Iraqis woke up to a new government Friday but the relief of breaking a record political deadlock was tempered by many Sunni voters' sense of betrayal and more widespread worry that the coalition is too fragile to last.
After a five-hour session of parliament Thursday, lawmakers eventually sealed the deal hammered out by political leaders in closed-door negotiations, electing a speaker and president and paving the way for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to form a coalition government.
It had been more than eight months since Iraqis went to the polls in the first post-war elections in a truly sovereign Iraq. The voters, many of them saying they were tired of the empty promises of religious candidates, gave former prime minister Iyad Allawi secular Iraqiya coalition two more seats than Mr. Maliki’s Shiite bloc.
But neither won nearly enough seats to form a majority, prompting ballot recounts, accusations of fraud, and months in which political leaders flew off to other countries but didn’t meet amongst themselves.
Thursday’s parliament session marked one of the very few occasions in the past eight months on which Maliki and Allawi sat side by side. But halfway through the session Allawi and dozens of his members walked out over three Iraqiya candidates being barred from taking their seats because of alleged Baathist ties. Maliki and other leaders had promised in prior negotiations to work towards lifting the ban but it wasn't raised in Thursday's parliamentary session.
Sunni participation in this government is seen as crucial to the country’s stability, making the involvement of Allawi's Sunni-backed coalition vital. The government vacuum is blamed for much of the recent violence but incorporating disenfranchised Sunnis into the political system is needed for any long-term stability.
Many Iraqiya supporters feel betrayed
The deal reached among political leaders restores Maliki and President Jalal Talabani to their previous positions but appears to sideline Allawi, giving him control of a proposed national strategy council. Those who voted for his bloc believe they won the elections. Now many feel cheated.
“It’s unfair. We were hoping Dr. Ayad Allawi would become prime minister, that the whole situation would change. Now nothing will change,” said Abdul Nasser, a paramedic who was one of dozens of civil defense workers deployed outside parliament in case of an attack Thursday night.
He and his partner sat in the dark in the front seat of their ambulance, listening glumly to the session live on the radio. Abdul Nasser, who did not want his full name used, said they had hoped that voting for Iraqiya would end the injustice of prisons full of Iraqis held without charge. Many of the prisoners are from Sunni areas that were insurgent strongholds but have simply been lost in the system.
“A lot of people have been harmed by the bureaucracy, harmed in the streets – it’s important to us that things change,” he said.
“It’s not that our hopes have been dashed – they were already dashed,” said his partner Rothan. “We want Americans to know what is happening to us – the reality of our streets. Don’t believe what they tell you.”
In the streets of the mostly Sunni neighborhood of Athamiya on Friday, shoppers were buying new clothes for upcoming religious holidays.
“The government encourages thieves and puts people in prison,” said Huda Abdul Samad, an office worker shopping with her daughter. She said she voted for Iraqiya because she wanted to move away from sectarianism but was disappointed both by the party not being given a top post and by the walkout in parliament.
“We were betrayed,” she said.
One month to form a cabinet
Maliki now has 30 days to decide on cabinet posts – some of which will likely go to Iraqiya – and put together a full government. His governing coalition owes part of its existence to followers of hard-line cleric Moqtada Sadr, leading Sunnis and others to believe that his government will be indebted to Iran.
“I don’t think the government is pro-Iran at all nor will any government be pro-Iran. I think this is a government that Iran wanted but that’s another thing altogether,” said Joost Hilterman, of the International Crisis Group. “They said from the beginning they wanted an inclusive government but they always wanted token Sunnis and this is probably what they will end up with.”
He said in a telephone interview that he did not expect the government to last long, nor would this be the last Iraqiya walkout.
“It’s highly unstable, deeply polarized, and if Iraqiya feels it is not getting what it considers a fair share of power from Maliki then they will have no commitment to it,” he said.
Sectarian violence, or progress?
In Athamiya, Amil Jalil stood outside his men’s clothing store Castle Man, chatting to a friend.
“Iraqiya had a constitutional right to form the government and other people circumvented it,” he said, echoing the political bloc’s interpretation of Iraq’s elastic constitution. The young man said he believed that if Iraqiya isn’t given the power it deserves in government formation, it could reignite sectarian violence.
“Not everyone is peaceful. There are people who instigate violence,” he said. “If there are interests are threatened they will instigate violence.”
In an alleyway, Abu Nidhal had hung up rows of baby clothes in cellophane wrappers. A weary-looking father of four, the stall owner talked of schoolteachers working at any job they could find in the wholesale market. “Iraqis are oppressed and wounded,” he said. “I hope that by the grace of God they will sit and reach an agreement. If there is an agreement then Iraq will move forward.”
Sahar Issa contributed to this report.