Dershowitz dips his oar in with regard to the Dubai passports affair, including a mention specifically of an encounter he had with then-Australian PM John Howard. Also, Stephen King, an Irish writer just back from Dubai, reminds readers there is good reason – including a lack of any direct evidence – to be sceptical that Israel was responsible. A Hamas spokesperson agrees, blaming Jordan and Egypt.
- Dershowitz also weighed in on the annual “Israel Apartheid Week” sponsored by Palestinian and anti-Israel organisations. Others doing so include American columnist Richard Cohen, the Jerusalem Post, former South African writers and activists Rhoda Kadalie & Julia Bertelsmann, European activist Brenda Katten, and, in a video, former Canadian Justice Minister Irwin Cotler.
- Jeremy Sharon argues that the recent outrage and threatened violence over Israeli plans to include two West Bank shrines in a list of heritage sites to fix up has nothing to do with Palestinian political claims – which are unaffected – and everything to do with efforts to write Jewish connections to the land out of history.
- More on the controversy over plans in Jerusalem to demolish up to 88 illegally-built Arab homes to make way for an archaeological park here and here
- US Mediator George Mitchell is back in the Middle East, with some predicting Israeli-Palestinian proximity talks could begin as early as next week.
Something that looks an awful lot like democracy is beginning to take hold in Iraq. It may not be ‘mission accomplished’—but it’s a start.
By Babak Dehghanpisheh, John Barry and Christopher Dickey
Published Feb 26, 2010
From the magazine issue dated Mar 8, 2010
“Iraqi democracy will succeed,” President George W. Bush declared in November 2003, “and that success will send forth the news from Damascus to Tehran that freedom can be the future of every nation.” The audience at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington answered with hearty applause. Bush went on: “The establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a watershed event in the global democratic revolution.”
In Iraq, meanwhile, an insurgency was growing, terrorism was spreading, and American forces were in a state of near panic. They had begun rounding up thousands of the Iraqis they had come to “liberate,” dragging them from their homes in the middle of the night and throwing them into Abu Ghraib Prison. At the time of Bush’s speech, some of those detainees were being tortured and humiliated. Iraq had entered a spiral of gruesome violence that would kill scores of thousands of its people and cost more than 4,000 U.S. military personnel their lives. American taxpayers month after month, year after year—and to this day—would spend more than $1.5 billion per week just to keep hundreds of thousands of beleaguered troops on the ground, fearful that if they withdrew too quickly, or at all, the carnage would grow worse and war, not democracy, would spread throughout the region.
Bush’s rhetoric about democracy came to sound as bitterly ironic as his pumped-up appearance on an aircraft carrier a few months earlier, in front of an enormous banner that declared MISSION ACCOMPLISHED. And yet it has to be said and it should be understood—now, almost seven hellish years later—that something that looks mighty like democracy is emerging in Iraq. And while it may not be a beacon of inspiration to the region, it most certainly is a watershed event that could come to represent a whole new era in the history of the massively undemocratic Middle East.
The elections to be held in Iraq on March 7 feature 6,100 parliamentary candidates from all of the country’s major sects and many different parties. They have wildly conflicting interests and ambitions. Yet in the past couple of years, these politicians have come to see themselves as part of the same club, where hardball political debate has supplanted civil war and legislation is hammered out, however slowly and painfully, through compromises—not dictatorial decrees or, for that matter, the executive fiats of U.S. occupiers. Although protected, encouraged, and sometimes tutored by Washington, Iraq’s political class is now shaping its own system—what Gen. David Petraeus calls “Iraqracy.” With luck, the politics will bolster the institutions through which true democracy thrives.
Of course, as U.S. Ambassador to Baghdad Christopher Hill says, “the real test of a democracy is not so much the behavior of the winners; it will be the behavior of the losers.” Even if the vote comes off relatively peacefully, the maneuvering to form a government could go on for weeks or months. Elections in December 2005 did not produce a prime minister and cabinet until May 2006. And this time around the wrangling will be set against the background of withdrawing American troops. Their numbers have already dropped from a high of 170,000 to fewer than 100,000, and by August there should be no more than 50,000 U.S. soldiers left in the country. If political infighting turns to street fighting, the Americans may not be there to intervene.
Anxiety is high, not least in Washington, where Vice President Joe Biden now chairs a monthly cabinet-level meeting to monitor developments in Iraq. But a senior White House official says the group is now “cautiously optimistic” about developments there. “The big picture in Iraq is the emergence of politics,” he notes. Indeed, what’s most striking—and least commented upon—is that while Iraqi politicians have proved noisy, theatrical, inclined to storm off and push confrontations to the brink, in recent years they have always pulled back.
