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Iraq's Gathering Political Clouds

Author: Brett H. McGurk, International Affairs Fellow
April 27, 2010

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An Iraqi judicial panel on April 26 disqualified a member of the winning list led by Ayad Allawi for prior ties to the Ba'ath Party. If that ruling stands, Allawi could lose a seat and have his margin of victory cut from two seats to one. This follows an order by the same panel to recount ballots in parts of Baghdad, which could delay the government formation process into August or September--just as U.S. force levels are cut from 95,000 to 50,000 by August 31. True to form, nefarious actors in the process, including Iran and al-Qaeda, will seek advantage from increasing tensions, making the next four to six months among the riskiest and most critical period of the war.

The judicial panel's ruling barred the replacement candidate for Saleh Mutlaq--a prominent Sunni politician who ran with Allawi but was barred a few weeks before the election. Much remains unclear, including what will happen to the discarded votes for this candidate, and it is still possible that Allawi will retain the seat. But at the very least there is now a one-month appeals process and an expectation of more rulings ahead. All of these procedural machinations further delay what was already set to be a protracted and months-long government formation process. Under the Iraqi constitution, the process for forming the government does not formally kick off until there is a final certified count, which still has not happened--seven weeks and counting after election day.

The more important court decision came shortly before the election when Iraq's Supreme Court interpreted "largest bloc" in the Iraqi constitution to mean the bloc that forms a government majority after the election--not the list that wins a plurality of votes on election day. With that decision, it does not matter whether Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki or Allawi "won" the election by a handful of seats. The right to form the government goes to whoever can pull together the seventy-plus additional seats they need to form a majority coalition. The problem right now is that neither Maliki nor Allawi appear able to garner the necessary cross-bloc support. Maliki has been unable to win the full support of the Iraqi National Alliance (the main Shia party list), which he needs to secure a majority. Allawi has the same problem, in addition to fissures between hard-line Sunni Arab members of his list and the Kurdish blocs.

The planned U.S. troop drawdown adds to the uncertainty. We cannot predict what Iraq will look like with fifty thousand U.S. troops--because we have never been there before. What calculations will Iraqi leaders make? Will they further hedge and harden sectarian positions? We do not know--and in a delicate period of risk, it is preferable to subtract unknown variables. But this timetable is not likely to change, and the administration will need to manage the months ahead with extreme humility and patience, recognizing that we cannot anticipate now who will be leading the next government or just how long this might take. When dealing with Iraq policy, unfortunately, the only thing we know for certain is that we know very little for certain.

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