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Coalition deal

Print edition : Dec 17, 2010 T+T-
Prime Minister Nourial-Maliki and Iyad Allawi, former Iraqi premier and head of the secular Iraqiya coalition, at a Parliament session in Baghdad on November 11.-REUTERS

Prime Minister Nourial-Maliki and Iyad Allawi, former Iraqi premier and head of the secular Iraqiya coalition, at a Parliament session in Baghdad on November 11.-REUTERS

The eight-month-long impasse over forming a new Iraqi government ends following the intervention of the United States and Iran.

THE major political blocs of Iraq seem to have finally reached an agreement to form a government. The elections held in March 2010 threw up a hung Parliament. Since then the Iraqi Parliament has only met twice. In October, the Supreme Court ordered that Parliament should meet and elect a new government. Iraqis have blamed the political impasse for the deteriorating law and order situation and the economic mess that the country faces. Sectarian attacks have risen to an alarming level in recent months, culminating in widespread attacks on Christians.

The inability of the competing factions to come to an understanding on the issue of sharing power was the reason behind Nouri al-Maliki continuing as caretaker Prime Minister for the past eight months. He had anyway made it clear at the outset that he would try his best to hold on to the job.

The Shia parties, which together control the majority of seats in Parliament, were reluctant to see power pass to the Iraqiya bloc, which was overwhelmingly backed by the minority Sunnis. This helped al-Maliki's game plan to hold on to power by hook or by crook. Many Iraqis have questioned the very conduct of the parliamentary election, which they feel legitimises the occupation of the country.

Finally, it was outside intervention, notably by the United States and Iran, that brought an end to the long-running political impasse. Washington put pressure on former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, the leader of the Iraqiya bloc, to agree to the continuation of al-Maliki in the top job. Until recently, Allawi had insisted that he had the right to stake a claim for the prime ministership as his bloc had the largest number of seats in the National Assembly. It won 91 seats while al-Maliki's Shia-dominated grouping the State of Law Coalition got 89 seats in the 325-member Council of Representatives.

Not that Allawi had too many options left. The State of Law Coalition, although slightly behind the Iraqiya in numbers, had persuaded important players such as the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to support al-Maliki. An agreement in May with the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), of which al-Sadr's party is a constituent, strengthened the formation. With the INA's 70 members, the coalition was close to a majority.

There were fears that more legislators would defect to the coalition, helping al-Maliki to gain a majority. Any further delay on Allawi's part would have left him in the cold. Such a prospect was also not acceptable to the Obama administration as many of the parties supporting al-Maliki were seen to be close to Iran. Iran is said to have used its influence to make al-Sadr reverse his stance.

Immediately, after the elections, al-Sadr had said that his 40-strong group in Parliament would not be supporting al-Maliki. The Iraqi Prime Minister had authorised the use of military force against the Sadrists not so long ago. But a visit by al-Maliki to the Iranian holy city of Qom in October, where al-Sadr currently resides, coupled with his praise for Iran, changed the political situation.

It was the decision of the Sadrist bloc to join the government that sent alarm bells ringing in Washington. Sadr was Washington's top bogey man in Iraq until recently. There was a fear that Iran's influence in the corridors of power in Baghdad would increase even further. During his visit to Teheran, al-Maliki had described the Iraq-Iran relationship as strategic and called for a further deepening of it.

AMERICA'S PUPPET

Al-Sadr from the outset was anyway against Allawi, who is widely viewed as the most pliable of America's puppets in the region. Allawi was a CIA asset when the organisation was trying to destabilise the Iraqi government led by Saddam Hussein.

The governments of Iraq's Sunni-dominated neighbours immediately swung into diplomatic manoeuvres in order to ensure that Iran did not get more leverage in Iraqi politics. The Obama administration was particularly concerned that its bete noire al-Sadr would have a crucial say in the running of the government if its proxies were excluded from the proposed unity government. President Obama along with Vice-President Joseph Biden personally worked the phone lines to convince Allawi and the Kurdish parties to join the new government. Under the deal that has been worked out, Allawi is to head the new autonomous National Council for Strategic Policy.

