Iraqis face murky election aftermath

12 04 2010

Rally in Najaf

This week, Iraqis are commemorating the seventh anniversary of the fall of Saddam Hussein after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Many Iraqis suffered greatly under Saddam and suffered even more after he fell during the ensuing chaos and violence.Today it seems as though the smoke is starting to clear for the Iraqis, but the their future is still highly uncertain.

Iraqis took to the streets to  mark the event of Saddam’s downfall. Major rallies were held in Najaf and Baghdad and two common themes were present: support for national unity and support for the end of the occupation.

Such public displays are encouraging, but recent instances of violence around the country serve to illustrate the risks that Iraq faces as it struggles to form a new government. Simultaneous explosions rocked Baghdad this past Tuesday, killing dozens. While the bombings were painful reminders of the violence that the country is capable of, they did not seem to be the contagion that some people appear to be hoping for.

The majority of Iraqis, as demonstrated in last month’s elections, favor peace and cross-sectarian cooperation. The bombings were likely undertaken by Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and do not seem to reflect broader tensions between the sects. Likewise, the violent ambitions of AQI also do not seem to have any political support either.

Just this week, Ayad Allawi, the man whose Iraqiyya party won a plurality in the recent elections, warned that a government should be formed quickly to stabilize the country as much as possible before the withdrawal of US forces.

Forming a government could prove to be difficult, but the are encouraging signs.

Iraqiyya won the highest number of seats in parliament at 91, with current Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s State of Law party coming in just behind with 89 seats. Muqtada Sadr’s Iraqi National Alliance (INA) came in with a strong 70 seats, and the Kurds won a majority of the rest (43).

A quick glance at those numbers tells us that there is no clear front runner and that the will of the people is pretty evenly distributed between the major parties. This means that the formation of any new government will take considerable cooperation and political wrangling.

When there was not a clear winner in the elections, Muqtada Sadr’s group held a non-binding poll to see who his people support for Prime Minister. When the votes were tallied, neither Allawi or Maliki had been chosen. It’s too bad, because a strong showing for either man could have went a long way towards forming an alliance with the political will to produce a government.

Sadr’s supporters are not very big fans of  either man, but Maliki is especially disliked for his crackdown on Sadr’s Mahdi army in 2008. While the Sadr bloc may end up working with the State of Law party, it is unlikely they would do so  with Maliki as Prime Minister.

As it is right now, Sadr’s people are framing the poll as a sort of a temperature taking to see where the people stand. Sadr could still do whatever he wants by throwing his support behind the coalition that gives him the best deal in terms of key appointments for his people in the new government.

Sadr is turning into the power broker in Iraq that many people thought he would be, but it is Iran that might have the most say. While the Iraqi people still harbor ill feelings towards their Persian neighbors stemming from the brutal Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), it is clear that Iran still has much influence in Iraq.

Iran was not originally welcoming of Allawi’s victory in the March 7 polls, but it seems as though Tehran’s pragmatic side is warming  to his role in  the new government. Maliki is doing his damnedest to remain in power, but with him out of favor with both Sadr and Tehran, he faces a tough uphill battle.

Allawi, however, perhaps most closely resembles what Tehran wants from the next Prime Minister of Iraq: a Shiite that has won the favor of the  majority of the Iraqi Sunnis. If Iran could convince Sadr’s INA to form a coalition with Allawi, the result would produce a situation where a favorite of Tehran (Sadr) is playing a powerful role in a government where the Sunnis are led by a Shiite  (Allawi). For Iran, it’s the best of both worlds.

While historically Iran has wished for a robust Shiite government in Bagdad, the Persians realize that Sunni (as well as Kurdish) participation is key to any functioning Iraqi government, because the Sunnis in Iraq have to feel represented in the government in order to maintain stability.

Stability in Iraq is where US and Iranian interests overlap. The Americans want a peaceful Iraq so they can go forward with the withdrawal of US troops; Iran wants the same.

Apparently, it was the fear of Allawi’s relationship with the US that initially halted Iran from reaching out to him in the same manner that Iran did for the other candidates. But Iraqiyya seems to have assuaged those fears by communicating to Tehran that the US would not be using Iraq as a base to attack Iran (according to the NY Times).

The fact that Iran recognizes the need for all groups to be represented in the new government is encouraging, as the choice to solely back hardliner Shiite Islamists would have only led to more sectarian strife and violence.

One thing that seems be a recurring theme is that the majority of Iraqis favor a government that represents all the peoples of Iraq, and not just the Sunni or the Shia or the Kurds. This is important, because all of these groups will need a seat at the table in order to form a strong, legitimate, and functioning government.

Against the odds, it seems that Allawi is in a good position going forward. But there are obstacles. First, Maliki’s party continues to dispute the election result and claims that Allawi’s party is still plagued by Saddam-style Baathists. In this regard, having narrowly  escaped death at the hands of an ax-wielding assassin sent by Saddam, Allawi should be beyond reproach, but a lie can be effective if said loud and often enough.

Another hurdle to Allawi is his relationship with the Kurds. The Kurds make up a sizable bloc of seats (43) and their cooperation will also be critical to forming a new government.  But wooing the Kurds might be difficult for Allawi, as his party is made of of many Sunnis. The Kurds suffered greatly under the last Suunni regime, and it is likely that they would be reluctant to see the Sunnis return to power. Perhaps a deal could be made involving the Kurds taking control over the disputed and oil-rich region of Kirkuk.

Even with both those hurdles in mind, at this point Allawi still seems to be the front-runner in this opaque situation. Just recently, his party announced that they would be sending a high-level delegation to Iran for consultation.

Whatever happens, it seems that most Iraqis (as well as the regime in Tehran) recognize the fact that any new government in Iraq will have to be formed with Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish cooperation…and will govern based on consensus.

After Lebanon’s parliamentary elections last year, it took politicians months to form a new government. In Iraq, where the situation is every bit as complicated, look for it to take just as long, if not longer. But for Iran, the United States, and (most importantly) Iraq, there are reasons to hope.

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