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A Tenuous Deal in Iraq

Interviewee: Charles W. Dunne, Scholar, Middle East Institute, Washington, DC
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
November 18, 2010

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Iraqi political leader Ayad Allawi's walkout from a parliamentary session last week after working out a power-sharing deal raised concerns about whether a new government would finally come together following eight months of deadlock after the Iraq elections. The United States sees the deal returning Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to power as important, representing "the will of the Iraqi people," says Charles W. Dunne, formerly the officer in charge of Iraq on the National Security Council under President George W. Bush, although he notes that many other governments--including Iran and Saudi Arabia--had a hand in crafting the agreement. Under the deal, Allawi is supposed to have an important policymaking role, says Dunne, although it remains to be seen whether Maliki keeps his word and whether the Obama administration will press him to do so. Still, Dunne says, the deal doesn't hinge on Allawi, and many members of Iraqiya "think they should stick to the deal, take the government ministries if they can, and continue to participate in the government." The bigger challenge will come next week, says Dunne, as horse-trading begins on forming the new government.

What are the components of the agreement reached by Iraqi political parties last week on forming a new government?

It involved essentially two agreements. First was the agreement between the negotiators for the various political blocs, which resulted in a decision to allow Nouri al-Maliki and his State of Law Coalition--which had formed an alliance with other Shiite parties under the National Alliance rubric--to form the next government and return Maliki to power as prime minister for a second five-year term.

The second and even more important agreement was signed November 10, in Maliki's office, in a meeting attended by Maliki, Ayad Allawi--the head of the Iraqiya bloc which won the most seats in the election--Kurdish President Massoud Barzani, and the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, James F. Jeffrey. This agreement formalized the effort to set up a National Council for Higher Strategic Policy, which Allawi would head. It was also supposed to deal with various reconciliation and de-Ba'athification issues, which are very important to the Sunni supporters of Allawi. It was this agreement among the key political players that allowed the entire package to go forward to the parliament.

Was the decision for Jalal Talabani to remain as president part of the deal, too?

Yes. It was generally agreed that the representative of the Kurdish people would retain the presidency, though this was in question even up to the last minute. President Obama had, in fact, called Talabani, asking him to consider stepping down as part of the deal to allow Allawi's bloc to gain that post. Talabani refused because the Kurds decided they wanted to hold that as an important symbolic and political post, but that was in play until very late in the game.

Two days after Allawi's walkout, the Iraqiya group returned to the parliament and a member of the Iraqiya group, Osama al-Nujeifi, was chosen speaker of Parliament. Is Allawi going to take his new job?

What's happening is that Allawi is, in part, expressing his displeasure with the fact that the Iraqiya bloc, which got the plurality of seats in the Council of Representatives, did not win the lion's share of power, as he insisted was its right all along.

Allawi is, in part, expressing his displeasure with the fact that the Iraqiya bloc, which got the plurality of seats in the Council of Representatives, did not win the lion's share of power, as he insisted was its right all along.

Part of Allawi's understanding was that at that first session of Parliament, there would be a vote on the de-Ba'athification procedures, which barred some of the Sunni candidates from being elected--including leading members of his coalition: Rasen al-Awadi, Saleh al-Mutlaq, and Dhafer al-Aani. When that vote was put off, that was the proximate point at which Allawi led the walkout of most of the Iraqiya members. But it symbolizes this larger question of the strained relations between Allawi and Maliki: Allawi's distrust that Maliki will keep his promises, the distrust in this entire political deal, and a deep-seated belief that this will fall apart at some point, and that the Sunnis--and more broadly Iraqiya--will be dealt out of power.

The United States sat in on the deal-making meeting. What's the U.S. position right now?

President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other officials have stated this is a very important agreement--that it was made in Iraq, that it is inclusive and represents the will of the Iraqi people. This is all true, but only to a certain extent. There were quite a few foreign influences brought to bear. The Iranians have been working for months to ensure an outcome in which Maliki was returned to office and the Shiite religious parties would hold a great deal of power. They achieved that aim. The Saudis, the Syrians, and others, including the Egyptians, were frequently courted by Iraqi politicians, especially Allawi, who visited these various capitals to drum up support. The Saudis, for example, tried to host a meeting in order to bring about a deal. That failed, but it demonstrates the extent to which foreign governments in the region were involved. Maliki, of course, visited Tehran several times to gain their support and the support of the pro-Iranian cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, which he eventually succeeded in doing.

So, this is not strictly a made-in-Iraq deal. After a long period of being standoffish and refusing to get involved, the United States came late to the game. With the arrival of Jeffrey last summer, the United States stepped up its efforts. Not only through Jeffrey, but at very high levels, through Vice President Biden, and eventually through Obama, who first pressed Iraqis to a deal and second involved the United States in the political process to the extent that it was willing to guarantee that the promises Maliki made would be backed by the United States. It's going to be very interesting to see in the coming weeks and months how much Washington is going to be willing to do to ensure that Maliki lives up to his word.

