The US Army has left Iraq. Now what?

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – President Barack Obama officially declared Tuesday the end of the U.S. combat mission in Iraq. For Americans, this moment brings closure to a controversial war.

In his speech, Obama focused on the success of the surge and on handing over to Iraqis the responsibility to manage their own security. He also spoke of what he artfully called the “caretaker administration” now in charge of Iraq and encouraged Iraq’s leaders to move quickly to form a functioning, representative government.

For Iraqis, the sad truth is that it is difficult to know what to celebrate. The campaign liberated Iraq from a dictator but left the country crippled by political infighting and without a clear future.

President Obama’s hasty efforts to place the responsibility for Iraq’s future in the hands of Iraqi officials and citizens alike reveal the glaring lack of political progress there. Five months after the country’s parliamentary elections, Iraq has yet to build a functioning government, despite months of heated debate and political posturing.

And now, every day that passes without a viable plan to govern the country brings stagnation – or worse – to Iraq.

The U.S. administration’s desire to conclude this war and turn its attention elsewhere is understandable, yet America cannot afford to squander the thousands of lives and billions of dollars that have already been exacted to transform Iraq into a democracy.

Obama spoke about the U.S. commitment to Iraq’s future as a strong partner, but only once Iraq has a functioning government in place. This is precisely the point where Iraq has foundered for months – and precisely where Iraq needs U.S. leadership. This is not because Iraqis cannot govern themselves, but because the country needs the time required to build the institutions of democracy.

There are numerous reasons for Iraq’s political stalemate. Perhaps chief among them, the landscape in Iraq is almost hopelessly divided along ethnic and sectarian lines. In the 2005 elections, the Shiite coalition was intact and thus able to command significant authority.

The Shiite parties, however, have now fragmented into competing factions. In the most recent elections, no coalition won enough votes to lead the country. Since then, the rival parties have had few incentives to compromise.

One of the most significant obstacles to a functioning government is the bitter rivalry between Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Ayyad Allawi, a former prime minister whose party won a wafer-thin majority during the most recent parliamentary elections.

What began as a question about how to interpret Iraq’s fledgling constitution has become a personal battle. Al-Maliki has been prime minister since 2006. Allawi was prime minister in 2004. Both are power-hungry above all else, and both believe they rightfully deserve to lead the country. They have refused to accept any position other than prime minister – or find a way to rule together.

In the March elections, Al-Maliki ran on a platform that claimed it was his leadership that prevented Iraq from slipping into civil war in 2008. Although his opponents accuse him of authoritarian impulses, al-Maliki contends that he earned the right to retain his post as prime minister when he won the popular vote.

In contrast, Allawi believes the elections signaled his legitimate return to prime minister. His party won, by a slim margin, the largest number of parliamentary seats. As the leader of his party, Allawi argues that his party should lead the Iraqi government. Furthermore, because Allawi, a secular Shiite and former Baathist, is the only significant politician that can draw votes across Sunni and Shiite lines, many believe he represents the best hope for a secular Iraq.

If this already sounds hopelessly complicated, there is yet another point of conflict between these two men. Given the country’s governance structures, there are few incentives for either al-Maliki or Allawi to share power. Nor is there enough power to be shared. There are almost no senior positions outside of the prime minister’s post. Yet neither al-Maliki nor Allawi can effectively rule without the other.

One solution to this impasse, which has been considered with increasing frequency by Iraqi politicians over the last month, is to establish a council that could facilitate power-sharing among the country's various factions. This new council would craft critical national policy on domestic issues like security and energy as well as on foreign policy. Creating additional roles in the government for powerful decision-makers would allow both al-Maliki and Allawi to retain the power and prestige they seek.

The chairman of the council, perhaps Allawi — given his solid relationships with both Arab and Western leaders — would have the power and authority to oversee critical foreign policy issues. Likewise, al-Maliki might remain prime minister and focus on domestic issues.

To be clear, this new council isn’t only intended to satisfy the ambition and egos of two politicians. Rather, it could be the best solution for Iraq at the moment. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, compromises have become more common in Iraqi politics.

The Americans have repeatedly pushed for a compromise between the competing factions in order to quickly implement a functioning Iraqi government. Likewise, this proposed council could ensure that the main ethnic and sectarian groups in the country are adequately represented in the current government.

It could also promote a governing style that is less driven by sectarian politics. In particular, this could ensure that the Shiite majority would not dominate the government at the expense of the Sunni or Kurdish minorities. It could also keep radical forces away from the centers of decision-making.

This solution is not ideal because such compromises do little to address the long-term stability and effectiveness of Iraq’s polarized political climate. However, it may save the country in the immediate future, rescuing it from its political paralysis. If it’s impossible to find a real solution the short term, it is essential to at least achieve a partial one in the short term.

This solution may not be the most popular one among the American or Iraqi publics, but the country’s impasse reveals the degree to which Iraq continues to need substantial American support. Iraq is still a fragile state, but in time, and with the development of stable institutions, Iraq can become a permanent ally to the United States.

Razzaq al-Saiedi is an independent researcher and journalist affiliated with the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He reported on conflict and politics in Iraq for the New York Times between 2003 and 2007.