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Iraq's Slow, Steady Political Progress

Author: Brett H. McGurk, International Affairs Fellow
June 11, 2010

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Iraq's new parliament convenes Monday in Baghdad, nearly one hundred days after the general election. This period has witnessed bare-knuckle political brawls, a vote recount in Baghdad, ebbs and flows of violence, and backroom maneuvering among power brokers. It has looked, in short, like Iraq. The coming months will bring more of the same, but the Iraqis are likely to keep moving forward--albeit imperceptibly at times--to stitch together a broad-based coalition government.

The bargaining will continue to be fierce, because the stakes are high. The new government has a mandate to serve through 2014--thus determining the future relationship with the United States as well as Iraq's orientation in its vital neighborhood. In that regard, there may be calls in the weeks ahead for U.S. officials to push the Iraqis to move faster. But overt pressure will not produce a better result and may prolong the process by adding to its inherent complexity. The trick for the United States is to facilitate an optimal outcome without directing or prescribing one.

The New Political Landscape

The United States cannot predict or force outcomes. Nor can it pick winners. But it can ensure that Iraqi leaders remain in Baghdad, temper their rhetoric, and work around the clock to explore every possible outcome.

The new parliament convenes in Baghdad with 325 members--50 more than the parliament elected in 2005. Of those 325 members, only 64 were reelected, meaning 80 percent are new to national politics. Over the course of their four-year term, these new members will likely maneuver through shifting alliances and coalitions as the parliament finds its institutional footing. This is all for the good.

But first there is a government to form, and there the key figures are well-known and strong-willed. In a parliamentary system, it can be unclear who "won" an election, because an electoral plurality does not guarantee a governing majority. That dilemma now bedevils Iraq, where a bloc headed by former prime minister Ayad Allawi technically won the election--securing two more seats (91 to 89) than the bloc headed by current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. But it takes at least 163 seats to form a government.

There lies the present impasse, and the path forward is uncharted.

The Constitutional Muddle

Like most constitutions, Iraq's is a product of political horse-trading and compromise. One of those compromises was fuzzy language on who precisely would have the right to form a government. Is it the electoral bloc that wins the most votes or a post-election bloc that joins forces after the election to secure the most seats in parliament? The relevant clause is Article 76(1), which directs the president of Iraq to "charge the nominee of the largest Council of Representatives bloc" to present a government and a political program for parliamentary approval.

Allawi reads "largest bloc" to mean the bloc that won the most seats in the election (meaning him). Maliki reads "largest bloc" to mean the bloc that forms after the election and he has since joined forces with the Shia Iraqi National Alliance (INA), thus securing 70 additional seats. Maliki has a court opinion on his side, but Allawi claims the Maliki-INA alliance is farcical since they agree on little other than depriving him of the premiership. Of course, in 2006 when the tables were turned--and the Shia parties won the electoral contest outright--Allawi made the argument Maliki is now making; and Maliki's allies made the argument Allawi is now making. To paraphrase Casablanca's Captain Renault, we can all be shocked (shocked!) that there is hypocrisy in politics.

Breaking the Deadlock

In the end, Article 76 may be a red herring, because no bloc can be chosen to form a government until the parliament selects a new president--the new president being the individual to charge the largest bloc. The constitution sets no time limit for making this choice, and it requires the first nominee to receive a two-thirds vote in parliament to be confirmed. Thus, the critical first step in forming a government is selecting the president, but no president is likely to be chosen (or win enough votes) without a broader political deal on the prime minister and general makeup of the cabinet.

Timeline: The Iraq WarThis means we should not expect a linear, step-by-step approach to selecting the next government. Instead, we are likely to see a package deal that will include agreement on how the government will operate as well as policies the government will carry out (what the constitution calls a "ministerial program"). In past Iraqi government formations, it was an agreement on structures and policies that served as catalysts to an agreement on positions and personalities. (In 2006, for example, the parties agreed to decision-making rules and 32-point program before naming a cabinet.) This time may be no different.

The U.S. Role: Managing Uncertainty

From a U.S. perspective, this final phase of government formation will require flexibility and constant improvisation. Think of jazz rather than a scripted opera. The United States cannot predict or force outcomes. Nor can it pick winners (chosen U.S. winners are automatic losers). But it can ensure that Iraqi leaders remain in Baghdad, temper their rhetoric, and work around the clock to explore every possible outcome. The United States should also be ready to engage with whoever emerges on top, guided by the fact that we still have no idea who that might be.

This means setting broad objectives--such as a government that does not marginalize any group--and continuous engagement with all parties. The United States can embrace this period of uncertainty by recognizing that Iraq's most influential actors (such as Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani) wish to see a government that includes all major political blocs. The best outcome is a broad-based government that the Iraqis put together themselves. The United States can play an important mediating role, but it must remain very much in the background.

Security--So Far, So Good

While security remains a constant wild card in Iraq, it appears--at least for now--that United States and Iraqi forces have handled this period of transition quite well.

The security situation remains stable even after a series of large-scale bombings since the March 7 election. Despite several high-profile incidents, such as the failed attempt on June 13 to rob Iraq's central bank, overall violence levels have dropped to their lowest levels of the war, and the United States is on track to drawdown to fifty thousand troops by the end of August. There has been some debate over the wisdom of that drawdown, but that debate is now moot. While security remains a constant wild card in Iraq, it appears--at least for now--that United States and Iraqi forces are handling this period of transition quite well.

Conclusion

An Iraqi proverb says you should not remove a cake from the oven just because it smells good. The same goes for Iraqi government formation. In the coming months, we will see periods of false dawns followed by threats, brinksmanship, and more haggling. But the cake, eventually, will bake. The best the United States can do is diligently monitor the oven.

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