DOHA // Some 62 per cent of eligible voters punched ballots in Iraq's parliamentary elections last month, amid minimal vote-rigging and relative security. Many observers viewed it as a watershed. But as government formation heats up, the real work has just begun. "There's not a lot of precedent to fall back on, so one of the big questions is who will be allowed to form the government?", the US ambassador to Iraq, Christopher Hill, said during a public discussion at the Brookings Doha Centre on Sunday night. "The government, the presidency, the police, the army, the courts - all of these institutions are really going to be put to the test as they try to work this out."
They may be squeezed for time. As Mr Hill spoke, the Iraqi prime minister Nouri al Maliki met with his National Security Council to discuss a spate of bombings across Iraq this past weekend that killed nearly 60 people. Iraq's deputy foreign minister, Labeed Abawi, said the attackers sought to undermine trust in government security forces - a concern best avoided during what US officials expect to be protracted political negotiations heading towards the drawdown of American troops.
Though election results are yet to be certified, the March 7 vote was seen as mostly free and fair. The Iraqiyya coalition of the former prime minister, Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite, came out on top with 91 seats - due in large part to support from Sunnis, who largely boycotted the 2005 election. Close behind is Mr al Maliki's State of Law party, with 89 seats, followed by supporters of the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr and a bloc of Kurdish parties. To form a government, a coalition of two or more parties must cobble together a parliamentary majority of at least 163 seats.
The best way to avoid fallout from disgruntled factions left out of any coalition government may be to include all the factions. "There is more and more a sense that there should be a national unity government," Mr Hill said. "Most people feel [that] to be a full participant at this stage, you need to be in the government." Getting there will take some doing. Any deal is likely to incorporate agreements on filling key positions including president, parliamentary speaker, prime minister and the heads of key ministries. And every possible combination of parties and blocs remains on the table.
"That's a lot of bargaining," said Mr Hill. And it is only the start. Once a government is formed, the ambassador sees four hurdles to Iraq becoming a strong and stable democracy. The first is security. By August 31, US troops are to cease combat operations and reduce their presence to 50,000, from the current level of just under 100,000. If government formation lasts late into the summer, a lame duck Iraqi administration will be forced to take the reins of a still-unstable security situation. Mr Hill says he is optimistic about Iraqi security forces after seeing "tremendous improvement".
Next is the economy. Mr Hill compared Baghdad with Doha, rather unfavourably. "Clearly, foreign investors are glad to come here," he said, referring to the Qatari capital. "When you go through Baghdad you have quite a different picture. They have not got the economy going at all, and the sense is that they have trouble providing services." Seeking better lives, Iraqi voters replaced nearly 80 per cent of the old parliament with new members.
Still, by 2020 Iraq could be pumping 10 million barrels of oil per day. "This is a country that has resources," said Mr Hill. The third key is diplomatic relations, with Iran as the linchpin. "I have one helpful hint there: respect Iraq's sovereignty," said Mr Hill. He praised Iraq's improved relations with Turkey but called for less tension around the Gulf. "Sunni Arab states need to reach out to Iraq," said Mr Hill. "I think there can be a much better relationship with its Arab neighbours."
Finally, the main issue is the political system and the creation of a stable and effective government. "We understand this will take time," he said. "We want them to get it right." An audience member asked the ambassador whether the US was right to invade Iraq. Mr Hill, who has been in his post less than a year, acknowledged the heavy civilian casualties. "This has been an extremely painful process," he said, citing Sunday's bombings in Baghdad's diplomatic enclave. "Historians will have the opportunity to look at the why."
He said his job has been to help the Iraqis stabilise their country and lay the groundwork for a solid long-term relationship with the US. He believes that Mr al Maliki appreciates his place in Iraqi history and will step down if necessary, and that Iraqis are headed in the right direction. "I think they can be a model for other countries," said Mr Hill, adding that Iraq's lessons may not apply across the region. "I think countries in the Middle East should be investing in the democratic future of Iraq, and not worry that somehow that democratic future will be some sort of infection."