A key question is how important this new National Council for Higher Strategic Policies that Allawi is supposed to head, will be, right?

That's correct. This council has not yet been enshrined in Iraqi law. There is a school of thought that believes there will need to be a constitutional amendment to make it serve as an effective check on the prime minister's power. This is all going to be very contentious and the outcome is very uncertain, which is probably one of the reasons why Allawi said, before he departed for London, that the power-sharing deal is dead.

In addition, there are very different views among the Iraqi political leadership about how this council should function. Maliki clearly sees it as an advisory body, whose advice he can ignore. Allawi and a number of his supporters see it as a venue in which national security decisions by the prime minister, and important economic decisions, can be altered or vetoed. Even if legislation has passed to create a fairly robust council, the concept of this council as it exists right now will require 80 percent consensus within the council in order to implement a decision, which in this political system--as in any political system--is going to be extremely difficult.

It looks to many observers that the big foreign winner in all this is Iran. Do you agree?

It's true to a certain extent. The Iranians had been working for months to achieve a deal which would return Maliki to office for a second term, along with the Shiite religious parties who were his major supporters. They achieved this end, and now they're in a position to take advantage of this as we go forward toward the end of 2011 and the ultimate U.S. withdrawal from the country.

The U.S. position is that we wish Allawi to participate in the government, but we believe that there is a deal, that the deal is a good one worth testing, and that Iraqiya should continue to participate in the government, despite the reactions of individual personalities.

But Iran's influence is by no means decisive or absolute in the Iraqi political theater. There have been a number of instances in which they simply failed to achieve their aims. I'll give you two examples: One is in the previous election for prime minister, in which they did not support Maliki. They wanted Ibrahim al-Jaafari to return as prime minister. They failed in that aim, and the result was Maliki, in his current position. And two, they tried very hard to block the agreements between the United States and Iraq that set the stage for a long-term U.S.-Iraqi strategic partnership. They did not achieve that aim either. So the limits of Iranian influence are clear, but they will remain a very influential player. To a certain extent, that's normal, given the historic relations between the two countries. That's what the United States has always wanted--a normal relationship, and not one in which the Iranians can simply exert undo and malign influence.

If Allawi does not return to this coalition, is the deal dead? Would the Iraqis have to start all over again?

I don't believe the deal is strictly dependent on whether Allawi is going to participate in the government. There are a lot of reports that there is dissension within the Iraqiya bloc on the extent to which it should continue to participate in the government. A lot of people within Iraqiya think they should stick to the deal, take the government ministries if they can, and continue to participate in the government. Only time will tell, but it may be that Allawi is a one-man band that's marching in the other direction from the rest of his coalition.

And the U.S. position since Allawi's walkout is what?

The U.S. position is that we wish Allawi to participate in the government, but we believe that there is a deal, that the deal is a good one worth testing, and that Iraqiya should continue to participate in the government, despite the reactions of individual personalities. Everybody in the U.S. administration expected that any deal, especially if it was a good one, would dissatisfy people across the political spectrum.

I guess we just have to wait and observe.

That's right. I think the harder part is coming. After Parliament reconvenes on November 21, we'll start seeing the second phase of this very interesting political process. Talabani is supposed to ask Maliki to form the next government and begin naming ministers. At that point, a thirty-day clock begins to tick before Maliki has to present his slate of ministers to the new parliament for approval. We expect there will be something like twenty-eight to thirty-two cabinet positions with several minister of state jobs, as well. Putting anybody in these positions is going to be very contentious and subject to a lot of debate, horse trading, and jockeying amongst the parties.

Basically, three questions need to be decided. First, what percentage of seats does each bloc get? Second, which positions will these blocs fill? And third, which personalities are going to fill the positions? All of these will have a major impact on whether the next government can work together cooperatively and effectively, on how much influence Iran will have on the government, and on how effectively they can deal with issues such as security and delivery of services. These are going to be critical issues for future stability in Iraq.

With U.S. forces leaving at the end of 2011, can the U.S. embassy replace the military effectively?

The problem is how the United States will be able to handle the transition from a military lead to a civilian lead--in other words, from the Department of Defense to the Department of State. This is going to have a real impact on the ability of the United States to maintain influence and do its job in Iraq. The government has testified before Congress and suggested there could be serious problems ahead because the State Department doesn't have the capabilities and the manpower to perform the tasks that previously have been done by the military and are now being placed on the Department of State's plate. For example, the bipartisan legislative Commission on Wartime Contracting Commission said that State is dependent currently on the Department on Defense for fourteen security-critical tasks, for logistics, for fuel, and approximately one thousand other specific mission critical tasks. [State is] requesting a major increase in their budget in order to cover the cost for six to seven thousand additional security contractors and other support functions. Congress has been very reluctant to grant this financial request, and this is going to have a potentially major impact on State's ability to get out into the country and do its job going forward.

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