Sunday’s vote for a new parliament in Iraq on Sunday could result in two possible geopolitical futures for that country.
If the Iraqi National List of former interim prime minister Iyad Allawi did well enough to come to power, that would reorient Iraq radically, taking it back in some ways to 2002. Allawi’s coalition is largely made up of Arab nationalists who would see Iran as a threat and would ally with Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt. Baghdad would go back to helping contain Iran. Sunni Arab radicalism would likely be tamped down. For Washington, it would be the best of all possible worlds– a pro-American Iraqi government headed by a former CIA asset that is willing to help pressure Iran for the West. Internally, an Allawi government that depends heavily on Sunni Arab constituencies would find it difficult to compromise with the Kurds on the disputed province of Kirkuk or on Kurdistan’s interests in Ninevah and Diyala, setting the stage for a potential civil war.
If, on the other hand, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki manages to hold on to power, Iraq will remain firmly in Shiite hands, and will likely have warm relations with Tehran. Certainly, Baghdad would have no interest in helping contain Iran. Relations with Saudi Arabia will continue to be bad. As the US withdraws, Iranian influence could ramp up and fill the vacuum. Al-Maliki also has his tensions with the Kurds, but his relatively bad relations with the Sunni Arabs of Mosul mean that he could deal with the Kurds without incurring much more enmity from the Sunni Arabs than he already does.
So those are the two possibilities facing Iraq– roughly, reintegration into the Sunni-dominated Arab League, or an Iran alliance. In a way, the choices replicate those of the 1930s, Iraq’s first decade of independence from Britain. The government of PM Hikmat Sulaiman in 1936-1937 rejected Arab nationalism and developed good relations with Iran. Sulaiman was a Turkmen and he served under the military dictatorship of Bakr al-Sidqi, a Kurd. There is a sense in which the al-Maliki-Talibani condominium of the past 4 years revives many geopolitical themes of the Sulaiman-Sidqi period. Their dire enemies were the Arab nationalist officers, who were focused on Palestine and felt more kinship with Egypt than with Iran. Allawi is more in that Arab nationalist tradition, though he is by heritage a Shiite.
Here is why I think the return of Allawi as prime minister is unlikely despite an apparently strong showing for his party in the elections.
The Saudi-owned pan-Arab London daily “The Middle East” [al-Sharq al-Awsat] is reporting that its correspondents are conveying an (unscientific) impression from exit polling that the Iraqi National List of Allawi is doing extremely well in the Sunni Arab provinces, and is running a strong second in the Shiite south (Kurds in the north typically vote only for Kurdish parties.) The report is rather breathless and I think the numbers are almost certainly exaggerated. It also alleges that current prime minister Nuri al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition is getting 40% of votes in the Shiite south, which may be true for Baghdad and Basra (it did nearly that well in the provincial elections last year), but it would represent a major change in voting patterns in rural Shiite provinces such as Maysan and Dhi Qar.
Even so, without an unexpected landslide in the south, Allawi is unlikely to become prime minister. He will need 163 seats out of 325 to govern, and there is probably no way for his coalition to deliver them. Even leading lists will likely get less that 100 seats, and so will need post-election coalition partners. That small parties willing to ally with Allawi would have as many as 75 seats to deliver to him seems unlikely. So he’d have to deal with the big three–the State of Law, the National Iraqi Alliance, and the Kurdistan Alliance (or the Kurdistan parties generally). But they might well decline to deal with him, and could seek to exclude him instead.
Al-Maliki’s State of Law list campaigned hard against the resurgence of Baathism, and Allawi and many on his list are ex-Baathists, so al-Maliki would have to eat a lot of crow to accept a junior position in an Allawi government. It seems unlikely, even if politics makes for strange bedfellows.
The Shiite religious parties grouped in the National Iraqi Alliance are said by the exit polls (for the little they are worth) to be coming in third. They are also highly unlikely to ally with Allawi, since he is an old-time CIA asset and ex-Baathist whose interim government was hostile to the Shiite religious authorities and to Iran.
Allawi appears to be attracting strong support in Ninevah Province in the north, which returned an Arab nationalist party in the provincial elections of 2009. Ninevah has a Sunni Arab majority and a Kurdish minority, but the Kurds had been dominant in provincial government and the security forces because the Sunnis had sat out the provincial elections of January 2005. There is very bad blood between the Arabs and Kurds in Ninevah.
So Allawi will find it difficult to ally with the Kurds while keeping his Sunni Arab nationalist base. (Update: I incorrectly said earlier that it takes two thirds to elect a president, but this rule was changed so that it is only on the first try; if parliament cannot elect a president by 2/3s, it can do so on the second ballot by 51 percent. That this is so strengthens my argument that the Shiites and Kurds could outmaneuver Allawi.)
Whereas the numbers don’t easily add up for Allawi, it seems likely that the State of Law, the Shiite fundamentalist parties of the NIA, and some smaller parties willing to join the two of them, could easily get to over 163, and they have a proven ability to work with the Kurds and independents.
As I suggested Sunday, one price al-Maliki might have to pay to gain the National Iraqi alliance as a partner is to agree to accelerate the US troop withdrawal (a key demand of the Sadr faction in the NIA).
Whatever the outcome of the voting (and a projected result based on one-third of the votes is scheduled to be announced on Wednesday), it may not be easily accepted by the losers. There is tremendous anxiety in Iraq about the possibility of ballot fraud in the wake of Sunday’s parliamentary elections. The Iranian Arabic-language satellite station al-Alam reported on Sunday that the Shiite fundamentalist Sadr movement was alarmed to hear that ballot boxes were being transported from the provinces to Baghdad by US troops, and insisted that the US be kept away from those boxes. (They must have heard about Florida in 2000). Allawi is on Aljazeera complaining about irregularities. He didn’t say this, but campaigning continued through Sunday although it was supposed to be forbidden after Friday late afternoon. In Basra, al-Hayat reports that anti-Allawi pamphlets were dropped by helicopter on Saturday and Sunday.
Bottom line, another Allawi prime ministership is unlikely even if his list turns in strong performance.
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