Roving thoughts and provocations

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Iraq’s Summer of Uncertainty

Iyad Allawi; drawing by David Levine

A scorching summer heat is settling on Baghdad. The streets are calm and traffic flows, slowed only by the multiple checkpoints, especially near bridges and government buildings. Given that the policemen on duty cast only a cursory glance at vehicles and their passengers, it is perhaps surprising there haven’t been more frequent bombings in recent weeks. (The last series of bomb attacks across Iraq, on May 10, left at least a hundred dead.)

To security officials, the relative quiet suggests that many former insurgents and their supporters—including some Sunnis who in the past rejected the political process—have been biding their time. Having decided to participate in the March 7 parliamentary elections, they have been inclined to let the political uncertainty that has followed run its course in the hope that it might produce the change they desired.

According to the original count, the candidate that the Sunnis overwhelmingly supported, the secular former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, narrowly won the most seats; but his opponents, led by incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, have worked hard to deprive him of that victory ever since. They have challenged the results in the courts and led a campaign to disqualify several winning candidates on the grounds that they have ties to the banned Baath Party. Neither effort has yielded a change in the overall result, however, which remains in favour of Allawi, whose Iraqiya Alliance still holds 91 seats, two more than Maliki’s State of Law list.

Iraqis have watched this spectacle for three weary months, noting by contrast how swiftly Britain’s politicians forged a new government and how gracefully Gordon Brown left the scene. Many of them have no trust in their own leaders, who, they feel, in the endless bargaining and bickering have lost sight of the national interest and Iraqi voters’ concerns. Allawi’s followers have been waiting to see whether they will gain power or be excluded from it; but it’s unclear how much longer they will continue to do so. Baghdad’s surface calm may therefore be deceptive.

To the surprise of many Iraqis, the Supreme Court decided on June 1 to certify the election results. It is an important milepost; but it is likely only one of many to come in what promises to be an especially prolonged slog toward a new government (in 2005, it took almost six months). Indeed, the real trouble—concerning who will get the chance to take the first stab at forming a government—starts only now.

Allawi, having won a simple majority of seats, has claimed it should fall to him, citing language in the 2005 Iraqi Constitution that accords that right to “the largest parliamentary bloc.” But Maliki and his supporters, together with a rival Shiite list, the Iraqi National Alliance, which includes the followers of the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, jointly argue that this phrase refers not to the list that wins the most votes in the election, but to the post-election bloc that is largest at the moment the new parliament is seated. In this way they want to ensure that the prime minister will always be a Shiite, since Shiites form the majority in the country and could create a sectarian alliance to outnumber the Sunnis in parliament. (Although Allawi is a secular Shiite, most members of his Iraqiya Alliance are Sunni). A month ago, the State of Law list and Iraqi National Alliance hastily made such an alliance to form a single bloc that will control 159 seats.

Maliki gained the Supreme Court’s backing for his interpretation in a ruling it issued in March, two weeks after the elections. In response, Allawi’s supporters have angrily questioned the court’s standing in constitutional matters (it was appointed well before the constitution came into force). They furthermore claim that the court’s ruling was a mere opinion and as such would have no force of law, and maintain that the taped record of the 2005 constitutional discussions shows that the drafters were, in fact, referring to the winning list when they coined the phrase “largest parliamentary bloc.”

If they don’t get their way, Allawi supporters have spoken darkly of the possibility they might leave national politics and set up a government in exile, while Allawi himself has made intimations of civil war. “Its going to be very dangerous, it’s going to be counterproductive, and the backlash will be severe,” Allawi said in April. “The whole foundation of whatever infant democracy we’ve built will be ruined.

Pressure from the US and its allies could possibly persuade him to back off and recognize the court’s ruling. If so, Allawi would lose his chance to become prime minister. If we reach that stage, a new crisis will arise, this time around Maliki himself. The new coalition formed by Maliki’s State of Law and the Iraqi National Alliance is tenuous: alongside Maliki’s supporters, it includes The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a party founded in and by Iran in the 1980s, as well as the followers of al-Sadr, a populist cleric currently burnishing his religious credentials in the Shiite holy city of Qum in Iran.

More importantly, the leaders of the new bloc left unanswered the most divisive question: whom they would designate as their candidate for prime minister. Already a number of names have been mentioned as possible compromise candidates, but Maliki is holding fast, taking advantage of time, his incumbency, and his control of institutions. His grip on power is by no means assured, because all his potential allies are his current rivals, most of whom seek his downfall after seeing him rise from quasi-obscurity in 2005 to become a dominant prime minister today, with few effective checks and balances to constrain him. In their quest to sideline Maliki, they, too, will use every trick in the book.

With so much in play, any prediction that these multiple crises will be resolved before Ramadan (which starts in mid-August)—or, symbolically more importantly perhaps, before August 31, the date by which the US intends to have completed its troop drawdown from Iraq—should be regarded with extreme scepticism.

The outlook is ominous. As the politicians dither, governmental institutions—never particularly effective—could become paralyzed, as senior officials fear for their careers if they make decisions that would anger Iraq’s future rulers. Uncertainty over the country’s prospects could spread through society and the economy. In a political vacuum, outside regional powers would almost certainly gain greater influence and be tempted to meddle more than they already do. The United States, which has been so eager to depart that it failed to craft an exit strategy, would then have trouble being heard over the din. Lacking strong support in Baghdad, parties and politicians would have little choice but to seek succour in neighbouring capitals, insinuating these states’ countervailing interests into what is already a combustible mix. And Iraq’s insurgencies could get a second wind, again making violence the primary mode of politics.

This, of course, is a doomsday scenario. No one in Baghdad is now predicting such an outcome, but in private conversations many express fears that the country may face a new descent into chaos. And all rue the bitter truth that the current battle is not about governing programs or other issues of national import—such as national reconciliation, a hydrocarbons law, or a solution to disputed territories—but about one seemingly simple post-election matter: who gets to lead the new government. As Iraqis adjust themselves to the early-summer heat, they brace themselves for hotter times yet to come.

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