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Iraq: The Impasse

Nouri al-Maliki and Iyad Allawi
Mohammed Ameen/Reuters
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki meeting with Iyad Allawi, the head of the al-Iraqiya alliance, Baghdad, June 29, 2010

It is easy to underestimate how much fear can obstruct a society’s recovery from horrific violence or repression, or both; and fear now dominates Iraq as its leaders try to make a new start after decades of a ruthless tyranny, its violent removal, and the chaotic aftermath. One principal fear among Iraqis is that there could be a resurgence of the Baath Party and a return to dictatorship. Another is that Iran will dominate Iraq through its influence on Shiites.

Although I found these fears common among politicians when I was in Baghdad in late May, I was caught off-guard when my driver, with disarming earnestness and in the expectation of a simple response, asked me: “Are you sure Saddam is dead? They say they buried wax copies of him and his sons, and that they are living in southern France.”

In Iraq today, conspiracy theories based on what “they say” are so prevalent as to defy straightforward refutation, pointing to a deeper pathology that perhaps only time and genuine reconciliation can cure. For now, such fearful fantasies shape and distort both politics and policies, as the leading Iraqi political parties seek to fashion a coalition government out of the contested results of last March’s parliamentary elections. Every bomb attack, every visit by a political leader to a neighboring capital, every killing of a politician provokes a profound dread that the horrors of the pre-2003 past survive in a diminished but still potent form—whether they derive from the mayhem of the murderous Baathist regime or from Iranian attacks during a senseless war fought more than twenty years ago. Will these ghosts return to leave their bloody mark on the country’s future?

Exhibit A for those terrified by the specter of the Baath’s return was the meeting, set up in April by the Damascus-based branch of the Iraqi Baath Party, of groups opposed to the current order in Iraq. It was the first such gathering that the Syrian regime permitted to take place in public, and the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, and his Shiite supporters saw it as an undisguised signal that Syria and the remaining Iraqi Baathists were supporting Maliki’s main rival, the former prime minister Iyad Allawi, in his quest to lead the next Iraqi government. Similarly, Allawi, a secular Shiite whose followers are mostly Sunni, cites the post-election spectacle of leading Shiite and Kurdish politicians flocking to Tehran, ostensibly to celebrate Nowruz, the Persian New Year, in late March as convincing proof that the Iranian regime is steering the course of Iraqi politics at their expense.

More than four months since the elections, a new government has yet to take shape. The leaders of the four lists that emerged with the most seats all appear to recognize that the only workable way forward is through a broad-based coalition government. Fearing each other, they all seem to realize that it would be better to be in close proximity, around the table, talking, than in separate corners, out of sight, plotting revenge. In this, they are encouraged by Iraq’s neighbors, as well as the United States, all of whom worry about what might happen if, at this sensitive stage in the country’s development, one party is left out and turns again to insurgency, setting off a new round of civil war with unpredictable consequences for the region.

What is holding things up, however, is the fear among many Iraqis that whatever party wins the right to form the government and appoint the prime minister will proceed to concentrate power around itself, using gaps and ambiguities in Iraq’s new constitution to its advantage. Maliki’s detractors point to his record during the past four years—he has done little by way of concrete governance, but instead has spent much effort to carve out a power base, including setting up security agencies that have no basis in the constitution. In addition to Iyad Allawi and his mainly Sunni constituency, Maliki’s critics and competitors include the Kurds and his Shiite rivals in the Iraqi National Alliance (INA). This last is a loose grouping that includes the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, the Sadrist movement, and a variety of smaller parties and independents, among them the US’s erstwhile friend and current nemesis, Ahmed Chalabi. Moreover, Allawi asserts that since his list won the most seats—ninety-one, compared to Maliki’s eighty-nine—he has the right to take the first stab at forming a government.

Maliki has questioned the election results, hinting in not so unambiguous terms that a “foreign power”—understood to be the United States—has defrauded him by manipulating the vote, the count, and the recount in Baghdad. Even now, while resigning himself to the decision by the federal Supreme Court to certify the original results in early June, he continues to challenge Allawi’s bid to form the government. His main tactic has been to pursue an alliance with his Shiite rivals in the INA, in order to become the largest bloc in parliament, gain the right to form a government, and thus deprive Allawi of his presumptive right to become prime minister.

Whatever their opinion of Maliki and his autocratic tendencies, Shiite politicians fear most of all losing the position of prime minister, and they are convinced that although Allawi would have a hard time collecting by himself the necessary number of seats (a simple majority of 163 in Iraq’s 325-member legislature), a hidden hand—again, the United States—will somehow assist him and through trickery and deceit cheat the Shiites out of the dominant position they have acquired since 2003, after what they see as the long years of Sunni oppression.

