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Iraq: A Compromise PM?

Interviewee: Rachel Schneller, International Affairs Fellow in Residence
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
April 29, 2010

Iraq is under U.S. pressure to form a new government quickly in the wake of the March 7 elections that saw two Shiite blocs--Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's State of Law and challenger Ayad Allawi's Iraqiya--winning the majority of seats in a new parliament. But while a compromise candidate may eventually be chosen, it won't happen according to a U.S. timetable and it won't "look the way the United States wants it to look," says Rachel Schneller, a foreign service officer who served in Iraq in 2005 and 2006. Regardless of Iraq's political situation, the U.S. should proceed with its planned combat troop withdrawal this summer, argues Schneller, who says there is no correlation between troop withdrawals and increased security threats in Iraq.

U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill recently issued a statement urging Iraqi politicians to "get on with their show," and form a government "quickly." Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a similar statement this week. Are Iraqis listening?

An American definition of "quick" is going to be quite different than an Iraqi definition of "quick." I really don't believe that things will be settled quickly. I think there are too many issues going on right now that are very complicated. We have this most recent de-Ba'athification action to bar a number of officials who had already been elected. We had the Shiite coalition seeking a recount of votes in Baghdad, which, if undertaken, will take up to two months. These are complicated issues that are going to have to be resolved, and I don't see any way of resolving them by simply rushing through and rubber stamping election results simply to meet some arbitrary deadline.

Two groups won the most seats in a future parliament during the March election: the Iraqiya bloc led by former prime minister Ayad Allawi and Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki's State of Law coalition. Both Alawi and Maliki are Shiite. Why can't they just form a government together?

They could. I am not about to make any predictions of what the outcome of the election is going to look like, because it would be a self-defeating prophecy at this point. The State of Law coalition and Iraqiya could still form a coalition. The major challenge there is that both Maliki and Allawi believe they have a political mandate to be the next prime minister. And that is a very significant challenge, when you have two men who are absolutely convinced that they have been given a democratic mandate to become the next prime minister. How do you compromise?

I also have heard that there is some bad blood between them.

The major challenge is that both Maliki and Allawi believe they have a political mandate to be the next prime minister. And that is a very significant challenge when you have two men who are absolutely convinced that they have been given a democratic mandate.

They come from very different backgrounds. They are both Shiite figures who fled Iraq under the Saddam Hussein regime for different reasons and to different places and engaged in different activities. If you look at Allawi (BBC), he was an original supporter of the Ba'ath Party headed by Saddam Hussein, but after a falling out, he fled Iraq in the 1970s to London where he studied medicine and basically engaged in a very comfortable existence, speaking out against the Saddam regime to the political and academic elite. In 1978, he was almost assassinated by an apparent Iraqi assassin. Maliki, on the other hand, fled Iraq under imminent death threats (BBC) from the Saddam regime, and wound up in Syria working very closely with Iran and Hezbollah in order to fight against the Saddam regime. So he has a lot of "street credentials." Yes, he fled Iraq, but he stayed in the region, he fought the good fight. His was a different approach from Allawi, who was more of an elitist.

Allawi is known as a secularist Shiite. He speaks fluent English and was chosen by the United States to be the first prime minister in 2004.

History, even at this early moment, was very convoluted. When he became prime minister, he was a compromise candidate chosen by the United States. I think that the United States' clear choice at that point was Ahmed Chalabi. Eventually, Allawi turned out to be acceptable to all the key players at that time. We've seen the pattern emerge in Iraqi politics where the candidate who might seem to be the democratically elected prime minister, for example, turns out to be not acceptable to a number of key players on the political scene. So a compromise candidate who is minimally acceptable to most players becomes the next prime minister.

How long did it take for Maliki to emerge as prime minister?

The elections took place on December 15, 2005; the results were certified about six weeks later, at the end of January 2006. Those results showed that Ibrahim al-Jaafari, from the Dawa party at the time, had enough votes to remain as prime minister [He had first been named prime minister after the January 2005 elections.] But he was not an acceptable candidate to everyone. So there was a contracted period of negotiations where a number of names were thrown around, and it was not until April 2006 when Maliki, who at that time was a relative unknown, emerged as the most acceptable candidate for the most players.

So here we are in 2010. Is it possible that some mediator could suggest a third person that's acceptable to both Allawi and Maliki?

That's going to have to happen. The question is whether it will happen before Ramadan, the month-long holiday, which begins this year on August 11. If this isn't sealed before Ramadan starts up, all bets are off because nothing significant will happen politically in Iraq during Ramadan.

That would be five months since the elections, and the American troops are supposed to be pulling out in the end of August.

It's important to decouple the issue of American troop presence from the Iraqi political situation. The security agreement we have with Iraq is a separate issue from the Iraqi elections. There are two important dates. The official U.S.-Iraqi agreement signed at the end of 2008 calls for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops by the end of 2011. In addition, President Obama has set the end of August this year to begin withdrawing U.S. combat troops. It hasn't been shown that there's any connection between withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq and security threats or attacks on Iraqi soil. If anything, the number of attacks has decreased. If you look at the number of attacks on Iraqi soil during the time that U.S. troops have been drawn down over the past year, there is no correlation between the two.