Think about what’s happened just in the last month. After a Shiite–dominated government committee banned several candidates accused of ties to the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein, there were fears that sectarian strife could pick up again. Saleh al-Mutlaq, who heads one of the largest Sunni parties, was disqualified. He says he tried complaining to the head of the committee, Ahmad Chalabi, and even met with the Iranian ambassador, thinking Tehran had had a hand in what he called these “dirty tricks”—but to no avail.
Two weeks later Mutlaq nervously paced the garden of the massive Saddam–era Al-Rashid Hotel as he weighed his dwindling options. “I got a call from the American Embassy today,” he said, grimly. “They said, ‘Most of the doors are closed. There’s nothing left for us to work.’ ” He shook his head. “The American position is very weak.”
But what’s most interesting is what did not happen. There was no call for violence, and Mutlaq soon retracted his call for a boycott. The elections remain on track. Only about 150 candidates were ultimately crossed off the electoral lists. No red-faced Sunni politicians appeared on television ranting about a Shiite witch hunt or Kurdish conspiracy. In fact, other prominent Sunni politicians have been conspicuous for their low profile. Ali Hatem al–Suleiman, a tough, flamboyant Sunni sheik who heads the powerful Dulaim tribe in Anbar province, is running for Parliament on a list with Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. He scoffs at effete urban pols like Mutlaq: “They represent nothing. Did they join us in the fight against terrorists? We are tribes and have nothing to do with them.”
What outsiders tend to miss as they focus on the old rivalries among Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds is that sectarianism is giving way to other priorities. “The word ‘compromise’ in Arabic—mosawama—is a dirty word,” says Mowaffaq al-Rubaie, who served for many years as Iraq’s national–security adviser and is running for Parliament. “You don’t compromise on your concept, your ideology, your religion—or if you do,” he flicked his hand dismissively, “then you’re a traitor.” Rubaie leans in close to make his point. “But we learned this trick of compromise. So the Kurds are with the Shia on one piece of legislation. The Shia are with the Sunnis on another piece of legislation, and the Sunnis are with the Kurds on still another.”
The turnaround has been dramatic. “The political process is very combative,” says a senior U.S. adviser to the Iraqi government who is not authorized to speak on the record. “They fight—but they get sufficient support to pass legislation.” Some very important bills have stalled, most notably the one that’s meant to decide how the country’s oil riches are divvied up. But as shouting replaces shooting, the Parliament managed to pass 50 bills in the last year alone, while vetoing only three. The new legislation included the 2010 budget and an amendment to the investment law, as well as a broad law, one of the most progressive in the region, defining the activities of nongovernmental organizations.
The Iraqis have surprised even themselves with their passion for democratic processes. In 2005, after decades living in Saddam Hussein’s totalitarian “republic of fear,” they flooded to the polls as soon as they got the chance. Today Baghdad is papered over with campaign posters and the printing shops on Saadoun Street seem to be open 24 hours a day, cranking out more. Political cliques can no longer rely on voters to rubber-stamp lists of sectarian candidates. Those that seem to think they still might, like the Iranian-influenced Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, have seen their support wane dramatically. Provincial elections a year ago were dominated by issues like the need for electricity, jobs, clean water, clinics, and especially security. Maliki has developed a reputation for delivering some of that, and his candidates won majorities in nine of 18 provinces. They lead current polls as well.
The word skeptics like to fall back on is “fragile.” No one can say for sure whether the Iraqis’ political experiment is sustainable. Many U.S. officials see themselves as the key players who hold everything together, massaging egos and nudging adversaries closer together. Some are already talking about revising the schedule whereby all U.S. troops would leave the country in 2011.
But the greater risk may be having the Americans see themselves as indispensable. The fiercely nationalistic Iraqi public still chafes at U.S. interference and resents any Iraqi politicians who seem to be too much in Washington’s pockets. Ali Allawi, who was minister of finance and minister of defense early in the post-Saddam government, describes the current scene in Iraq as a “minimalist” democracy built around a “new class” of 500 to 600 politicians. The Middle East has seen this kind thing before, he says, in Egypt and Iraq under British tutelage in the first half of the last century. Then, the elites learned to play party politics, too, but not to meet the needs of the people. “That ended in tears,” says Allawi.
