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October 05, 2010

The Long Road to Iraqi Government Formation
Posted by Michael Wahid Hanna

In an article I wrote for Foreign Policy last Friday, I discussed the announcement that the main Shiite parties had selected sitting Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as their nominee to form the next government of Iraq. (I also did an interview today for NPR’s Morning Edition on the same topic):

It was always unlikely that ‘Ayad ‘Allawi would be Iraq's next Prime Minister. This now has been definitively confirmed and, ironically, on a day when Iraq's government formation process became the world's longest exercise in political stalemate. With the announcement of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's selection as the post-electoral Shiite alliance's nominee to be Prime Minister, the action now will shift to divvying up posts in what almost certainly will be a broad-based national unity government. This in itself is no easy task, but at least this announcement gives the process clear direction and will provide a framework for the negotiations to come.

Despite his electoral slate's surprisingly strong showing in last March's parliamentary elections, ‘Allawi's immediate political future was inherently limited due to the sectarian dynamics that continue to shape political discourse in post-Saddam Hussein Iraqi politics. It is certainly true that the ‘Iraqiyya list garnered a respectable nationwide level of cross-sectarian support. However, the dominant political factions in today's Iraq represent points within a spectrum of Shiite Islamist consensus. Unsurprisingly, after years of disenfranchisement and repression, this segment of the political class is hugely defensive of its entitlement to rule the country. The political courtship of ‘Allawi by various figures from the Shiite establishment was more about negotiating leverage within the intra-Shiite contest for power than about real cross-sectarian outreach.

Al-Maliki arrived at this point due to the unlikely support of his most bitter political enemies from within the Shiite camp, the Sadrists. The announcement was preceded by some chaos within the Shiite ranks as some major parties boycotted the decision and maintained their implacable opposition to al-Maliki’s retention of power even after the announcement.

The most vehement rejection came from the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), once the most dominant political faction in the country in the early years following the U.S. invasion, now a hollowed out political force following its less than convincing electoral performance. This should come as a surprise for those who understand Iraqi politics solely through the prism of Iranian machinations, as ISCI has been Iran’s most trusted interlocutor in Baghdad based on years of close cooperation. In any event, this intra-Shiite bickering would appear to indicate that al-Maliki might be on shaky ground going forward. 

A friend whose opinion about Iraqi politics I respect a great deal told me that I was being a bit hasty in seeing Friday’s announcement as a pivotal moment based on this continued fractiousness. He maintained that al-Maliki would likely end up with the premiership due to a lack of credible alternatives but that last Friday’s announcement would not actually be decisive in the nomination of a Prime Minister. He went on to point out how problematic it is for al-Maliki to be forced into reliance on the Sadrists, particularly in light of his past attempts to portray himself as the candidate of law and order. I agree, in part, with this sober assessment, but I also think that the dynamics of the government formation talks have now shifted fundamentally from an intra-Shiite process to an outward-facing negotiation over potential coalitions and for that reason I do see last Friday’s public announcement as a turning point.

Because the al-Maliki-led Shiite bloc will now need the support of relatively few additional parliamentarians to achieve a governing majority, the various groups outside of al-Maliki’s bloc no longer have the luxury of waiting out the negotiations and seeing what emerges. The Kurds and ‘Iraqiyya will be forced into talks out of defensiveness for their position. Despite ‘Iraqiyya’s protestations, I don’t believe any of these major political factions is reconciled to the notion of simply sitting in honorable opposition. Leila Fadel’s article in today’s Washington Post, which outlines the latest talks between al-Maliki and ‘Iraqiyya seem to bear this out, although even I am surprised by how quickly ‘Iraqiyya shifted from blanket denunciation to earnest negotiation, a move I expected to see, but not for some weeks. As important, an alternate coalition-building scenario that would include Shiite breakaways, the Kurds, and ‘Iraqiyya is even more difficult to imagine than the current al-Maliki-led possibilities.

In the end, I think the lack of credible alternatives to al-Maliki means that he will be Prime Minister again, although the process will likely unfold for several more months. I don’t think this is a reflection of some incipient authoritarianism, either, despite the messy run-up to elections and some of the excesses of the current government. ‘Iraqiyya’s strong electoral showing aside, they do not have the capacity to form a government. Iraq’s Shiite Islamist parties are now the country’s dominant political forces. This is the reality of contemporary Iraq, and ‘Allawi was never going to be able to overcome these demographic and political hurdles. In the end, this would not be an unrepresentative outcome, particularly if the government formed is a national unity government that includes both the Kurds and ‘Iraqiyya.

From my personal perspective, I would have hoped to have seen a greater commitment to cross-sectarian politics and an emphasis on governance, but preference is not analysis, particularly not for a foreign observer. One can decry the key role of the Sadrists, as some eager war proponents have, but despite this less than ideal arrangement, they are an enduring and resilient feature of Iraqi politics. Iraq will need to move beyond its still-narrow identity politics if it is to ever overcome its fraught history and political divides, but the nation is simply not there yet.

For the United States, the choice of al-Maliki will not be unwelcome. He is a known, if flawed, leader. He has presided over a period in which Iraqis and Americans have hammered out a fairly stable and manageable security relationship as U.S. troops have been drawn down to the current residual force of 50,000 troops. The U.S. role in this process has been low-key, prudent, and reasonable. If there is a desire from the Iraqis for U.S. diplomatic bridging, then the U.S. should certainly be involved and should help cajole recalcitrant parties. But much like in the case of Iran, the United States cannot force outcomes in Iraq.      


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