Uphill Coalition-Building Battle for Winners Unfolds

Iraq’s major political forces are beginning what is likely to be a lengthy and uncertain process of talks to form a government. A key question is whether Iraq’s politically diverse groups will join forces together based on ideological, ethnic, sectarian, or merely pragmatist considerations.

"[T]he core contradictions of Iraqi politics will be on display as a government is cobbled together. No Iraqi governing coalition will be a natural ideological fit. In fact, any feasible coalition will produce mind-bending alliances of convenience that defy easy categorization," wrote Michael Wahid Hanna, a fellow at the New-York-based Century Foundation, in an analysis for Foreign Policy’s Middle East Channel last Friday.

Although the secular and Sunni-dominated al-Iraqiya bloc of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi was the front-runner of Iraq’s parliamentary elections with 91 seats out of a total of 325, it cannot form the government on its own for falling short of the 163-seat majority. Al-Iraqiya is now locked in a bitter struggle with the State of Law (SOL) bloc of current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which has 89 seats, over forming the future government.

Iraq’s constitution stipulates that the president should select a nominee from the "largest Council of Representatives’ [parliament] bloc" to form the government. The ambiguity in the phrase "largest Council of Representatives’ bloc" has led to different interpretations.

Allawi’s group insists it has the constitutional right to form the government, since it is the largest bloc now. But a recent ruling by Iraq’s Federal Supreme Court, in response to an inquiry by Maliki, has widened the definition of the largest bloc to mean the largest coalition that will be in place once the country’s parliament convenes.

That means both Maliki and Allawi will have a few weeks ahead of them to woo other blocs and put together larger coalitions so as to obtain the majority of seats in the parliament.

The other two main groups expected to play an important role in forming the future government are the Iraqi National Alliance (INA) and the Kurds.

The INA has nearly 70 seats in the parliament and is a coalition of mostly religious Shia parties, dominated by Moqtada al-Sadr’s group with nearly 40 seats.

While the dominant parties within INA have more ideological affinity with Maliki’s Dawa Party, personal rivalry between the leaders of INA and Maliki might make it hard for INA and SOL to create a coalition.

Moqtada al-Sadr’s group does not view Maliki favorably, mostly due to his crackdown on Sadr’s Mahdi Army fighters in Basra and Baghdad in 2008. If INA or Sadr’s group finally decides to join SOL, they might demand another nominee instead of Maliki.

Iraq’s edition of Azzaman, a pan-Arab-language newspaper, reported on Monday that Maliki has offered a deal to Sadr that includes releasing all Sadrist detainees from Iraqi prisons, granting Sadrists up to six ministerial portfolios and chairmanship of the major parliamentary committees of security and defense.

No one from SOL or Sadr’s group has yet confirmed or denied these reports. Sadrists act on a mixed nationalist and religious Shia platform generally.

The major Kurdish bloc, the Kurdistan Alliance (KA) with 43 seats, has already engaged in talks with other main Iraqi blocs as it seeks to join the future government. The KA is dominated by two major Kurdish parties of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), led by Kurdish President Massoud Barzani, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), headed by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.

While Kurds were the sole king-maker in the past, now they have to share it with INA – or more specifically Sadrists. Kurds have said they will align with groups that are more favorable to Kurdish territorial demands and insist on preserving the power of their autonomous region.

Although Allawi is generally regarded with favor among Kurds, the fact that his coalition has several Sunni Arab parties and figures with strained relations with Kurds could possibly dissuade the Kurds from throwing their lot with Allawi. Kurds’ historic territorial disputes with their Arab compatriots are centered on areas where Kurds and Sunni Arabs live near each other.

The concern among many Kurds is that helping al-Iraqiya to form the government will mean greatly empowering hostile elements within al-Iraqiya. Tensions are especially high between the KA and a component of al-Iraqiya in Nineveh province dominated by fiercely outspoken critics of Kurdish territorial claims in the province.

"For us, dealing with al-Iraqiya List is impossible," Feryad Rawanduzi, a senior Kurdish official from President Talabani’s party, told the Kurdish Peyamner news agency. "There are some groups within al-Iraqiya List whose agenda and way of thinking is different from us."

The domination of al-Iraqiya by Sunni Arab groups and the strong pan-Arab nationalist leaning of many of its members appear to not resonate well with many Shia and Kurdish groups, who view al-Iraqiya with suspicion. But since the Sunni Arab population has put its weight behind al-Iraqiya, its exclusion from government might prove costly for the country.

"The prospect of excluding al-Iraqiya carries a lot of risk. Over 2,800,000 Iraqis voted for al-Iraqiya, and they want to see it part of the government," Ahmed Ali, an Iraq analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told IPS.

"If al-Iraqiya is excluded, many people within the 2,800,000 will realize that choosing politics to be part of the process is not working and therefore might see violence as the only way to make their point. Genuine Iraqi Sunni inclusion is critical."

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Mohammed A. Salih

Mohammed A. Salih writes for Inter Press Service.