In Iraq today, conditions seem more likely to reinforce than to undermine the gains so far. Iraqis have been hardened by a very tough past and now, coming out the other side of the infernal tunnel that is their recent history, many share a sense of solidarity as survivors. “Identities in Iraq are fluid, but there is more of a sense of an Iraqi national identity,” says Middle East historian Phebe Marr, whose first research trip to the country was in 1956.
You notice this, for instance, at the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra, where conductor Karim Wasfi manages to extract harmony from Kurds, Christians, Sunnis, Shiites, and Bahais. Some of the women musicians wear the hijab, or headscarf; others do not. During the height of sectarian violence in 2006, almost half of the orchestra fled the country. Those who stayed behind got death threats, and one was killed. During one concert they had to play against the contrapuntal percussion of a firefight just outside the hall—but play they did. “It was about survival,” says Wasfi.
Wasfi now says there are audiences asking for the symphony to perform even in conservative religious towns like Karbala, in southern Iraq. And bigger cities like Baghdad and Basra are regaining their old cosmopolitan airs. Abu Nawas Street along the Tigris River is once again lit up with lively restaurants serving broiled fish and beer. Liquor stores that had closed up shop during the height of the civil war now stack cases of Heineken and boxes of Johnny Walker Black in front of their doors. University students, once cowed by militias like the Mahdi Army, are feeling freer. Sawsan Abdul Rahman, an English major at Mustansiriyah University, says in the past she felt obliged to cover her head. “I wear a miniskirt now,” she says.
The changes are more than superficial. As economist Douglass North pointed out last year in his influential book Violence and Social Orders, the key to building stable societies is to create a web of institutions that people can fall back on when governments, or mere politics, fail. Iraq is beginning to do just that. The country not only has the freest press in the region, but the gutsiest. More than 800 newspapers and TV and radio stations have aggressively gone after politicians and sleazy businessmen. The country now has more than 1,200 trained judges, and courts have convicted senior officials on corruption charges, with more cases pending. Women’s groups, too, have asserted themselves, pushing for 25 percent of provincial councils to be female and forcing the Education Ministry to roll back a proposal to separate boys and girls in school.
Perhaps the most encouraging sign is that Iraq’s military has become one of the most respected institutions in the country. The remnants of Al Qaeda in Iraq continue to carry out horrendous suicide operations, and some analysts expect the terrorists to step up their activities if sectarian tensions increase, and as American troops withdraw. But they no longer seem to pose an existential threat to the central government, and have inspired near–universal revulsion among Iraqis. Nor do most close observers fear the opposite—that the Army might become too strong and mount a coup. “I think people mention this because it’s been such a recurrent theme in Iraq’s past,” says Ambassador Hill. “But we’re certainly not seeing signs that the military is interested in engaging in politics.”
Retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. James Dubik, who was in charge of training the Iraqi military in 2007 and 2008, says the more relevant question is whether Iraq’s political leaders might try to use the military for sectarian purposes. Prime Minister Maliki, who directly controls some counterterrorism forces, has been accused of targeting Sunni rivals using those troops. But, says Dubik, Iraqi commanders are “very much attuned” to the danger, and generally do not launch such missions without broader approval. “They are really trying to develop a mature process.”
Neighboring Iran remains a concern. Tehran continues to compete for influence in Iraq using every means at its disposal, including trade, religious ties, diplomacy, and covert links to militias that target U.S. troops. But since Iran’s own contested presidential elections last June, its influence has diminished. Seyyed Sadeq, the police chief in the Iraqi city of Al Amarah, is a Shiite who trained with the Iranian-supported Badr Brigades, and was based in Iran throughout the 1990s. Several of his Iraqi friends from those days remained on the Iranian payroll after 2003. Members of the Quds Force, the branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards that runs its foreign operations, “used to come here every month or so,” says Sadeq. “But recently it’s been every six, seven months. I am hearing that Quds Force commanders are busy with the internal operations in Iran so they don’t have much time to pay attention to Iraq.”
Most important in the long term is the fact that whoever rules in Iraq should be able to take advantage of the country’s enormous and largely untapped wealth of oil and natural gas. The Kurds in the north, the Shiites in the south, and now the Sunnis in the west of the country can all lay claim to enormous fields—and even without a hydrocarbon law on the books, the government is finding ways to work with foreign oil companies to exploit these resources. Industry analysts believe Iraq could raise its output from almost 2.5 million barrels a day to 10 million by the end of the decade. Even at current production rates, Iraq’s revenues last year were $39 billion.
This is what truly scares Iraq’s neighbors. Yes, even the country’s fledgling democracy is more vibrant than anywhere else in the region, except perhaps Lebanon (and Iraqis love to point out that America’s own system isn’t exactly working in textbook fashion right now). But more important, the foundations of a regional power are emerging, one that is equally threatening to Saudi Arabia and to Iran. (Some analysts believe Tehran’s nuclear program is meant to intimidate and deter a resurgent Baghdad, not just Washington and Tel Aviv.) Iraq, for better or worse, democratic or not, will be a power to be reckoned with. Such is America’s dark victory there.
With Hussam Ali and Salih Mehdi in Baghdad, and Maziar Bahari
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A democratic country is emerging that answers neither to Sunni Arab states nor to Iranians.
By FOUAD AJAMI
Wall Street Journal
MARCH 2, 2010, 9:57 P.M. ET
Forgive Vice President Joe Biden the audacity of claiming last month on CNN’s “Larry King Live” that Iraq is destined to be “one of the great achievements of this administration.” The larger point he made—that a representative government is taking hold in Baghdad—is on the mark.
As Iraq approaches its general elections on March 7, we should take yes for an answer. The American project in Iraq has midwifed that rarest of creatures in the Greater Middle East: a government that emerges out of the consent of the governed. We should trust the Iraqis with their own history. That means letting their electoral process play out against the background of the Arab dynasties and autocracies, and of the Iranian theocracy next door that made a mockery out of its own national elections.
In a perfect world, the Iraqis would have left the past alone and avoided the ban that was imposed on some 500 candidates accused of ties to the Baath Party. But this is a matter for the Iraqis themselves. In the twilight of the American regency the United States can’t order Iraqi political life.
Sure, there are some candidates tainted with Baathism who should have been allowed to take part in this round of elections. It would have been the better part of wisdom to let the Sunni parliamentarian Saleh al-Mutlaq participate. He is a gregarious man with natural political gifts, better inside the tent than outside.
But then, too, de-Baathification has never been ably defended and explained to the American public. In time, the idea has taken hold that de-Baathification was a matter of sectarian revenge: the newly ascendant Shiites striking back at their Sunni tormentors.
There was willfulness in this reading of de-Baathification. In the new Iraq, released by American power from its long nightmare, it was either de-Baathification or mass slaughter of yesterday’s tormentors. The American regency in Iraq made its share of blunders. But that order No. 1 issued by proconsul Paul Bremer, banning the Baath, was a boon to the new Iraq. On the whole, the hand of vengeance was stayed. It was remarkable how little violence was unleashed on those who had perpetrated on Iraqis a reign of the darkest terror.
Nor is it true that a sister republic of the Iranian theocracy is emerging in Baghdad, as some American officials have suggested. This is a slur on Iraq and Iraqis, and on the vast Shiite majority to be exact.
So Iran has designs on Iraq. Well what of it? A long border, the traffic of centuries in faith and commerce, runs between the two countries. But no Iraqi project in the offing contemplates making Iraq a satrap of the Persian state. The Iraqis are neither Lebanese seeking outside patronage, nor Palestinians in need of money and guns from foreign donors. They are a tough breed, they have their own material means, oil aplenty, and a determination to keep their country whole and theirs.
If anything, that border with Iran concentrates the Iraqi mind. The Iraqis know their Persian neighbors. The kind of romance about Iran entertained in the Bekaa Valley and Greater Beirut, or in the Gaza Strip, has no takers in Iraq. The Shiism of Iraq is tenacious and Arab through and through.
The sacred geography of Shiism is in Iraq, and clerics in the holy city of Najaf, or in Kazimiyya on the outskirts of Baghdad, display no deference to the theology of Qom. I hazard to guess from discussions with many Shiite jurists in Iraq that no one of any consequence in the clerical hierarchy believes that Iran’s “Supreme Leader,” Ali Khamenei, is a scholar of genuine standing and religious authority.
Iraqis of all stripes are wary of Iran. In the provincial elections of 2009, pro-Iranian candidates were trounced and Iraqi nationalists carried the day.
There plays upon Iraqis the hope that their country can make its own way, defying the obituaries of doom written for their new order in neighboring lands and beyond. There is a transparent parliamentary culture in Iraq, and we for our part ought to be proud of what we have given birth to.
Leave it to the Egyptians and the Arabs of the Peninsula and the Persian Gulf to belittle the new order in Iraq. They threw everything at it but it managed to survive. Peace has not settled upon Baghdad, but this Iraq, even in its current condition, is a rebuke to the dynasties and the dictatorships of the Arab world.
There will be irregularities in the Iraqi elections. Some votes are destined to be bought. But is the Egyptian regime of Hosni Mubarak, with the same man at the helm for three decades now, entitled to sit in judgment? The rulers around Iraq tax this Iraqi order with illegitimacy, dismiss it as a handmaiden of the Americans. But from one end of the Arab world to the other, countless regimes are in the orbit of the Pax Americana. Wily survivors, the Arab rulers frighten us with the scarecrow of a Shiite state in Baghdad.
For decades, American policy makers have imbibed the Sunni orthodoxy of the Arab holders of power. That view seeped into the American official consciousness. It survived the terrors of 9/11 and the doctrines of the Sunni jihadists. America remained wedded to the idea of Shiite radicalism. Now a Shiite-led state in Baghdad could yet make its way into the American security structure in the region, and the Sunni rulers have taken up sword against it.
In the received wisdom of those who never took to the justice or the wisdom of the Iraq war, the balance of power in the region was upended by the destruction of the Saddam Hussein regime that had presumably served as a buffer against the Iranian theocracy.
But that view grieves for a golden era that never was. It was in the 1980s and the 1990s, when the tyranny of Saddam Hussein ran a regime of extortion and plunder in the region, that the Iranians made their way to the Mediterranean, formed and trained Hezbollah in Beirut and the Bekaa Valley, installed their proxies in southern Lebanon on Israel’s northern border. It was in that fabled time that the Iranians spread mayhem all around and stoked the furies of the Sunni-Shiite schism that has poisoned the life of Islam.
There is a better way of “balancing” Iran: a regime in Baghdad endowed with the legitimacy of democratic norms. Of all that has been said about Iraq since the time that country became an American burden, nothing equals the stark formulation once offered by a diplomat not given to grandstanding and rhetorical flourishes. Said former U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker: “In the end, what we leave behind and how we leave will be more important than how we came.”
We can already see the outline of what our labor has created: a representative government, a binational state of Arabs and Kurds, and a country that does not bend to the will of one man or one ruling clan.
Mr. Ajami, a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, is the author of “The Foreigner’s Gift” (Free Press, 2007).
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By J. Scott Carpenter and Ahmed Ali
March 3, 2010
The campaigns for the March 7 parliamentary elections have proven to be the most competitive in recent Iraqi history. Hundreds of parties and other entities are fielding thousands of candidates to vie for 325 seats. The contest has been heated, vibrant, and, at times, controversial and violent. Yet the ups and downs associated with the campaign season will pale in comparison to the immediate postelection period. Following the December 2005 elections, the new government took six months to form, and the process will likely take longer this time. As the Obama administration continues to draw down U.S. forces to 50,000 troops by August, it will need to remain patient with a process that will have a tremendous impact on the future of bilateral relations and Iraq’s democratic consolidation.
Iraq’s constitution contains no provisions for how the country is to be governed in the period between elections and government formation. Determining the status of the transitional government — and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s role in it — will therefore be the first challenge. If a new government is not formed quickly, the only way to avoid a constitutional crisis will be for the federal supreme court to issue a decision on the issue. Unfortunately, Iraq is unlikely to take such a step until a crisis has already developed. In short, resolving the transitional issue alone could cause a substantial delay in government formation if the political wrangling is heated enough.
Even if this issue is resolved quickly, the constitutionally outlined procedures and associated deadlines for government formation will still create conditions for a lengthy process. First, the final results must be announced by the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC). Given the grace period for examining fraud allegations, however, there is no deadline for when the IHEC must release certified results. For example, the 2005 results were not announced until three months after election day.
Once the certified results are announced, current president Jalal Talabani will have fifteen days to call for the new parliament to convene. The first session of parliament then elects a speaker and two deputy speakers, each of whom must receive an absolute majority, or 163 votes. Next, a new president must be elected by a two-thirds majority. The constitution provides thirty days to accomplish this feat, and it could take much longer.
Once elected, the new president has fifteen days to charge the leader of the largest bloc with forming a government. The prime minister-designate then has thirty days to comply. If he or she fails to present a cabinet within the specified time, or if said cabinet fails to garner the votes required for ratification, then the president must choose another prime minister-designate within fifteen days. The new designate — who need not be the second-highest vote recipient in the elections — then has another thirty days to form a government, and so on.
Thus, even if certified results are announced within a month and every constitutional deadline is met, the process would likely take up to four months. Any delay would likely extend the process to five months or longer.
Current polls show that no faction is expected to win the 163 seats needed to form a government on its own. Therefore, coalition- and consensus-building will be major postelection requirements. Although these processes are critical for Iraq’s evolving democracy and will likely produce a more centrist government, they also draw out the government formation schedule.
The strongest coalitions at the moment are Prime Minister al-Maliki’s State of Law Alliance (SLA), former prime minister Ayad Allawi’s Iraqi List (“Iraqiyah” in Arabic), the Kurdistani Alliance (KA), the pro-Iranian Iraqi National Alliance (INA), the predominantly Sunni Arab Iraqi Consensus List (ICL), and interior minister Jawad al-Bolani’s Unity of Iraq Alliance (UIA). None of them is expected to gain more than a plurality, which means any governing coalition would require at least two partners to elect a president and form a government. And this scenario assumes that the winning coalition holds together immediately after the elections. Given the already-visible tensions within certain factions, this is not an assumption that should be made lightly. For example, the INA may be split between the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and Muqtada al-Sadr, while Hadba, a faction of Iraqiyah, may bolt the coalition if it wins a large bloc of seats in Ninawa province.
At the moment, the most likely coalition partners would seem to be the SLA and INA. The former is presumed to hold an edge among Shiite parties while the latter appears to be experiencing a last-minute surge. Although their Shiite Islamist roots and close relations with Iran give them an incentive to work together, personal and political rivalries may complicate matters.
For example, al-Maliki refused to join his erstwhile partners in the INA before the elections in large part because they would not guarantee him the premiership in advance. If his SLA garners the largest number of seats, he will likely make the same demand when negotiating the new government’s shape. And if the INA does well, it will continue to balk at the request despite the fact that it does not seem to have an internally agreed candidate of its own. If the INA performs poorly, however — it was eviscerated in the January 2009 provincial elections — then al-Maliki will be in a better position to dictate his demands and may be able to peel off some of its constituent elements.
Other coalitions are possible as well. SLA could partner with Allawi’s Iraqiyah to form an anti-INA government. Alternatively, the INA could join with Iraqiyah to form an “anyone but al-Maliki” government. Whatever the case, any coalition will require at least one other partner to form a government, and it might choose more than one in order to establish a national-unity orientation.
The Kurdish Factor
Political realities suggest that the Iraqi Kurdish faction will be a sought-after partner in any government formation scenario. Their relationship with the INA’s Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq is warmer than their relationship with al-Maliki; in visits to the Kurdish northern provinces, ICSI leader Ammar al-Hakim leader has called for a joint front after the elections. The Kurds will not lend their support unconditionally, though.
The majority of Iraq’s outstanding political and territorial issues — and by far the most potentially explosive — revolve around Kurdish-Arab tensions. Accordingly, the Kurdish leadership seeks guarantees regarding the future of Kirkuk, the distribution of oil revenue, the final borders of the Kurdish Regional Government, and the status of the peshmerga fighters. And they are unlikely to compromise much given the impending U.S. withdrawal and the perception that they must get the best deal they can while American forces are still on the ground. Any such negotiations would take time, further lengthening the government formation process.
If the Kurds push too hard or allow the process to drag on too long, however, an anti-Kurdish coalition could form. For example, the SLA, INA, and Iraqiyah might be tempted to form a government without the Kurds. Although numerically possible, such a step could be catastrophic for Iraq, perhaps even sparking a civil war — U.S. policymakers should therefore keep a lookout for this potential political development, however remote.
Washington Must Be Patient
The inevitable delays before the next Iraqi government forms will cause understandable anxiety within the Obama administration as it contemplates the appropriate speed for U.S. withdrawal. Nevertheless, Washington will need to remain flexible throughout the process. Ultimately, Iraqi politicians will reach the necessary compromises and, in doing so, will create a new partner government for the United States. Until then, the administration should avoid personalizing policy as it did in the run-up to the elections (e.g., attacking Ahmed Chalabi as an Iranian agent), emphasizing rule of law instead. Once the new government forms, a number of issues critical to Iraq’s future and the U.S. withdrawal will require urgent attention — exercising patience in the meantime will put Washington in the best position to help address these issues down the road.
J. Scott Carpenter is the Keston Family fellow and director of Project Fikra at The Washington Institute. Ahmed Ali is a Marcia Robbins-Wilf research associate at the Institute.