Ruling Baghdad

The new Iraqi government will be more of the same—which is probably good enough for America.

The past week produced a moment of clarity in Baghdad, even if it still takes several months before we see a new government. The electoral commission declared it had adjudicated, and rejected, all complaints received, other than the currently ongoing recount in Baghdad. The Kurds have dropped their demand for a recount in Kirkuk and Ninewa. Meanwhile, the Accountability and Justice Commission, which had disqualified hundreds of candidates under the rubric of de-Baathification, appears to have reached the limit of its influence—for now. This means that within a month or so, the Supreme Court should be in a position to certify the election results.

Most significant, however, was the announcement by the two main Shiite lists, the State of Law (SOL) and Iraqi National Alliance (INA), that they would reunify, signalling the return of Iraqi politics to its natural course—with a logical outcome—if the new coalition holds.

Four years ago, a unified alliance of Shiite parties and politicians won the parliamentary elections, running just shy of an absolute majority. Following much back and forth, it plucked a weak compromise figure from relative obscurity to become prime minister: Nouri al-Maliki. (Maliki had been known under the name Jawad al-Maliki, so when he was tipped to be the country’s next leader, people were heard asking, “Who is this Nouri al-Maliki?” Even as Jawad, he was a lesser figure in his Dawa party.)

In his four years in power, Maliki has managed to carve out his own power base through a combination of stubborn grit, a dose of luck and a good bit of U.S. military help. His insistence to be the Shiites’ candidate for prime minister in 2010 broke up the alliance, his rivals having seen what powers Maliki was able to amass in just a handful of years. This development enabled Iyad Allawi’s Iraqiya bloc to emerge as the largest electoral list on March 7.

Today, facing an assertive Allawi who is mobilizing Arab states to rally to his side, and with the old Baath party stirring itself in Syria, the SOL and INA had little choice but to rejoin forces. This decision owes less to Iranian machinations, as some observers allege, than to the Shiite parties’ existential need to prevail over rivals they see as neo-Baathists and stand-ins for the former regime.

If it survives the strains of bargaining now taking place, the new SOL-INA alliance would stand by far the best chance to form the new government. It would need only four extra seats to attain an absolute majority in the newly elected council of representatives. It has already indicated it wants to bring in the Kurds—both to secure that majority and to have a powerful ally against the Sunni Arabs and Turkmen who are Iraqiya’s mainstay and with whom the Kurds are in the clinch (more than with their prospective Shiite allies) over territories the Kurds claim as historically theirs. (Forcing the election winner, Allawi, into opposition is not without regional precedent: In the last Israeli elections, winner Tzipi Livni likewise had to resign herself to leading the opposition when her opponents ganged up on her to deprive her of the prime minister’s post.)

The dispute most likely to undo the new/old Shiite coalition is the question of who should be prime minister. It would not be a shock if the parties were to try to divest themselves of Maliki—who will not depart without putting up stiff resistance—and pull a new candidate out of the hat. Such a person would almost certainly come from the SOL list (which has 89 seats against the INA’s 70) and lack a popular constituency or other power base—for instance, Hussain al-Shahristani, the current oil minister, or someone of similar profile.

The question is whether a new Shiite-Kurdish ruling coalition would welcome Iraqiya to form a broad-based national unity government. I suspect it will merely pick off some of Iraqiya’s leaders most prone to giving up party discipline for senior government positions.

Thus configured, the new government would be a retread of the old one. This should not come as a surprise: in ethno-sectarian terms, the election outcome is almost identical to the result four years ago. The Shiite parties jointly gained a mere 2.5 percentage points; the secular and Sunni parties together stayed even; and the combined Kurds lost 3.5 percentage points—mostly because they lost out in the seat reallocation during negotiations over the electoral law last December.

At this early stage of Iraq’s post-2003 state-building, a non-inclusive government could bode ill for the country’s stability. Iraqiya supporters will feel cheated and disenfranchised; some may resort to violence. The Maliki government and a future, Shiite-dominated successor seem to believe they will be able to contain the fallout, however. They far prefer dealing with a harassing insurgency than with what they see as a lethal fifth column embedded within the state apparatus.

As for the United States: It has insisted on speed and inclusiveness in the process of standing up a new government. It stands to get neither. What it will likely get instead is more of the same. But to an Obama administration preoccupied with crises elsewhere and eager to leave Iraq, second best might just be good enough.

Joost R. Hiltermann is deputy program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group.