While Afghanistan dominates the attention of U.S. policymakers, Iraq is entering a critical phase of its political development. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, in Washington for White House talks this week, may win the most votes in January’s national parliamentary elections but could be deposed because he has so many political enemies, says expert Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group. Hiltermann also warns about potential spoilers who would like to stir up violence ahead of the elections. And the likelihood of a split vote, he says, could lead to protracted negotiations amid a tense political climate at a time when the 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq move ahead with their scheduled drawdown. "There are a bunch of exploiters out there who want to disrupt the political process, and they have an interest in making trouble ahead of the elections, and on election day," he says.
How would you describe the overall situation in Iraq: is it calm? Are people very worried about the upcoming national elections scheduled for January 16?
It’s deceptively calm. I came back a week ago, I was in Baghdad for a couple of weeks. I was unprotected, unescorted, just by myself, and I was fine, but people are worried about elections and what will happen. And it’s not like violence has disappeared. It is just less disruptive right now. There are a number of things that could happen. One, there are a bunch of exploiters out there who want to disrupt the political process, and they have an interest in making trouble ahead of the elections, and on election day.
But usually the government is in control on election day because there is a vehicular ban that seems to work quite well. But all of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s rivals--and he has a lot of them--have an interest in puncturing his image as the man who brought law and order to Iraq. There might be some among them-I don’t think they would be the most prominent parties but there may be some people in the outlying areas of the political process who might want to undermine that image by setting off violence somehow. And so, there could well be violence before the elections, but my fear is that after the elections, the winners will have to get together to discuss the creation of a coalition government, and I don’t think any party will emerge from the elections that would be able to form a government by itself, and so there’s going to be fairly protracted negotiations over the shape of a new government as it was four years ago when it took several months. Just as then we will now see the Kirkuk issue appear as a disruptive element because the Kurds will raise it once again as a condition for their participation in a coalition government, and the Kurds, because of their electoral strength and their ability to bring out the votes in their own areas, remain kingmakers in the political process.
Is there a likely new prime minister who other parties would support?
It’s very hard to say now who that would be. But if you recall, four years ago the Kurds vetoed Ibrahim Jaafari, who was the prime minister of the first government that was elected five years ago. The Kurds will veto Maliki this time probably unless Maliki makes them a very good deal on Kirkuk, which is hard to imagine. And the search is on for someone who also seems to be weak, as Maliki was four years ago, and clearly a compromised candidate who can be controlled, which Maliki in the end was not.
I don’t think any party will emerge from the elections that would be able to form a government by itself, and so there’s going to be fairly protracted negotiations over the shape of a new government.
And you’d have to be a Shiite, I suppose.
It would have to be a Shiite, because the Shiites have got to keep the prime minister’s position for themselves. And so, any number of persons could be brought in, but they would have to be from a smaller party, it would not be of one of the major parties. Just as Maliki was four years ago, when he headed the fairly weak Dawa Party.
With the ongoing scheduled drawdown of U.S. troops from Iraq, how capable are Iraqi security forces at shouldering the security burden in this uncertain political juncture?
It’s a difficult question to answer, because we don’t have good measures, and even less reliable data. Clearly, the security forces are improving, and are quite capable in several respects, but they also have certain weaknesses, which will keep them dependent on U.S. support for some time. Air, logistics and signals intelligence support come to mind in particular. The key question is less how strong they are than how cohesive they are. Once the bickering parties decide to fight instead of negotiate when U.S. troops are gone, will the security forces hold together, and if so, to whom will they answer? Alternatively, will they fracture along political, ethnic and sectarian lines and return to their original militia state? The risk is real.
And on the economic situation in Iraq, the oil situation is still not solved, right?
There’s still no oil law, and we’ve seen the first bidding round and only one bid was awarded. So that is still going very slow, and the second bidding round has just been postponed, so we’ll have to see what happens on that score. But the oil will flow, it may not just be at the level where it could be, but it’s also partly due to corruption, and it’s partly due to the absence of a regulatory system, including an oil law, that would protect companies’ interests. I would expect things to start picking up, but we have to see now after the elections who will be the new oil minister, and whether a deal is possible between the oil minister and between the federal government on the one hand, and the Kurdistan regional government on the other, because one of the main obstacles to an oil law has been conflict over disputed territories and the Kurds’ insistence on having the right to manage their own oil fields.
