x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

US welcomes new Iraqi coalition

The US president urged the Iraqi people to seize "a future of opportunity".

WASHINGTON // Barack Obama, the US president, called it a "significant moment" in Iraq's history as a vote in the country's parliament inaugurated a coalition government nine months after general elections.

"I congratulate Iraq's political leaders, the members of the Council of Representatives, and the Iraqi people on the formation of a new government of national partnership," Mr Obama said in a statement released by the White House. "Today's vote in the Council of Representatives is a significant moment in Iraq's history and a major step forward in advancing national unity."

Mr Obama went on to urge the Iraqi people to "seize a future of opportunity" and vowed that the United States would "continue to strengthen our long-term partnership with Iraq's people and leaders as they build a prosperous and peaceful nation that is fully integrated into the region and international community".

The vote comes as a relief in Washington, where the dragged-out government formation process had worried some that it could endanger a deadline set by the Obama administration to pull US troops from Iraq by the end of next year and efforts to re-shape America's security relationship with Iraq. The US began its occupation of Iraq in 2003.

Indeed, the haggling carried on until the last moment and is still not completely over. Nouri al Maliki, the prime minister, was supposed to have presented at least a majority of his new Cabinet to Iraq's parliament on Monday, but disputes between parties in the coalition pushed that back until yesterday.

Even then, the vote was on a partial Cabinet, with just 29 ministers finally approved and acting minister filling the rest of the government's 42 seats. Among the posts yet to be finally agreed upon are sensitive security portfolios including the defence, interior and national security ministries, all critical to Iraqi-US relations as the US military enters what is supposed to be its last year in the country.

Crucial to parliament's vote of approval for the government was the decision by Ayad Allawi, the former prime minister and head of the secular Iraqiyya bloc, to agree to enter the coalition and pledge his full support to the government. Iraqiyya is the country's biggest party, edging out Mr Maliki's State of Law alliance by two seats in the March elections.

A State Department official on Monday highlighted Mr Allawi's statement on December 19 that his bloc would play a "constructive" role and said the US "welcomed the commitment that representatives of Iraq's political blocs, including Iraqiyya, have made to form an inclusive government committed to working together".

Both US officials and analysts say the formation of a broad coalition government is a crucial step to securing future political relations as well as determining what, if any, security relationship the two countries will have after the end of next year.

The State Department official said that the US was looking forward to working with the new government to "build a long-term partnership" between the two countries.

"We believe that the agreement announced was a strong sign that Iraqi leaders will use political means to resolve their differences," the official said. "We have already been working with Iraqi officials in planning our continued diplomatic operations, and we look forward to working with the new government once it is in place to build a long-term partnership between the US and Iraq."

Charles Dunne of the Middle East Institute, who from 2005 to 2007 was the director for Iraq at the National Security Council in the previous administration, said the priority that could now be addressed is what kind of security arrangements the US would have with Iraq after 2011.

"If American troops stay [in Iraq] beyond 2011, it's going to require a negotiation of the security agreements that we have. That discussion has not even begun between the Iraqis and the Americans, and we are kind of running out of time."

Mr Dunne characterised the Iraq war as the "forgotten war" in America and argued that it would go almost unnoticed should the US leave some troops after 2011, something he said would be important politically rather than militarily.

"It's very important to keeping political assurances, in terms of the Kurds, for example, who really want an American presence there after 2011, [and] to simply assure people that we are committed. That's the major effect, and I don't think the actual numbers of American troops are that important in terms of security."