Iraq's Long, Hot Summer?

Washington must allow Iraqis to form a government on their own terms. If it forces a solution, Iraq could descend into chaos once again.

It's probably still too soon to declare with authority that Ayad Allawi's Iraqiya party has won the plurality in Iraq's March 7 parliamentary elections. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Rule of Law Coalition, which placed a very close second, has insisted that the election was manipulated and has pledged to fight it any way they can-by demanding a recount and challenging the election in a variety of Iraqi governmental institutions.

Moreover, Allawi's victory was a narrow one. It seems that Iraqiyya has won probably 91 seats out of the 325 in Iraq's Council of Representatives (CoR), giving him less than a third. Maliki's Rule of Law appears to have won 89, whereas none of the other parties is expected to get much above 40 seats. In addition, some of the coalitions forged for the election itself are likely to splinter now that the polling is behind them. The result will be two Gullivers competing to secure the support of enough Lilliputians to get the 163-seats needed to form a government.


And Now for the Hard Part. . .

For an endless parade of reasons, this is going to be a very difficult process. Many (most) of the top leaders of these parties hate one another and far too many have inimical positions. Iraq's proportionate representation system lends itself to lengthy bargaining and empowers smaller parties at the expense of bigger ones. Thus, if Allawi is first tapped to try to form a government, he will have many tough choices to make. For instance, in some ways, he could easily ally with the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and the Kurdish Alliance. However, doing so will almost certainly mean jettisoning his virulently anti-Kurdish coalition partners, al-Hudba, which dominates Iraq's third largest city of Mosul. It would probably also rule out bringing the Sadrists into his government because their politics are antithetical to those of the Kurds (and ISCI, their own erstwhile coalition partners).

Another potential point of contention could be Iraq's presidency. It is the president who must constitutionally authorize CoR members to form a government, and the president has to be chosen by the new CoR itself. To make matters worse, the president requires a two-thirds vote in the CoR to be elected. The good news is that most of Iraq's political parties seem inclined to have Iraq's current president, Jalal Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, serve another term. The problem is that with 89 votes, Maliki and his Rule of Law Coalition are in an excellent position to block Talabani's reelection-much better than they will be to prevent Allawi from forming a new government. Consequently, they might decide to prevent the election of the president to try to force the other parties to accede to their wishes or simply to create a deadlock requiring new elections.

In short, there are any number of reasons to expect that it will take months for Iraq to form a new government.


The American Dilemma

All of these problems notwithstanding, the Iraqi elections were a very significant victory for the Iraqi people and for the United States, and an important defeat for Iran and the old militia parties who were the architects of Iraq's civil war. Although it is true that Maliki's support came largely from Iraq's Shia and Allawi's came largely from the Sunnis, these two parties were widely seen as the most secular, most nationalistic, most technocratic, and most progressive of all of the major parties running. Moreover, Iraqiya is widely seen as close to the United States, while Maliki's government was a clear beneficiary of the U.S. "surge." And these parties performed far better than their more sectarian rivals and those with the greatest backing from Iran.

The challenge for the United States now lies in not losing the gains from the election in the process of government formation. And that is going to be a significant challenge. The dilemma Washington is going to face is our need for haste on the one hand, and patience on the other.

If, as widely expected, Iraq's politicians are unable to form a new government for months, the situation in Iraq could get very unpleasant. First, Prime Minister Maliki will remain in power in charge of a caretaker government. He had great difficulty governing and addressing Iraq's problems before the election, when he was fully empowered, and in his post-election situation it will be virtually impossible. Moreover, his political foes will assume that everything that his administration does during the process of government formation will be intended to manipulate those negotiations-and they may well be. Maliki has a reputation for getting easily frustrated with Iraq's proto-democratic politics and he frequently takes extra- (or even un-) constitutional actions to try to circumvent political roadblocks. Such actions could be incendiary during a drawn-out and painful process of government formation.

Second, although Iraq's militias and other thugs have been deliberately sidelined over the past two to three years, they have not gone away altogether. And they are likely to become frustrated and agitated by a lengthy process of seemingly endless political negotiations. The longer it takes to form a new government, the more likely it is that they will begin trying to take matters into their own hands and, like Alexander, try to cut the Gordian knots of Iraqi politics. Once some of them begin using force to influence the government-formation process, they all will. Consequently, the more these negotiations drag on, the greater the likelihood of violence. And because the Iraqi armed forces themselves are likely to be viewed as Maliki's "militia" during this period (and he has, unfortunately, used them on occasion to advance his political agenda) it will mostly fall to the remaining American troops to prevent violence from getting out of hand.