The future of Iraq, in the hands of too many

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — With all the attention focused on WikiLeaks’ most recent release — a trove of documents that paints a bleak picture of the war in Iraq — it’s easy to forget that the Iraq of today still has no government.

More than seven months into Iraq’s political morass, its various factions are still battling for control of the country’s leadership.

This week, the Iraqi Supreme Court ordered the country’s parliament back to work. Since the parliament has met only once since being elected in March, this order promises to finally break the impasse and push politicians to form the long-awaited government. The timing of this effort is also likely to heavily favor Nouri al-Maliki in his bid to retain his post as prime minister. At the moment, he is the only candidate organized enough to take advantage of the sudden announcement.   

Even now, though, Maliki’s success is far from guaranteed. If he is able to form a ruling coalition, it will only be with the support of the influential, but often irksome, cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his powerful Shiite party.

Is Sadr's support of Maliki the beginning of a solution? Or another crisis?

Each of the four blocs that dominate the Iraqi political landscape calls for an inclusive government of Shiite, Sunni and Kurds. Two of the dominant blocs are Shiite, one is Kurdish and the other is Sunni, led by a secular Shiite figure. None has won enough seats to form the government. Therefore, a ruling coalition would have to be built among the four blocs, or at least among some of them.

Unfortunately, for each bloc, the interests of their own constituency trump the interests of the country as a whole. The competing agendas and goals of the winning blocs make any compromised solution nearly inconceivable.

In short, they are focused on securing power rather than on exercising national leadership. And there are other major obstacles as well.

The failure of the two biggest blocs, led by Nouri al-Maliki and Ayyad Allawi, to form a coalition has empowered the anti-American bloc, the Sadrists, as well as the Kurds, and has turned them into kingmakers.

For example, the rift has allowed the Kurds to move aggressively to preserve their interests rather than work toward a unified country. They have proposed lists of demands that strengthen their autonomy and their position in the Iraqi government, as well as enhance their revenue from the oil fields in Kurdistan.

The rift has also allowed the Sadrists, who hold views that might otherwise be too extreme to influence the political mainstream, to wield greater power among decision-makers. This is particularly evident around the American presence in Iraq as well as the future of the relationship between Iraq and the United States.

The Americans, meanwhile, are unlikely to support Sadr’s party, a radical group supported by Iran — particularly after a very costly war that sought to establish democracy.

There is yet another factor that will make it difficult to form an inclusive government. Assembling a ruling coalition will greatly diminish the relative power of the prime minister. The party of the incumbent prime minister will not be well represented in the government as a trade-off for winning the position of prime minister. This means that an incoming prime minister, even if it’s Maliki, will be weak and likely unable to govern effectively.

Finally, Iraq is located in one of the most-unstable regions in the world and conflicts among its neighboring countries create the fourth major impediment to forming an inclusive government.

The Arab Sunni countries support the Sunni bloc and are trying to fragment and weaken the big Shiite coalitions, while Iran is supporting the Shiite constituency and pushing for their unification.

On the other hand, the impending departure of the United States from Iraq has encouraged Iraqi politicians to seek support from countries like Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran, in an effort to seize power. Allawi and other Iraqi leaders have had more meetings with leaders of neighboring countries than with other Iraqi party leaders.

In the next few weeks (or months), there are two conceivable scenarios for Maliki.

In the first, Maliki will form a government comprising his Shiite-dominated party, Sadrists and the Kurds, and excluding the Sunni Iraqiya bloc, which won two seats more than Maliki’s bloc. In this case, the Sunni interests would not be well-represented, a scenario that might jeopardize the young democracy’s fragile stability and could even generate the kind of sectarian tension that could destabilize the country.

The second scenario, and more plausible scenario, is that Maliki will form a government that includes the Iraqiya bloc. Even so, such a compromise after months of increasingly acrimonious fights over who will rule Iraq will also present almost insurmountable challenges. Iraqiya bloc members will likely endorse Maliki for a second term only if he agrees to support their inflexible demands for shared power. Maliki would face similar pressure from the Kurds and the Shiite parties.

The United States and Arab countries are calling for an inclusive government that consists of Shiite, Sunni and Kurds, but if Maliki were to create this kind of government, it might not have the desired effect of unifying the country.

As the Iraqi political system is now conceived, there is simply not enough power to be shared among the blocs. Maliki would have to give up much of his power and authority, and would not be stronger during his second term than during the first term. In other words, the government will either fail to be inclusive or will be inclusive but not effective.

The way ahead for Malilki is still long and arduous. He needs to work hard to garner the support of the swinging parties, and that might cost part of his power. Because the balance is delicate and the stakes high, Maliki might still fail in his efforts to form the government.

Razzaq al-Saiedi was a reporter for the New York Times in Baghdad. He is now a fellow and researcher at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.