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Iraq's Impasse and 'Confusing' Politics

Interviewee: Joost Hiltermann, Deputy Program Director, Middle East and North Africa International Crisis Group
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
October 6, 2010

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Despite some announced moves on reconciliation in Iraq that might end the seven-month political standoff, expert Joost R. Hiltermann says he is wary that any compromise is on the horizon. "The situation is thoroughly confusing. I don't think there is any clear movement forward yet," he says. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki still does not have an agreed-upon majority to form a new government, Hiltermann says, citing the absence of clear signals from two important constituencies--the bloc headed by Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and the Iraqi Kurds. "We could see an entirely new reconfiguration and a new alliance forming," he says. "So, we're still quite far from a new government emerging in Baghdad."

The Sadrists, headed by Muqtada al-Sadr, announced on Friday that they would back Nouri al-Maliki as the prime minister after opposing this for months. And now there's a story saying Sadr will also back Ayad Allawi, leader of the Iraqiya bloc, to be president of Iraq. What do you think the situation is now?

The situation is thoroughly confusing and confused. I don't think there is any clear movement forward yet. Maliki clearly doesn't have the majority he needs to form a government. He needs to find allies who will join him. He needs to buy them or convince them to join in exchange for positions, or the satisfaction of other demands. The Kurds, for example, are going to have a laundry list of demands, many of  which they would want to see satisfied before they will agree to join Maliki and give him the kind of majority that would make him feel very comfortable at the top. And that could all fall apart again, and we could see an entirely new reconfiguration and a new alliance forming. So, we're still quite far from a new government emerging in Baghdad.

What's interesting to me is the emergence, suddenly, of al-Sadr as a possible kingmaker--saying his block would support Maliki as prime minister but only if Maliki would also accept Allawi as president.

Well, we haven't seen any statement from the Sadrist bloc about this--only statements from the Iraqiya bloc, and I don't think we can take that seriously until we actually get it confirmed from the Sadrists' side. But even if it is confirmed that that is the position that Muqtada al-Sadr is taking, that would still be fairly consistent with positions that he and other potential allies of Maliki have, which is that everybody seems to favor a broadly inclusive government, except maybe Maliki himself, even though he also has said he wants it. But the Sadrists and the Kurds, who are sort of outliers, have said that a broadly inclusive government is what is required. They would hope to be part of that, of course. And if you have that kind of government, and if you accept that Maliki would be the prime minister, then it would make sense to have Allawi from the Iraqiya list as the president.

Timeline: The Iraq War

Now the Kurds have had Jalal Talabani as president of Iraq since 2005. Would they be reluctant to give up the presidency or could they strike a deal for something else?

My understanding is, having just returned from northern Iraq, that if you ask the Kurdish people--and even officials--the opinions are quite divided. Not everybody supports a continued tenure for Jalal Talabani, while some clearly do. The bottom line in Kurdistan, and possibly in Iraq, is Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan region, and he has been quite insistent that Jalal Talabani remain on as president. This may be an issue that is non-negotiable, as long as we're talking about a government made up of [Maliki's coalition of] the State of Law, of Nouri al-Maliki, and the Kurds and the Sadrists and some other smaller groups. If, however, the situation switches again and we get a coalition or an alliance of Allawi and Maliki, then, because this is a preferred scenario for the Kurds, they might want to agree to have somebody like Allawi be the president. Then the Kurds would give up that position in exchange for, say, the speakership of parliament. But only in that scenario would they show flexibility.

So, we'll probably know within the week whether there are deals, right?

Oh, I am not so sanguine. It will take a long time.

I guess we in the West are always amazed how slow things move in Iraq.

Yes, that's right. Right now, Maliki is reaching out to the Kurds. And the Kurds are showing signs that they want to be courted, but their demands are significant, and they are of three categories: One is that they want a broadly inclusive government, not a narrowly based one that is essentially a retread of the Maliki-led government with the Kurds and some token Sunnis, which has been the government of the last four years. Secondly, they want the powers of the prime minister to be limited, and for some of those powers to be given to other positions: the cabinet, the presidency, maybe the council that would be established. And thirdly, they have a list of demands. They have long-standing claims regarding Kirkuk and disputed territories, oil, the census, and the status of the Kurdistan regional guard force, the peshmerga. So, it's going to be a tough bargain to negotiate.