Is there a compromise in Kirkuk possible?
As we have said in the past in the International Crisis Group, it would have to lie on a grand bargain sort of idea because I don’t think there’s a strictly territorial bargain out there. Nobody will ever agree on Kirkuk in a strictly territorial sense, but the Kurds might agree on Kirkuk if they get something that they really need, which is guaranteed protection, in the long term, for the Kurdistan region, and for the powers that they have within that region. And what they need is a well-defined boundary for the region, and constitutional guarantees that their powers will not be diminished. Those things would be legitimate and reasonable, but they’re not easily accomplished. But the Kurds would have to give up their notion that they have exclusive control over Kirkuk. Kirkuk would have to have some kind of special status outside the Kurdistan region-also meaning not directly under Baghdad-and have some internal power sharing arrangement that protects the communities that are there.
Why are you so sure Maliki won’t be chosen again as prime minister?
If Maliki’s list wins the elections, he will be given the right to form the next government, but he only has thirty days to do it. Should he fail-and I’m sure that his rivals will make sure he fails because he may not have the votes to build the kind of coalition that is required-then he has to resign from that position.
Once the bickering parties decide to fight instead of negotiate when U.S. troops are gone, will the security forces hold together, and if so, to whom will they answer?
And you think the other parties will not support him?
The Iraqi National Alliance and the Kurds may have more votes than Maliki does, but if Maliki is the biggest list in the elections then he will have the right to form the government. But he may not have enough seats in the parliament to form a government.
He’ll only have a plurality, not a majority.
Absolutely. Even last time, four years ago, when the Shiite parties were all in one list, they still needed the Kurds to form a government. And of course they set up what they called the National Unity government with some Sunnis as well, the Iraqi Islamic Party. And that was most probably a wise decision, and they may want to do something similar this time. And it’s definitely possible to do it, but Maliki has now so many enemies that it may be difficult to have that kind of government with Maliki. But Maliki of course is going to insist and if he gets strong popular support as he might, he will have a strong case. It’s not going to be easy for his enemies to depose him either. It’s going to be an interesting battle.
Does the United States have a favorite?
My sense is that they silently favor Maliki, not because they like Maliki so much-they don’t-but because they see the other Shiite list as sectarian, and they understand that the Iraqi people are fed up with sectarianism. So they, by default almost, might support Maliki, but they haven’t said so openly and I doubt that they will.
Are Sunnis in this coalition with Maliki right now?
Maliki has some token Sunnis on his list, just like the other Shiite list has some token Sunnis. Maybe Maliki has a few more, but the main Sunni parties-and there aren’t many anyway-haven’t chosen any side yet. And the big question before the election really is whether the Sunnis will manage to unify or not. If they do, they might make a serious bid for the presidency of Iraq, especially if the Kurds are divided as they seem they might be. But otherwise, if things remain as divided as they have been, it will be up to the other parties to pick up individuals or groups from the Sunni community and bring them into their alliance after the election.
That would be quite something if a Sunni became the president.
The Arab states would love it.
I assume the Kurds are counting on being president again, no?
They’re counting on it, but they also realize it may not work this time for two reasons. One is that President Jalal Talabani’s health is not in the best shape, but also he has indicated he doesn’t want to run again. But he’s also indicated he might change his mind, so we don’t know. But secondly, with the emergence of a real opposition in the Kurdish parliament during the Kurdish elections on July 25, in the form of the Gorran movement, which means "Change." We see a split really at the national Kurdish level between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) on the one hand and Gorran on the other hand. And Gorran has emerged really as a critic within the PUK of Talabani’s leadership. It is very unlikely that they would support Talabani’s candidacy for the Iraqi presidency. And if the Gorran does well, and supersedes the PUK, then it would be very difficult for the KDP-PUK to impose Talabani candidacy and I don’t see another Kurd to take his place.