What is striking about the Obama administration’s current approach to Iraqi politics, however, is not its presumed preference for one party, Allawi’s, but its unexplained lack of will to push for a solution, something much noted by politicians of all parties. The US tries to exercise strong influence only sporadically, invariably in the form of a visit by Vice President Joe Biden, the administration’s de facto special envoy for Iraq. He arrived in Baghdad on the eve of Independence Day on July 3 and met with both Maliki and Allawi, as well as other leading figures. The US appears to want the two leaders to establish a broadly inclusive government based on power-sharing, and to do so quickly—well before the Obama administration fulfills its promises to reduce the number of US troops by 50,000 by the end of August.

In public comments, Biden also cautioned his audience against allowing outside forces to set Iraq’s agenda. “You should not, and I’m sure you will not, let any state, from the United States to any state in the region, dictate what will become of you all,” he declared. US commentators pointed at Iran as the intended target, but they could just as easily have mentioned Syria or Turkey, both of which have actively sought to affect the outcome of the current political battle, while Arab states have also tried to exert influence, for example, by warning of the possibility of civil war should Allawi not become prime minister. This should come as no surprise: all of Iraq’s neighbors have a vital interest in the shape it will take. They agree on the need to preserve Iraq’s territorial unity, but disagree on just about every other issue.

This matters all the more since the United States is a fading power in Iraq whose forces are departing and whose diplomacy appears rudderless because its attention is directed elsewhere. In its waning days, the Bush administration signed a Strategic Framework Agreement (the SFA, along with a Status of Forces Agreement, or SOFA) with the Maliki government that was intended to cement Iraq within the pro-US regional orbit. One of the most frequent and most exasperated complaints one hears from Baghdad politicians is that the Obama administration has taken few steps to implement the SFA.

The SFA’s success will depend on two factors: the smooth transfer of some of the Pentagon’s noncombat functions in Iraq to the State Department (such as funding for police training and other civilian reconstruction projects the administration envisions) and the conclusion of a follow-on agreement to the SOFA that will allow the US to maintain control over Iraqi airspace after 2011 while continuing to build up Iraq’s security forces. The US hopes to do this through continued training and other forms of aid, as well as the sale of equipment such as F-16 fighter planes, which are used by other Arab countries cooperating with the US.

Uncertain of what will happen next and what the future US role in Iraq will be, its neighbors are each intent on contriving an outcome favorable to their own interests, and predictably they are working at cross-purposes. Most Iraqis deeply resent the influence these states exert. Depending on where they stand politically, Iraqis tend to cast one of the external forces as the villain while playing down the influence of others. Their perception of interference is magnified by their fear that such foreign meddling will decisively put the party they support out of the game. In Iraq, those who find themselves on the losing side realize that they stand to lose more than their formal positions and their perks and privileges. In the absence of strong institutions, such as an independent judiciary, that would encourage and sustain a peaceful transfer of power, their lives may be at risk as well.

While Iran stands accused of crude interference in Iraq—sending weapons across the border, training Shiite insurgents, funding political activities—its official diplomatic position on forming a government is not only benign but fully in line with that of the other neighbors and, in fact, the United States. Iran’s ambassador, Hassan Kazemi Qomi, declared in April that in his view no single list could form a government on its own and that a coalition agreement among the main four winning lists would be needed. When I met him at the Baghdad embassy, he said that Iran wants Iraq to be unified and stable, free of foreign influence, and flourishing. Without a hint of irony (in view of Iran’s domestic situation), he praised the March elections as a “fair competition with good participation,” and derided the notion that Iran was meddling in Iraqi affairs. Ignoring such Iran-backed Shiite factions as the Kataeb Hezbollah and Asaeb Ahl al-Haq, he claimed that terrorism in Iraq originated entirely with groups, such as al-Qaeda and the former Baath Party, that operate with the support of “Arab states that are friends of the United States.”

Iraqi politicians commonly assert that Iran is pushing for Shiite unity more than for any specific Shiite candidate for prime minister, and Qomi implicitly endorsed this reading when he noted as proof of Tehran’s limited influence in Iraq that it had been unable to achieve the unification of the two Shiite lists, Maliki’s State of Law and the INA. This was an interesting remark, because Iran has been pushing the two groups to join forces for months, starting well before the elections. It has made no progress whatever in the face of Maliki’s insistence that he would have to be the new alliance’s leader, and thus its candidate for prime minister, an outcome that the other Shiite group refused to endorse. For all the talk of Iranian meddling, and despite its strenuous efforts, Tehran has failed so far to accomplish a principal policy goal in Iraq—securing a unified political coalition that could ensure Shiite dominance in Iraqi politics.

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