Iraq’s Allawi faces battle to form government

31 03 2010



Dr. Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiya party has won a plurality in the March 7th parliamentary elections, but his ability to form and lead a government is in jeopardy.

Allawi’s bloc garnered 91 out of a possible 325 seats, barely besting sitting Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s 89 seats, and far shy of the 163 seats needed for an outright majority.

Immediately after the results were released Mr. Maliki demanded a recount. However, by most accounts the polling was sufficiently fair and representative of the voters’ wishes, and at this point a complete recount is unlikely.

Allawi faces stiff challenges going forward. As leader of the most successful bloc, he is in line to be the next Prime Minister, which is tasked with forming a government to run an Iraq that is still recovering from the US-led invasion to oust Saddam Husein.

Though Allawi’s challenges  are many, it seems that Maliki is the single biggest obstacle to him taking power. As mentioned, Maliki’s State of Law Coalition (SLC) won 89 seats to Allawi’s 91,  and now both sides are aggressively courting the other blocs to build a coalition, preferably one that would give them a majority in parliament.

One of the leaders whose support is actively being sought is Sayyed Muqtada al-Sadr, who is part of the Iraqi National Alliance (INA). The INA is a Shiite religious party that is seen as being close with Iran. Indeed, Sadr himself has been living in Qom, Iran for the last few years in an effort to polish his religious credentials.

Just this week, Sadr announced that he would hold a binding, nationwide referendum to determine which coalition he should throw his support behind. The move may be a way to downplay Iranian influence on his decision, but the fact that  Sadr is having a vote on the topic is encouraging for Iraq’s democratic prospects.

While the majority of Iraqis are Shiite Muslims, there is still a great deal of distrust of the Iranians, who are also mostly Shiite but are ethnically Persian. The Arabs have a complex and often tense relationship with the Persians, a situation exacerbated by the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) , which was quietly one of the most brutal and costly wars of the 20th century.

One of the charges being hurled at Allawi is that he is a former Baathist and supporter of Saddam Hussein. While this may be true, Allawi turned on Hussein and left Iraq in 1971 to study medicine in London.

In February 1978, ax wielding assassins attacked him in his wife in their bedroom, ambushing them as the slept. Allawi sustained extensive injuries in the attack; his wife died. From then on, Allawi worked with the British and the Americans to topple Saddam, whom he believed was behind the attack.

Still though, having been a Baathist and supported of Saddam, no matter what has happened since, does not sit well with many of Iraq’s Shia, who are deeply concerned with Baathist influence in their government going forward. The Shia suffered greatly under Saddam and the post-Saddam government has been actively purging ex-Baathists from its ranks since 2005.

The de-Baathification commission, now known as the Accountability and Justice Commission, has been tasked with preventing former Saddam supporters from entering the new government. But the Commission has taken on a political  tone, as it had barred hundreds of candidates from participating in the March elections, many of which came from Allawi’s party.

Many Iraqis are now calling foul, and making matters worse is that the commission is now trying to bar six additional candidates that “somehow made it through”. If these candidates are all from Dr. Allawi’s Iraqiya party, which is likely since many there are many Sunnis in the secular Iraqiya, then there will no doubt anger and frustration from Sunnis that could escalate towards instability. This instability could hamper the American withdrawal.

Iraq’s sectarian breakdown is roughly 60% Shiite, 20% Sunni, 20% Kurd. Both Maliki’s SLC and Allawi’s Iraqiya received broad support across sectarian lines, but in the end the party that wants to lead will have to make a deal with either the Kurds or Sadr’s hard-line INA.

To win the support of the Kurds, a  deal would have to be made involving the disputed, oil-rich area of Kirkuk. The Kurds claim that the territory should be part of the autonomous Kurdistan province, but due to the money that is at stake there, this claim is greatly disputed.

It is unclear what it would take to make a deal with Sadr’s INA, but it would probably take something that is in both the Shiite’s  and the Iranian’s interest. An alliance between Allawi’s bloc and Sadr’s bloc would put a lot of groups under the same “big tent”, and would therefore help to facilitate the US troop withdrawal. This would please both Sadr and Tehran greatly.

One encouraging bit from the situation is that the two groups garnering the most support were multi-sectarian, which is a strong indication that the ethnic diversity of Iraq might not be such a hindrance after all. Also, the bloc that took the most seats was nationalist and secular in nature, which indicates that a future Iraqi government might not be as malleable to Iranian interests as once predicted.




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