US-Iraq relations threatened by Iraq's political quarrels

Iraq’s postelection process of forming a new government has been troubled and drawn-out. Now, American officials are openly questioning the impact on US-Iraq relations.

By , Staff writer

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    Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki during an interview with The Associated Press in Baghdad, on Feb. 28. US-Iraq relations are in danger of souring as Iraq's political quarrels continue.
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The Obama administration is showing growing nervousness as Iraq’s postelection process of forming a new government turns out to be even more troubled and drawn-out than anticipated. After weeks of backstage prodding, US officials are now openly questioning the impact on US-Iraq relations – and in particular on plans to pull out all US combat forces this summer.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who was a close second-place finisher in March 7 balloting, has employed what appear to be ever-more desperate measures to hang on to his post. In Washington, worries are mounting that Iraq will be saddled with a tainted government.

“They’re increasingly afraid of ending up with another Karzai-like mess,” says Wayne White, a former State Department analyst on Iraq, referring to last year’s reelection of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. That election was widely deemed to have been stolen.

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“There was always concern over time and the impact a drawn-out process of naming [an Iraqi] government could have,” Mr. White adds. “But the prospect of a government tainted by illegitimacy is quickly becoming a much larger problem.”

In a carefully worded admonition to the Iraqi government Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton reminded Iraqi officials that “transparency and due process” are essential elements of an election and government-forming process that attains the confidence of the public. She called on Iraq’s leaders to “set aside their differences” and “to form quickly a government that is inclusive and represents the will of all Iraqis.”

Secretary Clinton’s statement followed concerns expressed earlier this week in Baghdad by US Ambassador Christopher Hill. It was time, he said, that Iraqi politicians “got down to business” and formed a government so that Iraq can “move ahead.”

Clinton’s communiqué contained one slightly veiled message: that the “sovereign” future sought by Iraq – a future free from a sizable foreign-troop presence – becomes more problematic in the aftermath of an opaque and questionable postelection political process.

Some Iraq analysts, in particular former officials from the Bush administration, believe that if Iraq remains politically fragile, the United States will have to consider extending the stay of some combat forces beyond President Obama’s August deadline for withdrawal. But that option, White says, raises other problems for the US – in particular in terms of its image with the Iraqi people and in the region.

“The US has essentially set a goal post,” he says. “But we could face a growing backlash from Iraqis and increased skepticism about our willingness to get out and make way for their full sovereignty if we start walking the deadline back.”

For now, Iraq is grappling with the postelection process. On Wednesday, former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, whose secular Iraqiya movement came out on top in the March polling by two seats, said he is considering calling on international organizations to form a caretaker government. Such an extreme measure might be necessary to prevent the “theft” of the elections, Mr. Allawi said.

In recent days, the Iraqi Supreme Court upheld an electoral commission’s disqualification of 52 candidates – mostly from Iraqiya, and two of whom won seats in the election – over allegations of ties to Saddam Hussein’s outlawed Baath party. Another successful Iraqiya candidate has claimed publicly that Mr. Maliki’s State of Law coalition tried to bribe him into switching allegiances.

Administration officials say they anticipated something of a drawn-out process for arriving at a new government. But the closeness of the election, coupled with Maliki’s continuing and ever-more convoluted challenges to elections he initially lost, have left hanging in the balance the central issue of what political formation comes out on top.

The continuing political turmoil means it could be months before a new government is formed.

White, now an adjunct scholar with the Middle East Institute in Washington, says the Obama administration will be left with “a really wrenching choice over how it treats the government” if Maliki’s “efforts to stack the deck” result in him holding on to power.

That could mean renewed political instability, he says – and put the US in the uncomfortable position of “taking the side of what is widely assumed to be an illegitimate government.”

Related:

US expresses first concerns over Iraq election results

Iraq voters face long wait for new government as Maliki, others jockey for power

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