President Barack Obama’s meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on Tuesday generated few deadlines, but some important things were said.
Obama stressed the need for the Iraqi parliament to pass an election law to enable parliamentary elections to be held on January 16. If the law isn’t passed soon, the elections won’t be held on schedule.
This delay would be a severe problem for the US military, which is stuck in Iraq without much to do but waiting to play one last big role, in closing down the country and providing enough security so that elections can be held. While the Iraqi army has gotten better at doing independent patrols and taking on gangs and militias in Shiite areas, it still is not very much in control of the Sunni regions, and it is not clear that it could oversee elections even in the wilder Shiite provinces such as Maysan. (That Iraq still cannot hope to have a simple election without massive security and the prohibition of vehicular traffic for 3 days speaks eloquently to how hard a row genuine democracy still has in that country. That US troops are available for joint patrols with the Iraqi army, which it helped train, but that the Iraqi army is studiedly disinterested, shows how much Americans are actually disliked in Iraq, a very nationalistic country that feels itself run roughshod over).
Al-Zaman reports in Arabic that the Iraqi parliament has thrown up its hands in despair about crafting an election law. Many parliamentarians haven’t even been coming to the sessions, because there is such bad blood among the MPs over this and other issues. Some blame the intransigence of the Kurdistan Alliance, which is sensitive about the conditions under which elections are conducted in Kirkuk Province, which the Kurdistan Regional Government wants to annex, but the annexation of which is opposed by Arabs and Turkmen.
So parliament is asking the Political Council for National Security to draft the legislation, and to have parliament simply conduct an up and down vote on the resulting bill. The PCNS consists of President Jalal Talabani, Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, Vice President Adil Abdul Maliki, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, and Kurdistan Regional Government president Massoud Barzani. The council is not specified in the constitution, much less having been given a legislative role, and some critics of this plan are complaining that it is unconstitutional.
It takes 90 days to organize an election in Iraq, so last Monday was technically the deadline for the passage of the legislation. The election must be held by Jan. 31 to be constitutional. The prospect of another sketchy election, after the fiasco in Afghanistan, is worrying the UN and the US military.
Meanwhile, what is probably the last of three major political coalitions was announced on Tuesday, and is analyzed by Reidar Vissar. It comprises both the Sunni Awakening Councils of al-Anbar under the leadership of Abu Risha, and the coterie of Interior Minister Jawad al-Bulani, a Shiite independent. Reidar hails it as cross-sectarian but admits that it may not amount to much in the actual election. I concur in his pessimism. My guess is that the Shiite religious coalition and the Government of Laws coalition (mainly the Islamic Mission or Da’wa Party) of PM al-Maliki will be the major Arab forces in the election, and will likely go into a post-election coalition with one another, preserving the dominance of the religious Shiites.
One wild card is that the Iraqi constitution stipulates that the largest single party in parliament gets the first shot at forming a government. If al-Maliki’s party doesn’t do as well as he expects, he could well lose the prime ministership. Since some of the improved security in Iraq derived from al-Maliki’s talent in gaining control of the army and security forces, and since a new prime minister may not be as adept, the post-election situation in Iraq could be very unstable. That situation would in turn put pressure on the Obama administration to slow the US troop drawdown, at a time when Afghanistan will likely still be very hot and making demands on the administration’s resources. Bush bequeathed Obama two major wars, and it would be ironic if Iraq and Afghanistan both deteriorate simultaneously, putting a squeeze play on the administration and endangering its reelection prospects.
Here is the White House video of the Obama/al-Maliki press conference. (Al-Maliki looks a little impatient during the long preface on Afghanistan issues, which surely signal which country is more important to President Obama). The emphasis on investment opportunities in Iraq is probably premature; if a country can’t hold elections without a large foreign army’s help, it is too soon to make big investments in it.
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