The American media have reported that Obama telephoned Iraqi President Jalal Talabani to request him to step aside in favour of Allawi. The Kurdish parties, as is evident, are extremely reluctant to give up the prestigious, albeit ceremonial, post of the President. The new Speaker, Usama al-Najafi, a Sunni politician, is from the Iraqiya grouping. Allawi's candidate will also be the new Foreign Minister, a post currently held by the Kurdish bloc. Saleh al-Muttlak, an outspoken critic of Iran, is tipped to be the Foreign Minister. The Iraqiya bloc, to whom all of them belong, claims to have a secular agenda.

Otherwise, the Iraqi politicians under American tutelage have stuck to the post-Saddam power-sharing formula, under which the President has to be a Kurd, while the Prime Minister will be a Shia. Under the Iraqi Constitution, the Prime Minister's post is the most important one, with all key decision-making powers resting with him. The National Council for Strategic Policy will have a big role to play in policymaking if the Americans and the Iraqi politicians who are opposed to al-Maliki have their way.

Al-Maliki's strong-arm tactics against the Kurds and the Sunnis had generated a lot of resentment. Allawi's job is to ensure that al-Maliki is not given a free hand and is subjected to checks and balances. American officials also claim that the supporters of al-Sadr will not be given any ministerial posts.

WASHINGTON'S PRIORITY

Most commentators said that Washington and Teheran should be happy with the composition of the new Iraqi government. Politicians close to both the parties will be playing key roles, ensuring that their respective interests are not compromised. Washington's immediate priority is to get the new government to sign a security agreement so that the U.S. can retain its big military bases and keep its troops in Iraq beyond 2011, the deadline Washington had earlier set for withdrawal of its troops.

Defence Secretary Robert Gates recently signalled that the U.S. hopes to stay in Iraq beyond 2011. He said the U.S. was waiting to hold talks with the Iraqi government on the issue but insisted that the initiative clearly needs to come from the Iraqis; we are open to discussing it.

The Obama administration is no doubt hoping that the new government it has helped to cobble up will soon come up with this initiative. Some 50,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq. The country's airspace and coastline are also under U.S. control. A State Department document has published the views of senior diplomats and military analysts who claim that the withdrawal of troops in 2011 will lead to the crumbling of hard-won military gains in Iraq. On the other hand, Iran's supreme ruler Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, after a meeting with the visiting Iraqi Prime Minister, expressed the hope that the almighty God ends America's menace over Iraq as soon as possible. He said the withdrawal of U.S. troops would solve Iraq's problems.

But according to many Iraq-watchers, it will not be all that easy for the Obama administration to have its way. Talabani and the Kurdish leadership seem to be upset with Obama's attempts to offer the presidency to Allawi. Talabani and al-Maliki are known to be close to Teheran. When Saddam Hussein was in power, al-Maliki spent most of his time in exile in Iran. Al-Maliki as Prime Minister will remain in control of Iraq's armed forces.

Iraqi Sunnis, if media reports are anything to go by, are angry at the turn of events. They feel that Allawi, by virtue of being the leader of the single largest grouping in Parliament, should have been invited to form the government. Many Iraqis interviewed on the street now feel that their vote was wasted. Sunnis had voted en masse for the Iraqiya.

In the elections held in 2005, most Sunnis had boycotted the polls. There is a fear that the Sunni minority, having been denied a meaningful say in the Iraqi government, will once again support the resistance in a big way. The continued repression of former Baath Party members and their families has further fuelled their anger.

The death sentence passed on Tariq Aziz, a Baath Party leader who held senior positions under Saddam Hussein, has angered not only Sunnis but also the beleaguered Christian minority. Aziz is a Chaldean Christian. Christians are being currently targeted by extremist elements. An attack on a Syrian Catholic church in Baghdad on November 1 left 58 people dead. Talabani has said that he will not sign the death warrant against Aziz, citing his advanced age as the reason. But there is no talk of a pardon despite the former Foreign Minister having suffered a debilitating stroke in prison. Aziz, who surrendered voluntarily to the American invasion force, has been in jail for the past six years.