The Middle East Channel

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

It was always unlikely that ‘Ayad ‘Allawi would be Iraq's next Prime Minister. This now has been definitively confirmed and, ironically, on a day when Iraq's government formation process became the world's longest exercise in political stalemate. With the announcement of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's selection as the post-electoral Shiite alliance's nominee to be Prime Minister, the action now will shift to divvying up posts in what almost certainly will be a broad-based national unity government. This in itself is no easy task, but at least this announcement gives the process clear direction and will provide a framework for the negotiations to come.

Despite his electoral slate's surprisingly strong showing in last March's parliamentary elections, ‘Allawi's immediate political future was inherently limited due to the sectarian dynamics that continue to shape political discourse in post-Saddam Hussein Iraqi politics. It is certainly true that the ‘Iraqiyya list garnered a respectable nationwide level of cross-sectarian support. However, the dominant political factions in today's Iraq represent points within a spectrum of Shiite Islamist consensus. Unsurprisingly, after years of disenfranchisement and repression, this segment of the political class is hugely defensive of its entitlement to rule the country. The political courtship of ‘Allawi by various figures from the Shiite establishment was more about negotiating leverage within the intra-Shiite contest for power than about real cross-sectarian outreach.

Maliki himself always has been the issue that framed these more narrow coalition negotiations. His emergence in recent years as a strong central authority took many of his peers by surprise, as he originally was selected as a compromise candidate to break the stalemate following the parliamentary elections of January, 2005. With no independent militia backing or power base, Maliki was an acceptable and unthreatening choice when he was launched into the unenviable task of leading a war-stricken country on the eve of a sectarian bloodletting. While by his political rivals' concern over his centralizing tendencies and their unvarnished hostility to his continued rule have been recurring leitmotifs of these coalition negotiations, prior to his launch of the Basra offensive in March, 2008, Maliki was viewed as weak and ineffectual. Stephen Hadley, then President Bush's National Security Advisor, wrote a November, 2006 classified assessment of Maliki that suggested that he was "either ignorant of what is going on, misrepresenting his intentions, or that his capabilities are not yet sufficient to turn his good intentions into action."

While the circumstances of Maliki's rise were particularly unlikely, it is questions of trust and fear associated with his increasingly strong grip on power that shaped the laborious and protracted negotiations. Paradoxically, the chaos of Maliki's first term and his initial weakness set the stage for the ad hoc and extra-legal measures taken to shore up his personal power and the stability of his government. Many of these measures, such as the establishment of alternate chains of command running directly to the prime minister, the cultivation of loyalist military units, and selective use of detention, had no legal or constitutional grounding and emerged at a time when the country was consumed by violence. With the security situation stabilizing and the bulk of U.S forces having withdrawn, the incoming government will have a huge role in fortifying the institutional frameworks that will guide Iraq's long-term future. As such, these negotiations have not simply been a reflection of a venal and self-interested political class, which is certainly part of the discussion, but also have included serious deliberations of checks and balances of centralized authority. The outcome of this more technical and legalistic process will be an important marker in the country's political development as its institutions and nascent traditions begin to take on the air of permanence.

The torturous course of this process also should lay to rest the notion of a supine Iraq subject to the predatory designs of its neighbors. Iraq is a weak country and will be for years to come; this inevitably will attract unwanted and meddlesome attention from the region and beyond.  While Iran has reaped immense strategic gains from the overthrow of its primary nemesis and its replacement by a friendly government, cheap talk of grand Iranian designs and a defenseless Iraqi puppet no longer should be understood as anything more than political agitprop in connection with the larger and unfolding regional and global conflict over Iran. The variable, and at times conflicting, outside agendas brought to bear on the Iraqis never were able to dictate the course of the government formation process. It should be clear at this juncture that the wishes of its neighbors and other interested parties, primarily the United States, will not be determinative of Iraqi outcomes. While the eventual U.S.-Iranian-Syrian convergence on Maliki's return boasted his stock and eased his path to nomination, regional actors and the United States responded to Iraqi cues throughout this ongoing process. As such, while outside support will play an important role in shaping outcomes and amplifying existing trends, it will not do so in a fashion that contradicts the core perceived interests of Iraqi actors.

Interestingly, despite isolated reports of fears of a power vacuum as a result of the country's extended stalemate, violence has remained at horrific yet acceptable levels, within the context of contemporary Iraq. While the initial post-electoral optimism has faded, Iraq's relative stability, in spite of further U.S. troop reductions, has not been threatened by the continuing violence and terrorism that is likely to remain a constant factor for years to come. Instead, the government has continued to function consistently, albeit at a dismal level of service provision, but one that is not at all distinct from the preceding pre-election period.

Aside from the intra-Shiite division of spoils, the next stage of the government formation process will hinge on Kurdish demands for inclusion and negotiation of ‘Iraqiyya's role in the incoming government. In some quarters, this type of national unity arrangement has been tarred as unwieldy and ideologically incoherent. However, its manifest drawbacks are outweighed by the destabilizing effects that might be associated with locking out any major political faction from the government. While crude ethno-sectarian paradigms are insufficient categories by which to judge Iraqi politics, the country's recent history certainly has brought such associations to the fore, and questions of political inclusion are often understood in such reductionist terms. No major Iraqi political current or faction as of yet is reconciled to the prospect of sitting in the honorable opposition outside the machinery of ministry patronage. In any event, the major political questions that divide the country do not necessarily break down cleanly and consistently, and their resolution will require tactical parliamentary alliances in any case.

During this transitional period, Iraq's government obviously was not in a position to take on these looming political questions that still divide the country and will determine its long-term future. Resolution of these fundamental questions regarding power, resources, and territory will be the key factor in Iraq's future trajectory and the course of the country's stillborn process of political reconciliation. While these issues will endure, today's announcement is a welcome first step toward forming an Iraqi government to steer the country beyond the present period of outside intervention.   

Michael Wahid Hanna is a fellow and program officer at the Century Foundation.

AFP/Getty Images

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