DAMASCUS // A five-month deadlock over forming a new government in Iraq risks undermining people's faith in their fledgling democracy, a senior member of an influential Iraqi political party has admitted. Mohammad al Gharawi, the Syria office director of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), said ordinary Iraqis were reaching a point where they would no longer trust elected politicians.
"There is enormous frustration among the people because of these delays and we have not yet seen the full consequences of that, maybe it will have a large impact at the next elections," he said in an interview. "The Iraqi people are now saying, 'we did our part, we defied the terrorists to cast our votes and now we see that we voted for politicians who are just looking out for their own interests, not ours'."
Since the March 7 elections, against a backdrop of rising violence, there have been intensive, but as yet inconclusive, negotiations among Iraq's various political blocs and factions to form a new government. These divisions, exacerbated by an often bewildering array of other factors - including sectarian and ethnic tensions, personality clashes, international politics, disputed constitutional procedures, and the US withdrawal - have resulted in an impasse that shows no sign of being broken soon.
If no government has been cobbled together by September 8 - and few expect it will - more than six months will have passed since Iraqis cast their ballots, something few expect to happen - it will have been more than half a year since Iraqis voted. "All of us Iraqi officials must shoulder the responsibility for what is happening," Mr al Gharawi said. "We must maintain the link of trust between politicians and the people; the politicians must remember they owe their position to the voters.
"If there is no trust, then in the future we will face real problems." The March ballot was narrowly won by Iraqiyya, led by former prime minister Ayad Allawi, which picked up 91 of parliament's 325 seats. The incumbent prime minister Nouri al Maliki's State of Law coalition won 89 seats and, soon after the results were formally declared, entered into a partnership with ISCI and the Sadr movement. Combined, that grand Shiite alliance boasted 159 seats, almost enough to clinch a parliamentary majority.
But the three allies remain bitterly divided over Mr al Maliki himself, with both ISCI, the junior partner in terms of parliamentary seats, and the Sadrists refusing to allow him the second term of office he insists upon. At the same time, Mr Allawi of Iraqiyya maintains that, as head of the largest single group in parliament, he has the constitutional right to form the government. Consequently, the grand alliance has appeared fragile for some time. The perception that it had become a hollow partnership was heightened last month, when Muqtada al Sadr, leader of the Sadr movement, met with Mr Allawi, Mr al Maliki's main rival, in Damascus.
Iraqiyya announced this week it planned to "intensify" talks with the Sadrists. Mr al Gharawi said that, unless Mr al Maliki stepped down as prime minister, ISCI would collapse the Shiite coalition and look to join the Sadrists in an alliance with Iraqiyya and the Kurds. But that would also be hampered by serious divisions, even between ISCI and the Kurdish bloc, which have been major allies in the post-2003 invasion governments.
The Kurds have, to some extent, been on the fringes of negotiations, apparently trying to keep their options open to join whomever forms the largest group. Recently, however, a list of 19 Kurdish demands emerged that has ignited controversy, among them an insistence that Kurds get a new power to dissolve the government at any time - a de facto veto over the whole administration that amounts to a rewriting of the constitution.
"We agree with many of their points but some of them, including their demand about being able to resign the government, are crazy," said Mr al Gharawi. In the absence of a new administration, insurgents have sought to increase their operations, staging a series of attacks that have killed more than 330 people so far this month. July was the deadliest month in more than two years, with 535 people killed, including Iraqi military personnel, according to official Iraqi government statistics.
These were disputed by the US military, which called them "grossly overstated". Mr al Gharawi said the authorities were failing to properly maintain security, a problem he blamed on a lack of coordination between the ministry of defence and the ministry of interior. "When I'm in Baghdad, I'm stopped at every checkpoint so why are these bombers getting through," he said. "It's not that al Qa'eda is getting stronger, it's the weakness of the security forces making al Qa'eda look stronger than it really is."
Despite that, he said the withdrawal of US combat troops by the end of this month should go ahead as planned. 50,000 American soldiers will remain in the country as trainers and for logistical support until the end of next year. "I'm not afraid of the US withdrawal," Mr al Gharawi said. "It will make the Iraqi parties cooperate more, it will force us all together and will make us rely on ourselves and to trust ourselves more." @Email:email@example.com
March 20, 2003 US-led forces invade Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein. By the end of April, the US says it will add 100,000 more soldiers to the 125,000 US and British troops in the country. April 9, 2003 US troops take Baghdad, Saddam disappears. May 1, 2003 US President George W Bush declares hostilities over. December 13, 2003 US troops capture Saddam near Tikrit. February 22, 2006 Bombing of Shiite shrine in Samarra sparks widespread sectarian slaughter, raising fears of civil war. June 15, 2007 US military says it has completed its troop buildup to 160,000 soldiers. From April to June 2007, 331 US soldiers are killed, the deadliest quarter of the war for the US military. July 22, 2008 The US military says the last of five extra combat brigades sent to Iraq in 2007 have withdrawn, leaving fewer than 147,000 troops in Iraq. November 17, 2008 Iraq and the United States sign an accord requiring Washington to withdraw its forces by the end of 2011. The pact gives the government authority over the US mission for the first time, replacing a UN Security Council mandate. February 27, 2009 Barack Obama announces plan to end US combat operations in Iraq by August 31, 2010, but says US will leave up to 50,000 troops to train Iraqi forces. August 18, 2010 US troop strength in Iraq is 56,000, a senior Obama administration official says. ? Reuters