Power grabs and politics are stalling progress in Iraq

Iraq's endless cabinet crisis is a symptom of a paralysed political system. Unfortunately, there's no reason to think new elections would help very much.

Observers of Iraqi politics are increasingly realising that the formation of the second Maliki government - hailed by many commentators when it made news in December 2010 - is still very much a work in progress. Indeed, during the course of Ramadan it has become clear that we are very near a crisis point in Iraqi politics. With no more meetings of parliament scheduled before September 6, the chances of any immediate resolution are looking remote.

The key elements of the current crisis are as follows:

First, two important security ministries - defence and interior - remain in the hands of acting ministers who have not received parliamentary approval.

Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki recently appointed Sadun Al Dulaymi, a Sunni ally of his with no significant independent party base, as acting minister of defence. And Mr Maliki continues to act as minister of interior himself.

The failure to fill these two ministries with candidates who enjoy parliamentary approval may be the single most important problem with the current government.

The secular Iraqiyya government keeps focusing on a second aspect of the political crisis, namely, the failure to create the so-called National Council for High Policies that was part of the original agreement behind the formation of the government in 2010. The council is not in the constitution and has only vaguely defined powers in the current draft bill that pertains to it.

Members of Mr Maliki's bloc have made it clear that they will fight the bill until the bitter end, meaning that the fate of the council is likely to disappoint Iraqiyya almost regardless of outcome. Legislation to give it real power is likely to be defeated in parliament; conversely, if the legislation passes in parliament it will almost certainly define a "consultative" council that enjoys little influence.

In an interesting move, Sadrists as well as former premier Ibrahim Al Jaafari, both considered close to Iran, have supported the council lately, meaning it is conceivable Iran could be backing it in a move to further disperse power in Iraq.

Iraqiyya is openly discussing a call for new elections as a way out of the crisis. But is this realistic?

It may be instructive to compare the situation today with one year ago, when the second Iraqi government had yet to be formed and the various players were exploring different alliance options. The parliamentary arithmetic is quite similar.

The all-Shiite National Alliance that eventually clinched the second premiership for Mr Maliki is today mostly fictional.

Instead, the secular Iraqiyya headed by Ayad Allawi remains the biggest identifiable bloc in parliament with around 90 members. Prime Minister Maliki and his bloc State of Law have lost one deputy, bringing them down to around 88. The rest of the Shiite Islamists make up around 69 deputies, and the two biggest Kurdish parties (43 seats) are thought to control altogether somewhere between 50 and 55 deputies including smaller Kurdish parties (except Gorran) and some minority representatives.

The main difference from 2010 concerns the political dynamic, where a slight change can now be detected. Back in the autumn of 2010, the Kurds formed the swing vote that clinched Mr Maliki's premiership.

However, lately there have been an increasing number of instances in which the Kurds and the secular Iraqiyya have made common cause in parliament. This included a symbolic fight to avoid a reference to Islamic jurisprudence in a law on state pensions, joint criticism of Iranian military incursions into Iraq's Kurdistan region, a drive to adopt the national council for high policies, and most recently a joint bid to challenge the oil and gas legislation that emanates from the oil ministry, and the prime ministerial dominance it envisages in the federal gas and oil council.

The question is whether this is sufficient to prompt a vote of no confidence in Mr Maliki's government as a whole. Iraqiyya are making threats in this direction but will need the active support of all the Kurds plus at least some 10 to 20 Shiite Islamists to reach the critical threshold of 163 votes. As long as the Kurds are not interested, chances are that the current government will continue to sputter along.

The second question is of course whether new elections at this point would do any good anyway.

Iraqiyya elites remain locked in personal alliances with leaders of parties with whom they have little in common ideologically, like the Kurds and the Shiite Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. For his part, Mr Maliki keeps showing a complete lack of realism in his coalition-building ventures.

At times, Mr Maliki is clearly trying to come across as an Iraqi nationalist with cross-sectarian appeal, but the hard facts show that he remains spectacularly unsuccessful in terms of co-opting Sunnis with a popular following into his coalition. In sum, there is depressingly little movement in directions that could realistically break the stalemate that resulted from the 2010 elections.

What is the best remaining option? The attempt to legislate the National Council for High Policies is likely to end with frustration for Iraqiyya, and new elections in many ways appear as unrealistic and possibly counterproductive.

The issue of keeping a contingent of US instructors beyond 2011 is one on which Mr Maliki is actually closer to the Kurds and Iraqiyya than to his assumed coalition partners in the highly theoretical Shiite "National Alliance", and it is a potential trust-building issue that might encourage Mr Maliki to ditch some of the smaller Shiite Islamist faction from his coalition and form a more consolidated cabinet with Iraqiyya and the Kurds.


Reidar Visser is an historian of Iraq who blogs at gulfanalysis.wordpress.com

Published: August 26, 2011 04:00 AM


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