What's happening now is a political battle. Any attempt to renegotiate an already negotiated and expected pattern of troop withdrawal from Iraq is going to draw attention away from the political negotiations going on among the Iraqi political parties and draw attention to the U.S. presence in Iraq and make that an issue up for debate in the Iraqi political process. That would not be helpful at all. What we need to do now is not make any sudden changes or sudden movements or variations from what's already been negotiated and planned. We don't need new surprises here.

In February 2006 during a similar period of political uncertainty, there was the attack on the Shiite shrine at al-Askara in Samarra, and considerable violence broke out while there was no government. You don't think that's a good correlation?

When that happened back in 2006--and I was in Iraq when it happened--we had close to 150,000 U.S. troops there. And now we have around 95,000. So we have significantly fewer troops now than we did back in 2005-2006. The 150,000 troops were not sufficient to keep the attack on the Samarra mosque from happening. Now we have 95,000 and we have seen no corresponding attack on a significant mosque. In fact, we've seen the opposite. Two al-Qaeda in Iraq leaders were killed and a number of other al-Qaeda members detained, and the Iraqi army is taking the lead.

What about the other Shiite coalition, the Iraqi National Alliance, which is led by Ammar Hakim and which also includes the followers of Muqtada al-Sadr?

It hasn't been shown that there's any connection between withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq and security threats or attacks on Iraqi soil. If anything, the number of attacks has decreased.

Some people assume that the Sadrists are the leaders because there was an extraordinarily complicated election system and the Sadrists garnered more votes internally within the INA than did the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq or the other political parties that made up that INA coalition. So even though the Sadrists are not on paper as the leader of the INA, the Sadrists themselves have more of a democratic mandate because they got more votes. And as far as I've been able to tell, they're functioning as the kingmaker in this election and they're engaging in a number of actions showing everyone who's in control.

How is that?

Look at this most recent move to de-Ba'athify up to nine individuals from the Iraqiya list who were actually elected. This is a move by the Accountability and Justice Commission that's led by Chalabi and Ali al-Lami, who are both connected with the INA. Whether this is going to change the outcome of the overall elections is not clear yet. Just taking away nine seats from Iraqiya [which won the most seats in the election] doesn't significantly give Maliki's Dawa party, which heads the State of Law coalition [which finished second], a clear advantage in forming a new government. However, it does show that the INA [which finished third] is able to impact the outcome of the election. They are actually able to take seats away from people who are democratically elected. And the process of basically throwing out thousands of votes that were democratically cast by Iraqi voters is a big issue. The voters will be disenfranchised, and it clearly shows that the INA is in charge. So whoever wants to form the next government is going to have to include the INA. Basically their negotiating position is quite strong right now.

And they are opposed to having Maliki back as prime minister?

The Sadrists are opposed to Maliki as prime minister for a number of reasons. One is that they feel that they are the ones who were instrumental in giving Maliki the prime ministership in the first place. Back in 2006, their support for Maliki as a compromise candidate was key. Otherwise he would have never taken up that position. So they feel that what they give, they can take away. Another thing is that in 2008 Maliki launched the "charge of the knights" operation in Basra [key Sadrist stronghold in southern Iraq].

The Sadrists and the Jaish al-Mahdi [the so-called Mahdi Army] suffered a major setback because they came under attack by Iraqi security forces under Maliki's charge, aided by allied forces, so they really feel a sense of betrayal. It would be very difficult for the Sadrists to accept Maliki as prime minister unless that was what they themselves determined was in their best interests. So far that does not appear to be the case.

Lastly, what about the Kurds?

The Kurds have made it clear that they're not going to be the sticking point in this election. That is a politically smart thing for them to do. If anybody is going to get that call from a high-level official in the U.S. government saying, "Hurry up and speed this along, we can't wait forever," at least the Kurds know they're not going be on the other end of that phone.

You're not panicking about Iraq?

I'm not panicking because I've seen Iraq through a lot of really dark times. This is going to be messy and is not going to look the way the United States wants it to look. That's never happened in Iraq. I'm hopeful because if you look back at what's happened in Iraq in the past few years, there's always been a number of cases where political parties had to make almost impossible compromises to be able to move forward. And at the eleventh hour, at half past the eleventh hour, they do make those compromises. And if they can continue that pattern of making those last minute difficult compromises, it will show a significant degree of political maturity in Iraq. No country goes from having a dictatorship for decades to having a complete and problem-free democracy in the space of seven years. It's a step by step process.

One last question, just to clear up. When you mentioned these candidates who were taken out of office because they were Ba'athists, can they be replaced by people from the same party?

Part of the problem is that this has never happened before, so there's a bit of the rules being made up as they go along. What they're looking at is simply eliminating those candidates and not transferring their votes to another candidate. This is fairly serious, but what would happen if those seats were transferred to another party member is that it would simply open itself up to another de-Ba'athification. At what point does this process end? There's also the appeals process. The nine candidates who apparently are in line to be de-Ba'athified have thirty days to appeal the decision. So that's another delay in the process. That's why you're seeing these high-level statements saying, "C'mon, we have to move the ball along, we have to get on the ball." Even more powerful than the U.S. government officials who have said this, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of the Shiites, has come out and said essentially the same thing, urging the government formation process to continue expeditiously and to be inclusive of all Iraqis. The main issue here is what is "quick." As I said at the start, "quick" in the Iraqi sense is a lot slower than what we impatient Americans consider "quick."

Rachel Schneller is a foreign service officer with the U.S. Department of State. The ideas expressed in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. government or State Department.

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