As US troops leave, Iraq inches toward a new government

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki met Tuesday with Ayad Allawi to discuss forming a new government and decide who will be prime minister. But the main Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish factions are still negotiating.

Hadi Mizban/AP
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, left, and Ayad Allawi gesture during a meeting at Mr. Allawi's compound in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday. The meeting was the second between the two men who have both been battling to become the country's next prime minister since the inconclusive March 7 election.

Iraq’s Shiite alliance is proposing a new, more restrictive role for the prime minister. But months after Iraqis went to the polls in a pivotal national election, who that prime minister will be is uncertain. The only thing clear about the eventual new government is that it will be shaped by the sectarianism that almost everyone condemns.

"This is the bitter reality that we are talking about,” says Ali al-Adeeb, a senior adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, when asked whether the next government would retain the quota system in which government posts are divided among Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds. “We also don’t want to speak of it like that, but whether we want it or not, that is what it has become.”

Dressed in a dark blue pinstripe suit and wingtip shoes, Mr. Adeeb explains that oppression of Shiites and Kurds under Saddam Hussein’s largely Sunni regime, and the dangers from hostile Sunni neighbors, mean that the Shiite majority must remain vigilant.

“If you want to understand it you must put yourself in the place of an Iraqi,” says Adeeb, who like most Shiite leaders, spent years in exile.

On Tuesday, Iraq's prime minister held a long-awaited meeting with the man who wants his job. But Mr. Maliki’s Shiite alliance and Ayad Allawi’s secular party seem little closer to forming a coalition government. Both claim the right to be prime minister and head a government – Maliki because his alliance formed after the election now holds a majority of seats and Mr. Allawi because his Iraqiya coalition actually won the most seats in the March vote.

The deadlock means the only way a coalition government will be formed is by a carefully crafted agreement between the main Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish factions – a process now expected to last into the fall.

"I think we're still in the preliminary stage," US Ambassador Chris Hill told reporters Tuesday. "I think it's going to be fair to say that any eventual solutions are going to require hard and tough bargaining," said Mr. Hill, who might end up finishing his assignment here in September before a new government takes shape.

Why curb powers of PM?

Maliki is popular in the street but widely resented by many other political leaders, including fellow Shiites. They accuse him of behaving like a dictator in measures that included setting up separate security services during his four years in power and launching military offensives without consultation.

Adeeb, reelected to parliament as a member of Maliki’s Dawa Party and a firm supporter of Maliki, says their Shiite alliance had agreed on a mechanism that would clip the wings of a new prime minister to prevent such unilateral action.

“We reached an agreement with the national alliance … in order to restrict or bind unilateral movement by the prime minister,” he says. “The prime minister will be the representative of this entity and therefore he should restrict himself to the strategies or the political programs of the alliance.”

The Iraqi National Alliance (INA) includes the Dawa Party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, and the Sadr movement – followers of hard-line cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and the biggest single bloc in parliament. The coalition has made clear that it will be guided by the directives of Shiite religious leaders in Najaf.

Allawi is a secular Shiite, but his Iraqiya Party includes a large number of Sunnis, which the INA says precludes him from being given a post informally reserved for a Shiite. When the US disbanded the Iraqi Army and banned former Baath Party members from government jobs, Sunnis suffered disproportionately. Disenfranchised and disillusioned, they formed the core of the insurgency and widely boycotted previous elections. The country is still emerging from the depths of civil war three years ago.

Not enough Shiites to be PM

“The intersection that we will reach is that Iraqiya has only 13 Shiites with seats [in parliament] and the rest are Sunni,” says Adeeb explaining why, in their view, Allawi would not be eligible for the post of prime minister.

Under the arrangement first set up during US occupation, Iraq’s prime minister is Shiite, the president a Kurd, and the speaker of parliament a Sunni Arab.

The new parliament convened last month as required by the Constitution but was too divided to elect a speaker and adjourned after a ceremonial opening. All of the major posts are being negotiated together as a package.

In the streets, Iraqis care less about who will be prime minister or president than whether a new government will deliver health care, electricity, and jobs. Essential services have been a casualty of ministries run along sectarian and ethnic party lines and headed by ministers chosen by patronage rather than for competence.

With violent protests this month over electricity cuts, ordinary Iraqis have signaled they’ve had enough.

“I think there is going to be a lot of political horsetrading,” in forming the new government, said Ambassador Hill. “I think the biggest concern is one that a lot of the Iraqi people would have in that the Iraqi health minister should be the one who knows the most about health and the oil minister ought to be the person who knows the most about oil.”

Give us electricity not religion

Although political leaders got the message at the polls that voters are more interested in essential services than religion, the key posts in government, including the defense, interior, finance, oil, and foreign ministries are still expected to be handed out along ethnosectarian lines to parties that bargain the hardest for them.

“I do think it will be a broadly representative government – the politics of Iraq kind of dictate that, but sectarian identity remains paramount and that’s part of the Saddam legacy,” says former US ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, who spoke by phone from Washington, D.C. “He [Saddam] deconstructed Iraqi society to such an extent that when his regime went away there were no other identities out there except the most primordial – family, clan, tribe and above all sect and ethnicity - so I think Iraq is a very long way from reinventing and reestablishing alternative identities."

Mr. Crocker says he worries not so much about the time it is taking to form a government as about the fact that no major decisions can be made until a new one is in place – at a time when US influence is diminishing along with its troop presence. President Obama has pledged that US combat troops will be out of Iraq by Sept. 1, and the noncombat US troop presence will fall to 50,000.

“Everything has been on hold not just since the election but in the runup to the election as well – provincial powers, resources, everything else is just on hold, and it’s going to stay that way until there is a new government ,” Crocker says. “For all the challenges Iraq has faced, the really big ones are still out there.”


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