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.


Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, right, with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Tehran, January 2009

Indeed, a lawmaker of the Kurdish pro-reform Goran (“Change”) movement, one of a handful of small parties officially in opposition, noted that Sadrist MPs have thrown themselves into activities involving oversight, assigning highly knowledgeable and specialized experts, for example, to examine the draft budget law line by line. “They are acting like opposition, looking for any little mistake to show that the government is not doing its job properly,” he observed, not without a hint of admiration.

Having put Maliki back in power, the Sadrists are now in a position to threaten the government with collapse, and the one issue over which they might do it is a change in plans for the US troop withdrawal. While all sides are circling the matter without making a move, the time is approaching when the Maliki government will have to decide whether to ask the US to keep some of its combat troops in Iraq beyond 2011. This would require a status-of-forces agreement outlining the rights and privileges the US government will insist on for its personnel, including immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts.

Maliki is on record as saying that US forces should leave on schedule according to an agreement negotiated with the Bush administration in 2008, and President Obama has reiterated his intention to bring all US troops home by the end of 2011. Yet after talking with a cross-section of Iraqi politicians, I found that plenty of them don’t see things this way. They argue that Washington would be foolish to forget the sacrifices it has made and moreover would be committing a strategic error of the first order if it ignored the regional threats that loom—particularly from Iran. And whatever they may be saying in public, many politicians, apart from the Sadrists, insist in private that it is too early for the troops to pull out in full.

Such perceptions and inclinations are fed by deep fears of the possible consequences of a US departure. In the north, along the sensitive line dividing Kurdish regional forces from the national army and police, Kurds and people from other ethnic groups with different political convictions, adversaries in a tense standoff, appear to want the Obama administration to reconsider its departure. US troops have taken part in joint Arab-Kurd checkpoints and patrols that have worked well to build trust as a basis for negotiations leading to a political deal on the status of disputed territories, but such a deal still appears remote. Kurdish leaders have been particularly vocal in their support of an extended US military presence. An Arab member of the Kirkuk provincial council remarked that the US shouldn’t leave because “there are a lot of unsettled issues. Ever since 2003 it has been delay, delay, delay in Kirkuk. We should first create a balance of forces between the groups here. Everyone is scared.”

He was referring to the status of Kirkuk, a province sitting on voluminous quantities of oil and inhabited by a variety of ethnic and religious groups—Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, and others. The conflict among them is supposed to be resolved by a constitutional requirement to hold a referendum on who will control the province. In striking a bargain with Maliki in November, the Kurds, who hope to establish a demographic majority in Kirkuk, made sure he committed himself to such a plebiscite.

However, in an early indication of how willing he might be to carry out the agreements he signed, Maliki suggested barely a month later that the constitutional article on a plebiscite was so vaguely worded that it could not be implemented. This suggests that tensions between Kurds and the government in Baghdad will remain high as the territorial dispute lingers. Past events have shown that local skirmishes have the potential to spark serious trouble if communication between Arab and Kurdish commanders breaks down.

For now, however, Maliki and his Kurdish coalition partners are making the best of what may turn out to be a brief honeymoon. In a deal that pleased the oil industry, Baghdad and Erbil agreed in January to resume oil exports from the Kurdistan region through the Iraqi national pipeline, to deposit the resulting revenues in the federal treasury (from which the Kurdistan region annually receives 17 percent—about $10 billion in 2011), and to pay the producing companies’ investment and operating costs following an audit of receipts.

This was a major breakthrough after two years of stalemate, during which small and medium-size companies that had signed oil contracts with the Kurdistan regional government were shunned by Baghdad; receiving no money, some were driven to the edge of financial ruin. If the current deal is carried out in full—and it is not clear that it will be—it could lead to broader negotiations about revenue-sharing and management of the oil industry that would strengthen the unity of Iraq across the Arab-Kurd divide, at least for now.

The Kurds have never made a secret of their aspiration to gain statehood one day and are imposing themselves on areas of mixed population such as Kirkuk, from which the Saddam regime had tried to dispossess and expel them and to which they have now returned. Kurdish security police, the asaesh, flaunt their domination of Kirkuk, and in an alarming move in late February, Kurdish peshmergas were deployed around Kirkuk city, ostensibly to stop Arab demonstrators but in effect strengthening their hold on the area. They were withdrawn a month later, but Kurdish leaders appear to be testing Washington’s resolve ahead of a US troop pullout. They calculate that while Baghdad remains weak, they can extend the boundary of their region. A larger, stronger Kurdish region, with more oil, would have better prospects against an increasingly powerful central state, they contend, especially if the new order proves to be as undemocratic and intolerant of Kurdish dreams as its predecessor.

And here lies the real threat to Iraq—arguably greater than ambitious neighbors, unsettled ethnic claims, or lingering sectarian rancor. The second Maliki government may continue on the authoritarian course of the first. Security agencies are answerable strictly to the prime minister. In secret prisons torture is used against suspected insurgents as well as opponents, such as leaders of the recent protests. In general Maliki strongly resists any checks and balances in the system of government. “We create our own dictators,” a former provincial police chief noted bitterly, referring to the failure of the March 2010 elections to produce a real shift in power.

The weak Federal Supreme Court is a troubling reminder that the newly formed Maliki government may be no more democratically inclined than the old. In January, in response to a government petition, it ruled that the constitution places certain “independent” state agencies, such as the Electoral Commission and the corruption-fighting Integrity Commission, as well as the Central Bank, directly under the authority of the Council of Ministers, granting parliament no more than a monitoring function. The ruling produced an outcry, including among the directors of the agencies in question. Among other adverse consequences, the ruling would allow Maliki to interfere in the electoral process through his control of the Electoral Commission, raising questions about the fairness of the outcome of future national and local elections. And the ruling cannot be appealed. Moreover, parliament has yet to issue new legislation that would reform the organization of the security forces and place all security and intelligence agencies under established civilian control. Maliki could prove reluctant to accept such a law.

Because of such disquieting impulses Maliki’s nominal partners in government sound more like opponents primed to oust him. “It’s very difficult for a government when its goals are not harmonized,” a Maliki adviser complained. “Those who disagree with the prime minister should stand openly in opposition. All the parties in the government are appealing to Iraqis in the street as if they are in the opposition.”

Whether Maliki will turn out to be an increasingly authoritarian leader now depends to a large degree on the same parties that joined him in forming the government. He can fire ministers as easily as he has appointed them, and replace them with more pliable ones. The most likely outcome is paralysis and stagnation, as the governing parties maintain a rough balance, playing one against another, including Maliki’s State of Law Coalition, in ever-shifting tactical alliances. A governing body with forty-four ministers is bound to fail in performing the one task for which the people elected it—to make decisions, govern, and deliver basic services.

Emboldened by protests elsewhere in the region, a variety of Iraqi activists have made it clear that their patience has limits. They are not the only ones waiting for Baghdad to act. Washington would like to know what Maliki’s intentions are with respect to the presence of US troops and the future relationship between the two countries. And Maliki’s coalition partners want him to fulfill the commitments that formed the basis of the government.

The very composition of the national unity government seems likely to avert a return to sectarian war, even if episodic violence serves as a reminder of how fragile things are. But if this government continues in its authoritarian ways while failing to deliver what people want and need most—electricity and clean water, as well as jobs—it could very quickly begin to resemble the Arab regimes that had thought themselves invulnerable to popular discontent only a short while ago.

—April 14, 2011

This Issue

May 12, 2011