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Waiting for Baghdad

Karim Kadim/AP Images
The Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr giving a speech in Najaf during his first public appearance in Iraq after four years in exile in the Iranian city of Qom, January 8, 2011. Pictured on the banner behind him are his father-in-law, the late Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, founder of the Islamic Dawa Party, and his father, the late Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr. These two men are seen as the spiritual forebears of the Sadrist movement that Moqtada al-Sadr heads.

As the flames of protest leap from North Africa to the far reaches of the Arabian Peninsula, many Iraqis are feeling that history may have dealt them a poor hand. Having failed to bring down a weakened Saddam Hussein in a mass uprising in 1991, they now see that regimes led by iron-fisted longtime autocrats can indeed be swept away by popular revolt. Belatedly, they joined the chorus, organizing their own “Day of Rage” on February 25 to protest their government’s failure to create jobs, provide public services, and end corruption. But Iraq is not Egypt or Tunisia. The events set in motion by the US occupation are taking a different course.

On February 25, tens of thousands of Iraqis poured into the streets in cities across the country, angered by electricity shortages, a lack of clean water, poor health services, unemployment, and rampant corruption. The protests were widespread and appeared to represent a cross-section of the population. But Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, has shown little sympathy for the demonstrators, and the government has dealt with them harshly. During the “Day of Rage” protests, over twenty were killed and scores injured, many shot by security forces that have suffered from a recent influx of recruits who lack training and discipline.

The demonstrators’ targets in most cases were provincial governments, for example in Basra, Mosul, and Kut, that had been freely elected two years ago. By comparison, although the country has suffered for years from distressingly poor national governance, the second Maliki administration is a little over three months old. This means there is no dictator to oust, only a class of overpaid, corrupt politicians and ineffectual officials to press for better performance.

The protesters’ frustrations are understandable. Baghdad residents still have only a few hours of electricity a day, in a country in which temperatures soar to 120 degrees Fahrenheit in summer. The country’s political leaders took a full nine months to form a government following legislative elections in March 2010. In the end, the various factions were able to strike a deal, permitting Prime Minister Maliki to extend his tenure: he announced his new government in December and while some senior ministerial slots remain unfilled, he looks set to govern for at least four more years. (In February, he promised not to run again in 2014, in an effort to quell the unrest.)

The most remarkable quality about Iraq’s broadly inclusive new government is that it is based more on the allotment of positions than on true power-sharing. Maliki’s State of Law Coalition lost the 2010 parliamentary elections by two seats to the Iraqiya alliance led by Ayad Allawi, Iraq’s former interim prime minister and a secular Shia who had support from Sunni politicians. But the balance began to turn in Maliki’s favor in September, when the populist Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr—in a deal brokered by Iran—decided to support Maliki’s candidacy for a second term as prime minister in exchange for positions in government and the security forces, and the release of some of his followers from jail. When the political deadlock that had halted the formation of a new government for months finally broke in early November, politicians of all stripes rushed to obtain a ministerial or lesser post lest they lose out altogether, forgetting their earlier demand for institutional checks on the prime minister’s powers. Allawi’s alliance crumbled as senior leaders on his list, all Sunnis, took the positions of vice-president, deputy prime minister, parliament speaker, and finance minister.

This left Allawi largely on his own in his quest for leadership of the yet to be created National Council for Strategic Policy, which is intended to exercise oversight of the government’s day-to-day operations. It is a quixotic quest because it seems unlikely that the council will be created, or that it will have significant powers, or be headed by Allawi. (In March, he seemed to realize this, and announced that he was no longer interested in the position.)

The only weapon we now have,” an Allawi aide told me, “is the other blocs’ support. Nobody wants to see Maliki have too much power.” But a colleague on the Iraqiya list explained why Allawi is unlikely to get the support he needs. The doling out of positions has had a tranquilizing effect: “It is like an anesthetic. We have a cabinet of forty-two ministers, eight of whom are ministers of state without portfolio, who have no more than a desk and a chair. It was done to calm down the political blocs.” After this conversation, Maliki expanded his cabinet to forty-four.

In January it seemed that with all the major factions taking part in Maliki’s new government, there might be a period of relative peace and stability. Revolts in the Arab world put an early end to this, however, when they spread to Iraq only a month later.

The question has been raised whether the new government’s composition amounts to a victory for Iran—which has been perceived as having been strengthened as a regional power by the weakening of Sunni-led governments in the Gulf—and, therefore, a defeat for the United States. It would be more accurate to say that the government reflects a coincidence of US and Iranian interests. Iran wanted Shiite Islamist parties to form the core of the government and provide the prime minister, and it has managed to accomplish this, even if the Shiite partners don’t get along and are actively plotting against one another. The Obama administration wanted to see a government that includes Sunnis and Kurds as well as Shiites, even one with Maliki at the helm, and it achieved this result, despite all the coalition’s tensions and internal conflicts.

