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Snags Remain in Forming Iraqi Government

Author: Lionel Beehner
Updated May 22, 2006

Introduction

Feuding ethnic parties, Sunni-Shiite violence, and political backroom dealing have clouded over Iraq's political process to form a permanent government. Even now, more than five months after the December 15 elections, the heads of the most coveted portfolios—defense, interior, and national security—remain unnamed, and divisions among Iraqis are more pronounced than ever. "The fact that it's taken them so long suggests squabbling will continue well after the government is formed," says Kenneth Katzman, senior Middle East analyst at the Congressional Research Service. "Just getting an agreement will not magically mend the bad blood."

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Why has it taken so long to form a government?

The most divisive issue has been control of the ministries of defense and interior. Leaders of the ruling Shiite bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), disagree among themselves over who should control these powerful portfolios. Because Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki hails from the religious Dawa Party, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), a rival group with close ties to Iran, has sought control over the controversial interior ministry. That is unlikely to happen, experts say, because of objections by Kurds, Sunni Arabs, and the United States. The most likely candidates are independents from the UIA without ties to Shiite-led militias. In the meanwhile, Maliki has named himself acting interior minister, while Salam al-Zubaie, a deputy prime minister, will become acting defense minister, and Barham Saleh, a Kurd and other deputy prime minister, will be acting national security minister.

Which factions control which ministries?

Of the thirty-six portfolios, seventeen went to the main Shiite alliance, including the powerful ministries of interior, finance, and oil. Parties loyal to radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, which are part of the UIA, won five ministries, including transportation, health, and civil affairs. Former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's bloc, which is secular and Shiite, took five portfolios. Kurds won five ministries—a drop from the nine they controlled under the interim government—including foreign and industry. Finally, Sunni Arabs, which are divided between the Iraqi Accordance Front and the political party of Saleh al-Mutlaq, took seven ministries, including justice, planning, and higher education.

Who is vying for the interior portfolio?

SCIRI leaders originally pushed to give the portfolio to current Interior Minister Bayan Jabr Solagh, but resisted after Sunnis protested Jabr's ties to the Badr Brigade, a Shiite militia (Jabr was given instead the finance ministerial portfolio). Among the compromise candidates are Shiites without ties to sectarian militia groups. They include Kasim Daoud, former national security adviser and a member of Allawi's Iraqi National List. Daoud joined the UIA as an independent before the December elections. Experts say he is a moderate voice within the ruling Shiite alliance. Another candidate is Mowafak al-Rubai, a doctor who was exiled in London. He is a former Dawa member who is now an independent and current national security adviser. Finally, former Pentagon favorite Ahmed Chalabi has been mentioned as a possible candidate, but most experts say this is unlikely given his checkered past.

Who are the leading candidates for minister of defense?

In addition to acting defense minister Zubaie, the most widely discussed candidates include: Sadoon al-Dulaimi, the former defense minister. He is seen as competent and a moderate who is not corrupt. Another candidate is Hajim al-Hassani, a former speaker of parliament and minister of industry who was once a Los Angeles-based investment banker. "[Hassani]'s a respectable guy and quite moderate in his outlook," says Howar Ziad, Iraq's ambassador to Canada. But some question his qualifications to be minister of Iraq's defense forces. A third candidate is Mithal al-Alusi, who hails from a prominent Sunni Arab family in Fallujah and was active among Iraq's opposition community while working as a textiles businessman in Germany. He is one of the few Iraqi politicians to visit Israel and has been critical of Syrian and Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs. A third candidate who some say is the favorite is Thamir Sultan al-Tikriti, a career army officer who hails from the same tribe as Saddam Hussein.

Who won the oil portfolio?

Hussain al-Shahristani, a nuclear scientist and close confidante of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Shahristani is considered a competent and moderate politician, although some Sunnis disapprove of him for his sectarian ties. The oil portfolio created a minor rift within the ruling Shiite alliance. Fadhila, one of the bloc's seven major parties, threatened to break away from the UIA and boycott the political process if its candidate, Hashem al-Hashemi, did not retain control of the ministry. Shahrastani's biggest challenges will be preventing sabotage against pipelines, curbing smuggling andscaling back the ministry's enormous subsidies while keeping gas prices low.

What has been the U.S. role in the political process?

Iraqi Shiite leaders have lambasted the United States, particularly U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, for interfering and trying to speed along the political process. Jaafari's decision to step down in favor of Maliki is regarded in some circles as tampering by the Americans in Iraq's democratic process. In general, U.S. officials say they favor ministers for the portfolios that matter most—interior and defense—uncompromised by ties to insurgents or sectarian militias. In recent weeks, some Shiite leaders have lightened up on their criticisms of Washington. Daoud recently told the Washington Times the Americans were playing "a positive role" in Iraqi politics.

What is the early verdict of Maliki?

Opinions vary among observers of the Iraqi political scene. "Maliki has tried to portray himself as nonpartisan and nonsectarian but that's not his reputation," says Katzman, pointing to his role as deputy chairman of Iraq's de-Baathification committee and his hard-line—some would say anti-Sunni—stance during the constitution-drafting process. Yet U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, praised the new prime minister during their recent visit to Baghdad. Much will depend on whether Maliki is able to pass his cabinet through parliament, experts say, as well as his ability to reach out to Kurds and Sunnis during the upcoming constitutional negotiations.

What role is the stalled political process having on Iraq’s security situation?

On one hand, without permanent, capable ministers to run Iraq's interior and defense ministries, it will be nearly impossible to rein in Iraq's militias, many of whose members also belong to the security forces. Forming a national-unity government is the first step in a long process to securing Iraq and curbing the violence, many experts say. On the other hand, "[these ministers] simply don't control anything anymore," Katzman points out. "Iraq's security forces are so riven with factionalism, sectarianism, and vengefulness that a new interior minister isn't going to be able to do much."

How has the lack of political progress affected President Bush’s standing?

Popularity for the war has plummeted among Americans, which is reflected in President Bush's 29 percent approval rating, his lowest of his presidency. Sixty-nine percent of Americans now say the country is headed in the wrong direction, according to a new ABC News/Washington Post poll. "The American people feel there's no one to root for anymore in Iraq," Katzman says. "Before they hoped the Shiites would put together a benevolent government but now they see Shiites as punitive and vengeful. So Americans are saying: Who are we spilling blood for? Who are the good guys?"

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