Iraqi politicians have finally begun forming a government at long last, 8 months after the parliamentary elections of March 7. Parliament finally met Thursday and elected Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani president once again. By the constitution, the president then asks the leader of the bloc with the largest number of seats in parliament to attempt to form a government, for which he has 30 days.
Talabani tapped Shiite lay leader Nuri al-Maliki, whose current (post-election) coalition has over 140 seats of the 163 needed for a majority in parliament. Al-Maliki leads the lay Shiite fundamentalist party, the Da`wa or Islamic Mission Party, which is at the core of the State of Law coalition. Al-Maliki had been a Shiite plotter against Saddam Hussein, based in Damascus, in the late 1980s and the 1990s.
Technically, Iyad Allawi’s secular, nationalist Iraqiya Party has 91 seats to al-Maliki’s 89. But al-Maliki has found a lot of new coalition partners since the election, which the Iraqi supreme court recognized as legitimate; that is, it said that post-election coalitions could legitimately be formed and could make a bid to form a government. Allawi was a Baathist in his youth but he broke with the party and became an important dissident. In the 1990s, when he was based in London the CIA picked him up to recruit Iraqi officers to defect.) Allawi’s two constituents, the Sunni Arabs and the US, both want him to be influential in the government and to work against Iranian dominance of it. Some 80% of the Sunni Arabs voted for Allawi’s Iraqiya Party in March.
Aljazeera English reports that
Iraqiya has said its participation hinged on four conditions: a bill forming the security body, a committee examining cases against political detainees, codifying the power-sharing deal and annulling the bans against the three Iraqiya members.’
Once parliament met, with Iraqiya figure Osama al-Nujayfi as the new speaker, he moved to have parliament lift the ban on the 3— Salih al-Mutlak, Zafar al-Ani, and Rasim al-Awadi. The ‘Justice and Accountability Commission,’ led by partisan Shiites, had banned the three for being too close to the now-defunct Baath Party. But only 58 MPs voted to lift the ban,which looked to the Sunnis like bad faith. The largely Sunni members of parliament staged a walkout, which Nujayfi briefly joined, before returning to hold the election for president.
This walkout was not a signal that they might leave the government but simply a way of holding the ruling group’s feet to the fire on following through on the promises they made to the Iraqiya leadership.
The controversy about lifting the ban illustrates the problems with the formula reached Thursday. Much of what Iraqiya wants, and was promised, depends on further votes or legislation that may not go its way. For instance, Iyad Allawi was made the head of what is essentially a national security council, but that body is not in the constitution and will have to be approved by parliament, not just by the cabinet– and getting it through parliament may be difficult. The US has hoped for some time that it could find a way to shoe-horn Allawi into a position that would allow him to be influential on national security, since he favors the US and dislikes Iran. Although the US got some of what it wants, on paper, on Thursday, I wouldn’t bet on that security council looking the way Washington wants it to look, or actually being about to over-rule pro-Iranian forces in the government and the armed forces (much less to get divert the loyalty of most of the armed forces away from al-Maliki, who has a certain number of the field officers reporting to him directly).
I don’t think there is any way to interpret what has happened except as a victory for Iran. Iran decided some time ago it wanted a second term for al-Maliki, presumably largely on security grounds. Iran had sided with al-Maliki in his crackdown on the Mahdi Army in Basra in 2008 (something I’m shocked former ambassador in Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad seems not to know– he is still depicting the Sadrist Shiites, who are fundamentalists and Iraqi nationalists, as in Iran’s back pocket. The actual situation is far more complicated). Because Muqtada al-Sadr is residing in Iran, at the holy city of Qom, Iran was able to pressure him to bury the hatchet with al-Maliki and to support him for a second term as prime minister. Iran has been working very hard behind the scenes to put back together the fractured coalition of Shiite religious parties that had won the two previous parliamentary elections.
This outcome is the one Iran wanted. The Obama administration isn’t entirely displeased, since by now almost any government would be better than none. But this result was not the one Washington would have prefered. It would have liked Allawi to be prime minister, or at least to be far more powerful. And the hope that a national security committee will be powerful enough to offset the prime minister may be no more than a pious wish.
As the US withdraws its troops over the next year, Iran’s favorable position in Iraq will now likely be strengthened.