Despite tensions in Iraq because of recent violence, the coalition led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will probably lead in the March 7 parliamentary election, and Maliki will likely return as prime minister, says Nir Rosen, a fellow at New York University's Center on Law and Security. "Maliki is perceived as being relatively non-sectarian and nationalist. He has a petro-state agenda of a strong government, which uses oil revenues to produces wealth for Iraq. That's quite popular," says Rosen, who recently returned from a trip to Iraq. While the United States would like former prime minister Ayad Allawi to become prime minister, Rosen says, Allawi is mistrusted as a former Baathist. Rosen also says Iran's influence in Iraq is not as strong as the United States fears.
Iraq's national parliamentary elections are scheduled for March 7, leading to the formation of a new government. What's the mood in the country about the elections?
There's some tension, because there's been an increase in attacks and assassinations related to the elections recently. Most of the violence you don't hear about in the West. It's not the spectacular car bomb attacks, but targeted killings with explosives placed on cars, or pistols with silencers. There have also been some very spectacular attacks lately, and people are concerned by American officials warning that could be a return to civil war because of the de-Baathification committee, which led to the disqualification from the elections of some former Baathists and others. The latest crisis has made people a little bit nervous.
What is your sense of who's likely to come out ahead in the elections?
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who heads the Dawa Party and a broad coalition called State of Law, remains the most popular politician. His rivals in the Shiite camp, like Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, and Muqtada al-Sadr, the head of the populist Sadrists, are not as popular.
When you talk to people, they say the religious parties have been discredited significantly. In the last election over a year ago, they did quite poorly at the local level. Maliki is perceived as being relatively non-sectarian and nationalist. He has a petro-state agenda of a strong government, which uses oil revenues to produces wealth for Iraq. That's quite popular.
This is a case where maybe the end justifies the means, because an alternative to Maliki from these more corrupt, sectarian, kleptocratic Shiite parties would really be a terrible thing. So basically I hope Maliki steals the election if he has to.
But the Iraqi political landscape is very fragmented, and the system is designed to prevent any kind of concentration of power, so even if Maliki does well in the elections, he is not guaranteed automatic political power. This is a case where maybe the end justifies the means, because an alternative to Maliki from these more corrupt, sectarian, kleptocratic Shiite parties would really be a terrible thing. So basically I hope Maliki steals the election if he has to.
Is it possible Maliki would form a coalition with former prime minister Ayad Allawi?
It's possible but unlikely. The reason is because Allawi is identified as a Baathist. Until recently, Maliki was playing the nationalist hand: He was reaching out to former Baathists like Saleh al-Mutlaq and other Sunni politicians. But Ahmed Abdel Hadi Chalabi, who headed the de-Baathification committee, forced Maliki to change his tactics. Maliki still has a core constituency. These are Shiites who are a little bit sectarian and don't like Baathists. So he [Maliki] wasn't going to risk his constituency by coming out in defence of former Baathists, especially if they're Sunni. It would be very difficult right now for Maliki to reach out to Allawi. Certainly after the election that will be more possible.
Does the United States have a favorite?
The U.S. favorite is definitely Allawi. But he's associated with the Baath party too much [he joined it in his youth and was in charge of Baathist organizations in Europe until his resignation from the party in 1976] and with his role as an American intelligence agent too much.
Is Iran playing a major role behind the scenes and, as some U.S. military officials contend, financing Shiite candidates?
I've always seen the role of Iran being greatly exaggerated, and also the negative role of Iran as being greatly exaggerated. People assume that if you are a Shiite player, you have to be pro-Iranian. But you can find an Iraqi who is a Shiite who doesn't like Sunnis, and it doesn't mean that you're pro-Iranian per se. But what the U.S. military assumes is that having a strong Shiite identity makes one pro-Iranian. And Iran isn't the only country that's involved in the election; Saudi Arabia is very much involved. The Saudis hate Maliki; in general, they hate Shiites, and so a third option for them is Allawi who has been a guest of the Saudis. Even though he is a Shiite, he is at least avowedly secular.
So the Saudis are putting money in his campaign?
Yes. He [Allawi] was just in Saudi Arabia, and I think every country in the region is involved in these elections. Chalabi was accused of being an Iranian agent by General Raymond Odierno. I don't view him as such. I view him as a Shiite opportunist. That doesn't mean he's an Iranian agent.
People assume that if you are a Shiite player, you have to be pro-Iranian. But you can find an Iraqi who is a Shiite who doesn't like Sunnis, and it doesn't mean that you're pro-Iranian per se.
What about the Kurds? They played a big role in previous elections. The president of Iraq is a Kurd, how are they likely to do?
Certainly within the Kurdish electorate we see two major Kurdish parties. But it's not yet clear what they'll do vis-à-vis Maliki. They've clashed in the past, almost militarily at one point. The Kurds have been trying to get as much territory in the so-called disputed areas as possible. There is a sort of a tense standoff on that faultline. But Maliki will try to move on, to make concessions, to get their support at the expense of his Shiite rivals. I think he'll probably be able to do that, if he's smart.
Did you get the sense as you were traveling around that there's great interest in the election?
Last week, Iraqi television was constantly airing advertisements for the candidates, but I did not get the sense that the people on the streets were very enthusiastic about it. They did not have a "Barack Obama" candidate who could inspire people or anything like that. Mostly the Iraqis right now are emerging from a terrible trauma, the civil war, and for the most part they want some kind of security and stability above all else. I almost see the elections as coming at an unfortunate time; they've had a good couple of years and the chance of another upheaval makes people nervous.
What do you think about the Iraqi security forces now?
I've been quite impressed with them as I've travelled through the country. They're much less sectarian than they were in the past, and less fearsome, and they harass much less. More importantly, their presence is pervasive. Any village you go to they're there, no matter how remote it is. They're very much in control. When Iraqis do have problems and they call them up, they do seem to arrive on scene. They go after Shiite militants just as much as they go after Sunni militants. So there is a sense that they're more or less impartial. In fact they're getting a sense of entitlement that they are the state. And there are definitely authoritarian tendencies there which might be considered dangerous in the future, but I think right now the Iraqis just appreciate a little bit of security.