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After the Elections: Iraq's Uncertain Future

Interviewee: Meghan L. O'Sullivan, Adjunct Senior Fellow
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
March 29, 2010

Last week's completed count in Iraq's elections gave former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's Iraqiya coalition a two-seat win over current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's State of Law coalition. Still, it will take months before it's clear who will head the new government, with debate over Sunni-Shiite balance creating tensions, says Meghan L. O'Sullivan, the Jeane Kirkpatrick Professor of International Affairs at Harvard University's Kennedy School, and former deputy national security adviser on Iraq for President Bush. She notes that the White House should rethink withdrawing all combat troops from the country in August, when there will still be uncertainty about the newly formed government. And far more potentially destabilizing for Iraq than contentiousness over forming a government, adds O'Sullivan, would be an international showdown with Iran.

Neither of the two leading blocs has a clear majority of the 325 seats needed to form a new government. What's ahead in the coming days and weeks?

No close watcher of Iraqi politics expected any party to get a clear majority. The question was: Who will get a plurality of votes? And this is where the Iraqi election is so stunning: No one was confident in predicting the winner. The numbers are very close. In terms of next steps, the constitution says that the party with the largest bloc in parliament should be designated by the president to have the first shot at forming a government. So one might think that this privilege will be Allawi's. But this is where things get even more interesting.

Explain.

Many have questioned whether "bloc" refers to the parties as they stood at the time of the elections, or whether "bloc" refers to the coalitions that form between parties once they come into parliament after the elections. This distinction is critical. It determines whether the number of seats won by a party determines who gets to form the government--or if, in fact, there is still a lot of politicking, coalition-building, and deal-making to be done before the designation is made. Maliki's party asked the Iraqi supreme court to make a determination on this matter, which was announced just the other day.

And the decision was?

The supreme court decided to interpret the word "bloc" broadly, meaning that the president should call on the largest grouping in parliament after the elections. What this means is that Allawi's strong showing in terms of seats may not necessarily translate into his having the first opportunity to form the government. What may happen is that this privilege is given to a different coalition that forms between now and when parliament elects a president.

The easiest way to get a new government would be if Maliki and Allawi could form a coalition, but they don't get along, do they?

There are serious tensions. When you look at potential coalitions, the most obvious one in terms of numbers and ideology would be a coalition between State of Law, headed by Maliki, and Iraqiya, headed by Allawi. Both parties want a more centralized Iraqi state, and they have a common, Arab nationalist outlook. But as you suggested, there are personality issues. So in many ways this would be the least likely coalition to emerge.

Could you briefly describe the differences between Maliki and Allawi?

Well, let me talk about both commonalities and differences. At the broadest level, the commonalities are that they're both very strong personalities, and they're both leaders who have inspired significant, personal followings. I believe Maliki got far more votes than any other individual running in the Iraqi election. Both Maliki and Allawi are known for their strong leadership styles and the desire to centralize power in the country. This is of course probably the greatest political dispute in Iraq today: namely, how much power should be granted to the central government in Baghdad and how much power should be held within the regions or the provinces. Both Maliki's State of Law and Allawi's Iraqiya feel strongly that Baghdad should be the main locus of power.

Maliki and other Iraqi leaders are wise enough to know they need a government that is national in character. So perhaps the cabinet doesn't include every party, but every Iraqi should look at the government and feel that his or her interests are represented.

In terms of differences, they come from different backgrounds; they worked with different people and were shaped by different influences. They are both on the more nationalist side of the Iraqi political spectrum, but Maliki has evolved as a nationalist over time. He might have taken an even more nationalist stance in the recent elections had the issues surrounding de-Ba'athification not arisen [when several high-ranking Sunnis were barred from running], making it difficult for him to keep a Shia base and win over a nationalist center. Maliki's traditional base is in much more in the Shiite religious political establishment, whereas Allawi's political roots really are much more in an Arab, nationalist, secular kind of orientation.

In terms of issues, there are significant differences. For instance, they will differ on the appropriate role of de-Ba'athification, with Allawi likely to reverse much that has occurred and Maliki likely to be much more cautious in bringing it to a close. The two will likely have a different attitude toward the appropriate composition of the Iraqi army. Allawi has talked about changing the army or reforming the army; he has sometimes stated that the army needs to be "purged"--a term that Maliki's people are likely to regard as removing Shiites and bringing back significant elements of Saddam's old army.

Maliki has really tried to strike a balance in the last few years on this. And the last area where there are commonalities and differences at the same time is vis-à-vis Iran. Allawi has been very vocal in opposing Iranian influence--and accusing the current government of being far too closely tied to Iran. Maliki, who also has no real love for Iran as far as I can tell, has had to be a little more cautious on that front, although I would still in no way characterize him as subservient or yielding to Iran. Maliki has in many instances resisted actions that Iran has strongly pressured him to take.

The Sunni population apparently voted heavily in favor of Allawi's Iraqiya coalition. I suppose the Sunnis will watch the future very carefully. Is that a potential danger area?

There are a couple of issues to watch in that regard. Allawi is a secular Shiite, yet an overwhelming majority of voters who voted for his list and who ran on his list were Sunni. This does not necessarily mean Allawi will have a sectarian identity; his party is more one of strong nationalists. However, the problem that might arise for Allawi in his efforts to build a large enough coalition is that there are serious frictions between many in Iraqiya and the Kurds.