The steps that led to this deal began in September, when Iran took the initiative by prodding the Sadrist movement led by Moqtada al-Sadr, the most powerful component of the Shiite Iraqi National Alliance, to join forces with Maliki’s State of Law Coalition. Tehran had leverage over Sadr because he had been living and pursuing religious studies in Iran since the start of the US surge in 2007, and because Sadr and Maliki both realized that the failure to collaborate could leave them outside government. While Sadr’s move did not lift Maliki over the top, it gave him what turned out to be an unstoppable momentum. It was an odd sort of momentum. During the drawn-out deliberations among different factions, Maliki concealed steely discipline and stubborn patience beneath a poker face as one by one his rivals, as well as their external sponsors, reluctantly came to accept that he would not blink and his coalition would see no defections.

In early November in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, after Syria dropped its support of Allawi when it realized the United States and Iran had reached an unspoken understanding about Maliki, the three leading Iraqi politicians—Maliki, Allawi, and Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan region—tried to work out a basic agreement on the principles that should guide the future governing coalition. In a critical move, the Kurds decided to back Maliki but made their support conditional on the inclusion of Allawi’s Iraqiya bloc in the government as a way of having some guarantee that Maliki wouldn’t ride roughshod over them once he consolidates his power. Hence the configuration that emerged, which reflects the interests of not only the Kurds but also Turkey, which—like the US—sees an inclusive government as a prescription for stability as well as a check against encroaching Iranian influence.

Both Iran and the United States could claim victory, as indeed each did; the result would have been impossible without the agreement of both. Persistent perceptions that the Shiite Islamist parties are mere extensions of Tehran notwithstanding, Maliki and his allies are planning a new course for the country that could insulate it from undue external pressure, whatever its origin. What Iraq needs is a period of calm to build up its institutions and economy, overcome the deep distrust between different sectarian and ethnic groups and within the elites, and tackle some of the formidable challenges left unaddressed in the post-2003 chaos of US occupation and sectarian war. If it succeeds, its power with respect to its neighbors could rise commensurately. If it doesn’t, Iraq’s neighbors could end up all the more influential.

Soon after the government was confirmed on December 21, neighboring capitals dispatched their premiers and foreign ministers to Baghdad. They wanted to obtain a piece of what could prove a substantial pie if the Iraqi economy takes off. An early visitor was Amr Moussa, the secretary-general of the Arab League and now Egyptian presidential candidate. His mission was to prepare for a meeting of Arab heads of state in Baghdad; because of the crisis in the Arab world, it has been postponed until May. If the Iraqis manage to host the meeting, it will be a major diplomatic coup and also a reassurance to the region that Iraq remains firmly within the Arab fold—even if its president, Jalal Talabani, and its foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, are both Kurds.

Those who hold that Iraq’s rulers are dominated by Tehran cite Moqtada al-Sadr’s brief return to his homeland in early January as evidence that Iran’s influence is unremitting and decisive. Sadr, the mercurial leader of a popular movement that is as much in conflict with Maliki as it is aligned with him, landed quietly in Najaf on January 5 after four years in exile in Qom, the center of Iran’s clerical establishment, where he was said to have devoted himself to religious studies with the aim of matching his considerable political success with suitable clerical attainments. During his ten-day stay, he drew a huge crowd in Najaf, where he repeated his familiar demand that US troops should depart at once or face the wrath of his impatient followers. (The event can be viewed on YouTube.) Sadr’s position on the US military presence coincides with Iran’s, but in most respects, the Sadrists’ agenda is an Iraqi one and they appear just as intent on building state institutions as their partners in government.

A former Sadrist in parliament I talked to saw Sadr’s visit less as an Iranian jab at the US presence, or as pressure on Maliki to comply with the deal that put him in office, than as an indication of Sadr’s need to put his own house in order. Most Sadrists are strongly anti-Maliki (a sentiment that stems especially from the prime minister’s 2008 military campaign against them in Basra and Baghdad). They are unhappy that they have been partly responsible for putting him back in the prime minister’s seat. Sadr’s goal, according to this parliamentarian, was to rally his troops and restore discipline after his unpopular but strategically necessary decision to join Maliki, even as he warned Maliki in his speech in Najaf that the Sadrists are closely monitoring his performance.

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