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Behind Iraq's Long Political Indecision

Interviewee: Reidar Visser, Editor of Iraqi Political Journal, www. historiae. org
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
July 28, 2010

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The Iraqiya Party, led by Ayad Allawi, emerged from Iraq's parliamentary elections in March with a two-seat lead over the State of Law Party headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. But Iraq still has no government. American combat troops are scheduled to leave at the end of August, and there doesn't seem to be any rush to compromise, says Iraq expert Reidar Visser. With the month-long holiday of Ramadan due to begin August 11, Visser says the parties are not likely to make key decisions until September. He says U.S. influence in Iraq is waning, and he is critical that the United States hasn't been involved in working out a solution.

What do you make of this seeming inability to put together a new government since the elections last March?

The most worrying thing is that the maneuvering so far has not been particularly realistic [and] things have not moved very much in the four months that have passed. For example, right now much of the discussion is [around] having the three major factions join together: That would be Allawi's Iraqiya; the Shiite alliance, called INA and headed by Ammar al-Hakim; and the Kurdistan Party. But it seems very unrealistic to think that those three parties will be able to agree on a prime minister.

Would Allawi win in a popular vote if Iraq had a kind of U.S. presidential election?

There was a presidential element to the vote on March 7. In the constituency where Allawi and Maliki ran in Baghdad, Maliki got 600,000 personal votes and Allawi got 400,000.

Those two are the most popular candidates, and Maliki, it seems, is a little bit more popular in his particular constituency in Baghdad, so at least that's an indication. For these reasons, one would assume that the most logical thing would be that the two biggest winners, Allawi and Maliki, would explore the possibility of building an alliance together. But unfortunately, they have many personal issues between them.

The United States just indicates that it wants a big coalition, but it doesn't really engage in the process of getting there.

The two men met recently. Is the issue that neither one is willing to play second fiddle?

Yes, that's the main problem. As an alternative, they are exploring all sorts of scenarios with oversized governments in which their particular parties would end up getting fewer posts in the government and they would push their personal ambitions a little bit to the background.

Is there a compromise candidate that Maliki and Allawi could agree on?

Not one that they could agree on. The problem is that by the constitution, the job of the government is given to the candidate of the biggest bloc. Iraqiya is the biggest bloc in terms of what the parties achieved in the elections, but Maliki has based his plans to remain in the premiership on a bloc that came into existence only after the elections when the two Shiite lists, State of Law and INA, tried to join together in an even bigger alliance.

Where does Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr fit in?

He is in the same group as Hakim. They are the third group, they are called the INA, and they've got seventy seats. They are trying to impose a compromise candidate of their own, but obviously neither Maliki nor Allawi is particularly happy about that.

When Ramadan starts August 11, does that mean the end of politics for a month?

It slows down a good deal.

The parliament is due to meet this week. Are they supposed to pick a speaker?

They could do it, yes. That is what they should have done four weeks ago, but so far, there's been postponement of that because most of the parties prefer to do all these so-called leading positions--the speaker of the parliament, the presidency, the prime minister--in a single deal. Lacking a package agreement, they've been unwilling to pick a speaker.

The United States is supposed to pull its remaining combat troops out of Iraq by the end of August. Should the United States worry about the security situation in Iraq?

To some extent, the United States should always be worried about the failure to form a new government. I don't think it's going to unravel completely, because the Iraqi army is now a lot stronger than before, but it's certainly a problem if the situation remains unresolved by the time we hit the end of August.

Vice President Joseph Biden made a trip there earlier in the month, but American political influence is waning right now, right?

An ideal solution would be for Allawi and Maliki to sit down and analyze carefully what they could get in a bilateral deal and what they get when they try to avoid each other and instead join up with all the others.

Timeline: The Iraq War

It's declining by the day. It's also a little bit unhelpful that the United States hasn't made practical proposals beyond outlining a preferred end game. It has just said that it wants the four biggest lists to get together in a coalition government. That's perhaps the most troubling aspect of U.S. policy. The United States just indicates that it wants a big coalition, but it doesn't really engage in the process of getting there. Due to the constitutional modalities involved, it's actually quite unlikely that you will end up with a scenario of Iraqiya, the State of Law, the INA, and the Kurds, and it will certainly be one of the most time-consuming scenarios.

Meanwhile, we still have these sporadic explosions that are quite destructive. Everyone blames these on the al-Qaeda faction in Iraq. Where do the Sunnis stand in all this? Most of the Sunnis' support was for Allawi, I gather.

Many Sunnis voted for Allawi, but Allawi has also had a quite substantial backing by Shiites, who are secular. So it's not only Sunnis that are worried. I don't think we should see the situation now as some sectarian struggle. It's more complicated.

Are educated Iraqis more secular and therefore more prone to support Allawi?

You would certainly find some Iraqis that fit that description, but Maliki has also been able to corral some of the professional class into his group. So in many ways, both Maliki and Allawi are competing for similar electorates. Perhaps you could say Allawi is a little bit more leaning toward Sunnis, and perhaps you could say Maliki is more for Shiites, but then again, Allawi himself is a Shiite, so there is no perfect sectarian pick in any of the electorates.

What would it take for Allawi and Maliki to get together? In Israel, for instance, in 1984, the elections were so indecisive that Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres alternated as prime minister. Would that be possible in Iraq?

I don't think it is advisable, because Iraq is a young democracy and you wouldn't want to tamper too much with the existing constitution. An ideal solution would be for Allawi and Maliki to sit down and analyze carefully what they could get in a bilateral deal and what they get when they try to avoid each other and instead join up with all the others. And I think they would find out that they can get far more for joining forces in terms of overall influence instead of joining up with this whole array of strange bedfellows that they are currently negotiating with.

Is there a lot of intensive discussion going on behind the scenes?

Oh sure. Coming back to my overall theme, there's been a lot of suspense the last week, for example, but no objective signs of progress in these negotiations.

What would be your guess as how this will be resolved?

When we get to September, that will match the time the politicians spent in 2006. That is the Iraqi record. I think the world record is 210 days. By September, there will be pressure building on them to get things done. But right now, I don't see any immediate step towards a solution. Maybe Iraqiya has to experience failure before they really turn to the bitter pill of negotiating with Maliki. Maybe they have to experience failure in what they're currently doing with the Kurds and INA.

Do Hakim, the head of the INA, and Allawi get along well?

On the personal level they do, but the programs of their political parties are extremely different. In terms of political programs, Maliki has a lot more in common with Allawi.

Do the Kurds just watch with amusement, or are they very concerned about this?

They are concerned, but they seem to be waiting a little bit for the others to agree on a prime ministerial candidate.

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