Building a coalition with the Kurds will be a delicate matter for Allawi (although not impossible), as the Kurds are likely to seek concessions that could be anathema to many in Allawi's group. For instance, the Kurds are almost certainly going to wish to maintain the presidency, which they currently have under Jalal Talabani. In that instance, what senior position could a Sunni achieve, if Allawi is prime minister and a Kurd--Talabani, or someone else--is president? Perhaps the speaker of Parliament? The speaker is hugely important and will be even more so in the coming years, but the Sunnis haven't traditionally regarded that position in equally high esteem. So there's some complication simply in terms of how Sunni politicians are going to get the influence and status they believe the elections conveyed upon them in the Allawi-led government. Still, I'm not overly worried about this--they will work it out, even if Allawi loses a few members of his list.

What is potentially much more problematic is the prospect of a government without any significant Sunni participation. The two Shiite parties could come together over the course of the next few weeks and actually form the largest bloc in parliament.

That's the Iraq National Alliance and the State of Law?

That's correct--together, they have 159 seats. It's not an absolute majority. They would need to get four more seats, but they could easily get that from the smaller parties or from the Kurds. And then they would get tasked to form a government. They could form a government that excluded Iraqiya entirely. That could be very bad for Iraqi stability. The Sunnis perceive that they "won" this election in the sense that Allawi, who was the person that they put most of their votes and support behind, has the most number of parliamentary seats. So their inability to be in government, or even be given the chance to try to form a government, after they won, could be explosive. The message that the Sunnis could take from this is, "even when we win, we're excluded." And this is very dangerous in a society where there are recent strong connections between political exclusion and violence. That's the scenario that could be least conducive to a stable Iraq.

Maliki, I suppose, will say he'd be happy to have the Sunnis in his government, but is he really interested in that?

It is easy for us watching from afar to overestimate the sectarian orientation of the elections and government formation process. Some people are looking at things as Sunnis and Shiites and Kurds. But many others are not; many are looking at the situation from the perspective of Iraqis. The calculations behind coalitions are going to be made based on a variety of things, not just sectarian identities. Certainly there are some people who are Sunni that Maliki would be happy to have in his government. He is just not particularly interested in forming a national unity government--one in which every party has a minister in the cabinet. This is because his experience with such a government has been difficult. But Maliki and other Iraqi leaders are wise enough to know they need a government that is national in character. So perhaps the cabinet doesn't include every party, but every Iraqi should look at the government and feel that his or her interests are represented in the broadest sense. It is a tough sweet spot to find.

Someone told me that everything really has to get done before Ramadan. Ramadan is around August 11 this year. Will it take that long?

I wouldn't be shocked if it did. The most important factor in timing is how the Iraqis hammer things out. But how quickly this is done also depends how aggressively Iran tries to get involved--and whether the United States chooses to stand back or to play a very subtle role. My guess is that Iran will try very hard to ensure there's no government led by Ayad Allawi. And that will translate into Iran pushing very hard for Maliki's State of Law and the Iraqi National Alliance coming together.

An international confrontation with Iran is at the very top of my list of things that could put Iraq off the current positive trajectory it is on.

A look at the Iraqi constitution reveals a multi-step process: certifying results, calling the new Assembly to order, electing a new speaker and two deputies, getting a new president, the president designating the nominee of the biggest bloc to form a government, and then the constitution gives that person thirty days to form a government. Assuming that those things actually happen in the time that the constitution allots, the formation would take until the beginning if everything goes according to plan.

It is quite possible it could take longer--and in the past the Iraqis have found creative ways to extend the timeline. Certainly, there are issues that will create additional pressure outside the constitutional system. You mentioned one being Ramadan. Another is the planned withdrawal of all U.S. combat forces by the end of August. It is really not an ideal scenario for the United States to be halving the number of troops it has in Iraq when uncertainty about the incoming government persists. Prime Minister Maliki will be in office until the next government comes on board, but this will be a critical time, and it won't be a time where people have a lot of energy for things besides forming the government.

Is it possible that the U.S. combat troops might stay longer? They are not obliged to leave in August. That's the Obama administration's decision, right?

This is an important point. The United States has a Status of Forces agreement with Iraq that was negotiated and signed at the end of 2008 right before President Obama came into office. That agreement had two timelines that were negotiated and agreed in legal documents between the two countries. The first of those deadlines was that all American troops would be out of Iraqi towns and cities by June 30 of last year, and that timeline was met. The second deadline in that agreement is that at all American troops will be out of Iraq by the end of 2011.

President Obama inserted a third date between these two timelines when he came into office last year: that all combat troops will be out by the end of August of this year. This is an important date because it's related to our ability to fulfill our commitments in other theaters, such as Afghanistan, and also it has major domestic, political implications for the president. But this date--the end of August 2010--doesn't have the same force as these other two deadlines. And I doubt that many Iraqis are aware of it. This August date is purely an American timeline; the Iraqis are more focused on the 2011 timeline.

So it's an open question whether the combat troops will really leave at the end of August.

If I were advising the administration, I would say it's certainly a good vision to have, but I would try to maintain some flexibility given the current political uncertainties, and given the quite serious issues that may arise in the months ahead. One of the reasons Iraq might find itself in a very difficult situation over the next six months has nothing to do with Iraq; it has everything to do with Iran. An international confrontation with Iran is at the very top of my list of things that could put Iraq off the current positive trajectory it is on.

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