x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Iraq needs a compromise, but instead it has al Maliki

The recent compromise that granted Mr al Maliki another term as prime minister provides little hope that Iraqis will be able to govern themselves.

On November 25, the Iraqi president Jalal Talabani formally nominated Nouri al Maliki for a second term as prime minister. And so Mr al Maliki began the difficult task of forming Iraq's next government - eight months after millions of Iraqis voted in parliamentary elections.

Mr al Maliki has 30 days to present his cabinet to Parliament for approval, or else he could lose the nomination. It is not certain that he can meet the deadline because he is trying to cobble together a government out of political factions that are distrustful of him and one another. Unfortunately, the recent compromise that granted Mr al Maliki another term provides little hope that Iraqis will be able to govern themselves without falling prey to political deadlock, proxy battles and foreign interference.

At first, Mr al Maliki will have to divvy up positions to satisfy the political partners that kept him in power. Under pressure from Iran, the anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al Sadr finally agreed to support Mr al Maliki's bid for a second term on October 1, the day that Iraq surpassed the world record - 207 days - for the time between a parliamentary election and the formation of a government. With Mr al Sadr's support, Mr al Maliki was able to reach a deal with other factions, especially the Kurds. That allowed Mr al Maliki to secure a majority in the 325-seat parliament, which is necessary to approve a new cabinet.

Under the agreement that finally ended the political stand-off, Mr al Maliki's main rival, Iyad Allawi - a former premier whose coalition won two more seats in the election than Mr al Maliki's slate - grudgingly agreed to drop his bid for the prime minister's post. In exchange, Mr Allawi was offered the position of chairman of a new strategic policy council that is supposed to have power over national security and economic matters. But the council has not yet been created, and it is unclear whether it will have actual authority or merely be an advisory body.

On the night that Parliament met last month to re-elect Mr Talabani as president and begin the process of forming a new government, Mr Allawi led a walkout of several dozen legislators. Then he left Iraq, denouncing the power-sharing agreement as stillborn. Mr Allawi has since returned to Baghdad, although he has not said whether he would be part of Mr al Maliki's government.

"If he [Mr Allawi] refuses, then the position will go to someone else," Mr al Maliki said recently when asked what would happen if his rival declines the chairmanship of the new policy council.

But if Mr al Maliki - a leader of the Shiite Islamist Dawa party - ends up excluding Mr Allawi and his Iraqiyya coalition from the new government, that will heighten the resentment of Iraq's Sunni minority. Although Mr Allawi is a Shiite, his secular coalition attracted strong support among the Sunni community in the parliamentary elections. Mr al Maliki's attempts to exclude Sunnis from power threaten to once again unleash the sectarian warfare that has shattered Iraq.

As Iraq's Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish leaders argued over sharing power and the country's oil wealth, violence escalated once again. Militants loyal to al Qa'eda sought to exploit the political paralysis and to further destabilise Iraq. In early November, a series of bombings in mainly Shiite areas of Baghdad killed more than 100 people.

Meanwhile, the caretaker government has put off dealing with Iraq's most critical problems, from providing basic services to investment in infrastructure. Iraqis are furious that seven years after the US invasion - and the investment of $5 billion (Dh18.4 billion) - the country still lacks adequate electricity. Many towns and cities in Iraq receive only four to six hours a day of electricity.

Iraqi leaders have also failed to come up with a plan to protect and provide jobs to tens of thousands of former Sunni fighters who were wooed away from the insurgency. They are increasingly frustrated at the Shiite-led government and many feel betrayed by the US military. More broadly, the deadlocked parliament has been unable to agree on new laws for sharing oil revenues and negotiating contracts with foreign oil companies.

To govern effectively, Mr al Maliki must balance these competing ethnic and sectarian squabbles. But since he was first appointed as a compromise prime minister in 2006, he has failed to appeal to many Iraqis beyond his Shiite Islamist power base.

Mr al Maliki is already facing pressure from his political partners on several national security decisions that could further polarise Iraq. The most important is whether Mr al Maliki will request that some American troops remain in Iraq beyond a withdrawal deadline of December 2011 set by the Obama administration.

At his first news conference since he was formally nominated for a second term, Mr al Maliki indicated that it would not be necessary to keep a small US force to continue training Iraqi troops and help maintain security. "I don't see a need for any other international forces to help Iraqis control the security situation," he said.

Supporters of Mr al Sadr have vowed to withdraw from Mr al Maliki's government if there is any attempt to keep a US military presence in Iraq beyond 2011. With such a fragile coalition keeping him in power, Mr al Maliki cannot afford to lose the support of Mr al Sadr's 40 seats in Parliament.

Unfortunately, at the same news conference, Mr al Maliki displayed the troubling autocratic style that marked his first term in office. He dismissed any criticism of his government, and told his critics to keep quiet. "It is a democracy to speak freely, and for the media to speak freely, and political blocs to speak freely," he said. "And maybe we have a democracy that exceeded limits."

These are not encouraging words to hear from a leader who must unify a fractured Iraq.


Mohamad Bazzi is a journalism professor at New York University and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations