A Preview of Iraq’s New Government

February 13, 2006, 7:00 am (EST)

Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

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Iraqi leaders continue to hash out a four-year coalition government after the December 15 parliamentary elections. As the country’s three main ethnic groups vie for cabinet positions, there are concerns that the Shiites—who won most of the parliamentary seats—may shut out Sunni Arabs from the more prominent positions in the new government, especially the ministries of the interior, defense, and oil. On February 12, the Shiite bloc voted to keep Ibrahim al-Jaafari as prime minister, running the risk of alienating Kurds and Sunnis, many of whom find Jaafari a divisive figure. Given the high stakes and horse trading ahead, experts predict it will be several months before the government will be up and running.

What will be the makeup of Iraq’s ruling coalition?

The United Iraqi Alliance (UIA)—the ruling Shiite bloc dominated by Islamist parties with close ties to Iran—won 130 seats, the most of any political list, in the parliamentary elections. The Kurdish Alliance tallied fifty-three seats, while Sunni-led parties won fifty-five seats. The major Shiite and Kurdish lists fell three seats shy of the two-thirds majority required to control parliament and select a presidential council. Therefore, the two camps must form a coalition with one of the smaller secular or Sunni political blocs. U.S. officials are privately pushing for greater Sunni political participation as part of efforts to form a government more representative of Iraq’s religious and ethnic makeup, diversify its heavily Shiite security forces, and squash the Sunni-led insurgency. 

Who will control Iraq’s main government ministries?

The allotment of ministries is still a few weeks, if not months, away. Sunnis, given their representation in parliament, are expected to take more portfolios than the eight they currently hold under the interim government. Still, the breakdown of the cabinet does not necessarily have to reflect the composition of parliament. Experts say the most powerful and sought-after portfolios are the ministries of interior, defense, and oil, followed by the ministries of finance and foreign affairs. It’s unclear which political groups will control which ministry, but the issues and candidates at stake include:

  • Interior. The minister of interior controls billions of dollars, oversees Iraq’s 100,000-strong police force, and is responsible for day-to-day local security. Bayan Jabr, the current minister of interior, looks unlikely to retain his position. A high-ranking Shiite member of the Badr Brigade, the military arm of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), Jabr was accused by Sunnis of employing militia members within his police forces and torturing Sunni prisoners. Sunni leaders, along with U.S. officials, have pressed for an interior minister with no militia ties. A number of candidates have been floated; some are acceptable to both Shiites and Sunnis, others are less so. Among them is Jamal Mithal al-Alousi, a former member of Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress and ex-head of the de-Baathification committee (charged by U.S. officials with removing remnants of Saddam’s ruling party from positions of power). Alousi lost his post after visiting Israel for a conference in September 2004. One expert even suggested he had ties to the Central Intelligence Agency. Another candidate is Jawad Maliki, a senior member of the Dawa Party. Maliki, who spent much of his adult life exiled in Syria, may be compromised by his alleged association with Syrian intelligence. Others say he is angling to be deputy prime minister instead. A third candidate is Kasim Daoud, former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s national security adviser and a member of Allawi’s Iraqi National List. And there’s always the off chance an unknown police captain could be plucked to head the interior ministry, says Kenneth Katzman, senior Middle East analyst with the Congressional Research Service.
  • Defense. The ministry of defense, which administers, recruits, and trains Iraq’s 100,000-strong army, was beset by scandal in 2004 when its former minister, Hazem Shaalan, was accused of embezzling more than $1 billion. “Shaalan did lasting damage to the security establishment of Iraq and set back the Iraqi army by two years,” said an Iraqi expert. Sadoon al-Dulaimi, the current defense minister, a Sunni, is seen as competetent and not corrupt. However, he is not popular among Sunnis. Another potential candidate is Hajim al-Hassani, the Sunni speaker of parliament and formerly an investment banker in Los Angeles. “He’s a respectable guy and quite moderate in his outlook,” says one Iraqi diplomat. Experts say the defense portfolio will likely stay in Sunni hands.
  • Oil. “It’s a mess, totally dysfunctional and bureaucratic,” says the Iraqi diplomat, regarding the oil ministry. “That is its history from the old days under Saddam.” Iraq sits on the world’s third biggest reserves of oil but exports fell to a new postwar low of 1.1 million barrels per day last December. Bahr al-Uloum, a Shiite from a prominent Iraqi family, recently resigned for a second time since the December 15 elections over his opposition to fuel price hikes. Hashim al-Hashimi, a member of Fadhila, will replace him as interim oil minister (Uloum, in a recent interview with al-Zaman, suggests that Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari gave the portfolio to Fadhila (Virture) of the UIA slate to shore up support for his own bid to stay on as prime minister). Another candidate being discussed for the oil ministry is Ahmed Chalabi, a co-founder of the opposition exile group Iraqi National Congress and former Pentagon favorite. Chalabi, a secular Shiite who was briefly oil minister last April before being appointed deputy prime minister, did not fare well in December’s elections but looks likely to hold some position of power in Iraq’s permanent government. “Disregarding all his funny political maneuvers, he’s a very knowledgeable manager,” says the Iraqi diplomat.

Which ministries will Sadr’s people control?

Political parties affiliated with Moqtada al-Sadr, the young extremist Shiite cleric, won thirty-two of the UIA’s 130 seats for parliament, a gain of 50 percent from their earlier parliamentary representation. That should increase the influence of Moqtada al-Sadr on Iraqi politics (Sadr is believed to have been behind the selection of Jaafari for prime minister). Still, Sadr’s followers are not a unified camp, experts say. In general, Katzman says, “he will want to shift the whole UIA bloc toward a less cooperative stance with the United States and pressure us to draw down our forces and start clearing out.” Further, Sadr is less concerned with issues of federalism and less pro-Iranian than SCIRI. His platform appeals more to younger, poorer Shiites from Sadr City, a Baghdad slum named for Moqtada’s late father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Sadiq al-Sadr, and Najaf, a predominantly Shiite city about 100 miles south of Baghdad. According to the Christian Science Monitor, Sadrists are expected to pick up two more portfolios in the future government—most likely the ministries of education and housing—to add to the three ministries they already control: health, transportation, and civil affairs. “The health ministry serves half a million people a day. The transportation ministry serves 200,000 to 300,000 people,” Hazem al-Arraji, a top Sadrist cleric, recently told the Monitor. “But what does the foreign or interior ministry do for poor Iraqis? These ministries are under the control of the occupation; we have no use for them.”

Who are the main candidates for president?

Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, will mostly likely remain president, experts say. He has complained of his lack of authority and called for additional executive powers, which cannot happen without a constitutional amendment. Besides choosing the prime minister, the president holds a largely ceremonial position in Iraq. Yet the presidency is a potent symbol, as well as a powerful position from which to influence the country’s politics. Some experts say Talabani has not delivered on enough promises for the Kurds. “A lot of Kurds, especially Talabani’s base, the PUK [Patriotic Union of Kurdistan], are worried he is spending too much time in Baghdad playing Arab politics rather than worrying about the Kurdish area and how to secure that,” Katzman says, adding that the presidency may go to a Sunni leader as well. “It would allow Sunnis to say they are no longer humiliated and no longer third-class citizens,” he says.

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