After an agonizing eight-month delay, the first concrete steps toward the formation of a new coalition Iraqi government were greeted by senior U.S. officials here Thursday as a major advance in stabilizing the long-suffering nation.
But independent analysts warned that the power-sharing deal apparently agreed Wednesday night and partially implemented Thursday remained fragile and that any new government resulting from it was likely to be unwieldy or ineffective, at best.
"There’s great distrust among the different factions and leaders; there’s no concept of alternation of power and loyal opposition; and the fundamental question of how the different communities in Iraq will share power in a new political order, especially the question of the place of Sunni Arabs in that political order, are still unresolved," noted Paul Pillar, a former top Middle East analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) who now teaches at Georgetown University.
"Today’s walkout is just a hint of many more disagreements and impasses yet to come," he predicted.
He was referring to the walkout by members of the Iraqiya bloc, a predominantly Sunni faction that won the most seats in the new parliament in the elections last March, after it failed to force a vote on several demands, among them to release detainees arrested on terrorism charges and reverse the disqualification of several candidates on its list accused by a controversial government body of being Ba’athists.
The walkout, however, took place only after parliament elected one Iraqiya leader, Osama al-Nujaifi, to the post of speaker and the re-election of Jalal al-Talibani to the presidency – key elements of the Wednesday night accord reportedly put together by the president Iraqi Kurdistan, Masoud Barzani.
Under that agreement, the incumbent prime minister, Nouri Kamal al-Maliki, is to be returned to his post. His main rival and head of the Iraqiya bloc, Ayad al-Allawi, is to become the chairman of a new body, the National Council on Higher Policy, whose precise role and powers are to be defined and enacted into law by the parliament.
Despite the walkout, White House officials insisted that the accord would indeed be implemented. Anthony Blinken, national security adviser for Vice President Joe Biden, who has himself visited Iraq three times since last spring to press the various factions toward an agreement, called it "a big step forward for Iraq".
"Our understanding is that the major positions in the government will be allocated proportionate to the result in the elections," said one senior administration official in a briefing for reporters Thursday. "That means Iraqiya will get proportionately a plurality of the senior positions (in the government). So it seems to me that Iraqiya is all in."
Even as Blinken expressed confidence that the pieces of the puzzle would fall into place, the administration of President Barack Obama appeared to recognize the fragility of the situation. Not only was its briefing held on "background", but neither the White House nor the State Department put out an official statement regarding the latest developments or congratulating Talabani on his re-election as president.
The administration’s reticence may also reflect some disappointment with the deal itself. Obama, who is currently in South Korea for the G20 summit, reportedly tried personally to persuade Talabani to withdraw his candidacy for president in favor of Allawi, a secular Shi’ite who has long been a U.S. favorite, in a telephone call earlier this week, but the Kurdish leader refused.
Obama reportedly talked with Allawi Wednesday and helped persuade him that the chairmanship of the proposed National Council would give him sufficient authority over the government to justify Iraqiya’s agreement to the deal.
One of the White House briefers Thursday compared the Council to the "board of directors of a company" to which the prime minister, presumably Maliki, will be answerable, specifically on issues of internal and national security.
Given Allawi’s "international stature and domestic clout", his chairmanship should ensure that Maliki, whose government has been accused, among other things, of persecuting Sunnis and raising tensions with Kurds in the disputed regions lying just to the south of Kurdistan, would be subject to "checks and balances".
Wednesday’s agreement and the first steps toward its implementation follow growing concern about here about rising violence – most recently directed against Iraqi Christians – by Sunni insurgents reportedly associated with al Qaeda in Mesopotamia (AQIM) and alleged efforts by Iran to exclude Allawi, who also enjoys strong support from Sunni-led states in the region, notably Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Syria, in any new government.
Washington fears that Iraqiya’s exclusion, combined with Maliki’s return at the head of a Shi’ite coalition that included the so-called Sadrist faction headed by former Shi’ite insurgent Moqtada al-Sadr, would prompt many Sunnis to revive the insurgency – possibly with the help of Iraq’s Sunni-led neighbors – that brought the country to the verge of all-out sectarian warfare in 2006-7.
In recent weeks, it thus pressed hard for a national unity government that would, to the greatest extent possible, ensure Iraqiya’s participation and exclude the Sadrists, who are widely seen here as pawns of Iran but who also won the most seats of all of the Shi’ite parties in the March elections.
It appears that Washington, which retains 50,000 troops in Iraq and which has recently voiced hopes of maintaining some military presence there beyond 2011, fell short of its goals.
Not only will Allawi not gain either the presidency or the premiership, but the Sadrists will join the government and claim a deputy speaker post in parliament, according to news reports. And if the ministerial posts are allocated proportionately, they could get as much as a quarter of the cabinet posts.
At the same time, however, Iran did not get all it wanted either, according to analysts. The agreement, assuming it holds, ensures that Iraqiya will play an important role in the parliament and the new government even if the powers of the Council to be headed by Allawi have yet to be defined and approved.
Moreover, reports that Saleh al-Mutlaq, an outspoken Sunni and Iraqi nationalist, will become foreign minister should, if true, spur some concerns in Tehran as well as some solace in Riyadh, Amman, Damascus, and Cairo.
"If you look at it as a kind of U.S.-Iranian contest, it’s more of a draw," said Pillar. "Maliki’s his own guy, and he’s worrisome in some ways for us, but he’s hardly a pawn of the Iranians either."
"It is hardly a show of strength for Tehran that it was unable to impose its will on Baghdad’s politics for eight long months, and that the final composition of the government reflects most of Washington’s key interests," wrote Marc Lynch, a Middle East specialist on his widely read blog on foreignpolicy.com. "Neither got their first choice first choice, neither will be terribly disappointed."
All analysts agreed, however, that a government with such a wide variety of political tendencies will, as noted by one neoconservative, Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations, "hardly be a model of efficiency".
"But that’s preferable to the alternative," he wrote Thursday, noting that the exclusion of Iraqiya "might have led them to take up arms again".
"The first order of business now is to ensure that the gains Iraq has made don’t evaporate in the future," he wrote on Commentary‘s blog, "Contentions." "That means negotiating a new U.S.-Iraqi security accord that will allow U.S. troops to remain (in Iraq) post-2011…"
(Inter Press Service)