Have you been surprised at the low level of involvement of the United States in this?

The United States took a step back after the elections. First, of course, there was a period of challenges to the results and recounts, but once that was all settled in early June, and the real bargaining started, I didn't see any real American involvement until maybe the end of July, early August, when suddenly the embassy started taking an interest.  Of course, Vice President [Joseph] Biden had already visited on July 4 and then went back in August. Then it seemed there was an interest on the part of the United States, and then this idea emerged, which was not necessarily a new one but was sort of reinvigorated, of having a government consisting of the two largest lists--Maliki's State of Law and Allawi's Iraqiya--with some kind of recalibration of the power relationship between the various positions, again, to curb the prime minister's powers with a new institution being created. That effort saw a significant U.S. push, but that essentially collapsed toward the end of September, and it's sort of moribund now. We have to wait and see whether it comes back. It will come back possibly if the Maliki-Kurd courtship also breaks apart, which it could.

In the West, Allawi is quite popular because he's more secular and his grouping includes the Sunnis. The feeling in the West is unless you have Sunni involvement, you're likely to have continued unrest in Iraq. What kind of a person is Allawi?

Nouri al-Maliki is seen as a runaway prime minister who created agencies directly under his command [that were] accountable to no one else, and this is unacceptable to just about any opponent of Maliki's, especially Allawi.

Allawi, of course, is not a Sunni himself. He is a secular Shiite, but he is a very strong Arab nationalist. He's known for his strong opinions about Iran--none of them positive. He started out in the Ba'ath Party and had a falling out with Saddam Hussein and departed Iraq. He was then the subject of an assassination attack in London by the regime, survived it, and is now trying to be the champion of Arab Iraqis who are not Sunni or Shiite, but secular. He is close to the Arab states; he is close to Turkey. Those states and that constituency want to see him as the prime minister. Or, if he cannot be prime minister because maybe Iraq does need a different kind of Shiite prime minister, then at least they want Allawi in a position of power that would significantly balance out the prime minister's power. That is where they come down.

On the other side is Iran, which wants, clearly, a Shiite Islamist prime minister, perhaps a person like Nouri al-Maliki or somebody else with a Shiite majority with other parties brought in to the extent necessary. Bridging the divide between Iran on the one hand and the Arabs and Turks on the other is the United States. [It] for once had a good middle-of-the-road idea: pushing for this compromise between the two largest lists, which would represent both a domestic compromise and regional one. It's truly unfortunate that it hasn't succeeded, but it might yet come back if negotiations between Maliki and the Kurds fall apart.

Or if Maliki agrees to Allawi as the president--that would meet the U.S. desires, right?

No, that's not sufficient. That is a necessary but insufficient condition for the new coalition. It's not just a matter of the position, but also of curbing the powers of the prime minister. Nouri al-Maliki is seen as a runaway prime minister who created agencies directly under his command [that were] accountable to no one else, certainly not to the Council of Representatives [Iraq's parliament]. This is unacceptable to just about any opponent of Maliki's, especially Allawi.

So, what would be an "enhanced power" of the presidency?

Well, it's not clear if the presidency or another institution would have a significant say over defense policy and foreign policy. There are different ideas on the table. There's one that says the presidency should have more powers. There's another that says there should be a council and maybe Allawi should be the head of it, and then somebody else could be the president. There are other ways of limiting the powers of the prime minister by giving him deputies that have significant powers. So, at this point there are a number of proposals on the table, none of which seem to be getting any traction at the moment.

So, despite these latest stories over the long weekend, you're not necessarily enthusiastic that a deal has been struck?

No deal has been struck. The only thing that has happened is that Maliki was chosen to be the designated prime ministerial candidate for the Iraqi National Alliance, which is the reconstituted Shiite alliance minus the Islamic Supreme Council [headed by Adel Abdul Mahdi] and some other independents and smaller groups. So that's the only thing that has happened, but Maliki, even with that kind of blessing, simply doesn't have the number of seats that he needs in order to form a government.

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