CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — At last, Iraq might have a government.
After eight months of acrimonious deadlock, Iraqi political parties have finally made a politically fragile but significant step. It’s all but certain that Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki will succeed in retaining his post, as will President Jalal Talabani.
The two, respectively a Shiite and a Kurd, have agreed to designate the parliamentary speaker position to a Sunni, Osama Nujafi. Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite and Maliki’s most powerful competitor, will chair the National Council of Strategic Policy. With this deal, every major sect and ethnicity will share power, as they did in the country’s previous government.
And so any possibility that Iraq will transcend sectarian divisions, which have plagued the country for years, now appears impossible — at least in the near term.
For a time earlier this year, many pundits predicted that Iraq might pull off a secular government, a prospect that was most clearly favored by the minority Sunnis. Faced with the prospects of limited representation in an ethnic-based division of power, Sunnis had forcefully lobbied for a liberal secular government.
To do so, Sunni parties had assembled a coalition of interests, known as Iraqiya and led by Allawi. It encompassed Sunnis, including Arab nationalists, religious groups, pro-Baathist groups, as well as secular Shiite and tribal groups. It was a strategic deal between Allawi and the Sunnis, each relying on the other in the hope of undermining the likelihood of a religious Shiite-dominated government.
In the March 2010 election, the majority of Sunnis voted for Iraqiya. Perhaps not surprisingly, however the coalition had a hard time finding much support among Shiites, particularly among religious populations. Still, Iraqiya succeeded in winning the greatest number of parliamentary seats, and was seemingly poised to form a government across sectarian lines, easing sectarian political divisions in Iraq.
But they failed to deliver.
Powerful Shiite parties, as well as the politically powerful Kurd minority, insisted on sharing power along ethnic lines. In particular, they determined that the prime minister would come from a Shiite party, the president from a Kurdish party and the speaker from a Sunni party. Since the most powerful person in the country is the prime minister, a representative from the Shiite majority would hold that position.
Now the Sunni parties within the Iraqiya coalition, constrained by the sectarian politics set by the Shiites and Kurds, have accepted a representation model allotted by sect. Although the Iraqiya coalition won the majority of the parliamentary seats, Allawi failed to succeed Maliki as prime minister only because Maliki represents the Shiite majority.
There is no stipulation that the Iraqi government should be formed along sectarian lines. It has become the custom since 2003, when the Coalition Provincial Authority, led by the United States, created an interim Iraqi government with an eye to fairly representing the various ethnic groups in the country. Since Shiites comprise about 60 percent of Iraq’s population, they were awarded the largest share of seats in the counsel.
Likewise, the Sunni and Kurds were each allocated seats in proportion to their population size. The remaining seats went to the minority Christian and Turkmen groups. This effort was intended to dismantle a Baathist-led dictatorship and replace it with an inclusive democracy.
Instead, it appears to have deepened Iraq’s sectarian divide.
Thursday in Baghdad began with rumors that Iraq was at last finding a way to govern itself, even if it signaled the entrenchment of sectarian-based power sharing. It ended when representatives of Allawi’s Iraqiya bloc walked out of parliament to protest continuing efforts to remove all former Baathists from positions of power.
They might have a point, but even so, such a spectacle doesn’t bode well for Iraqi governance. And so it appears that sectarian-driven politics will again rule Iraq, and that any chance of establishing a liberal or nonsectarian government has passed.
Razzaq al-Saiedi, formerly a reporter for the New York Times in Baghdad, is now a fellow and researcher at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.