The Middle East Channel

Continuity amidst Iraq’s confusion

Iraq’s drawn out post-election political battles have American observers on edge. At one level, this is odd since it could hardly have come as a surprise. Virtually all commentators and analysts predicted in advance of the March 7 parliamentary elections that a long, arduous process of government formation awaited Iraq’s political leaders. And yet, when ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Iraq's drawn out post-election political battles have American observers on edge. At one level, this is odd since it could hardly have come as a surprise. Virtually all commentators and analysts predicted in advance of the March 7 parliamentary elections that a long, arduous process of government formation awaited Iraq's political leaders. And yet, when the post-election maneuvering began, many of these very same commentators reacted with horror and shock. To be fair, even jaded Iraq watchers had to marvel at the opaque and capricious turn events took as politicians eschewed prudence at a sensitive juncture, seeking short-term advantage with little regard to the long-term costs to Iraq's nascent institutions and its fragile political system. The fierce language and cynical maneuvers tried the nerves of those worried about a relapse of violence.  

But now the preliminary post-election stage appears to be nearing a merciful end. The de-Baathification electoral battle has been settled, the partial recount in Baghdad demanded by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been completed with no overarching effect on the results, other claims of electoral malfeasance appear to have been dropped, and the unlikely specter of military intervention has receded as Iraq's leaders have come to accept the legitimacy of the electoral results, however grudgingly. While no deal appears to have been finalized yet, the road to a coalition government now appears to be paved. But the long-term damage that has been wrought on the country's supposedly neutral institutional superstructure and the political process itself cannot be underestimated. And while temporarily concealed by the unexpected victory of Ayad Allawi's al-Iraqiyya list, the election did not actually produce significant changes in the Iraqi political landscape.

Iraq’s drawn out post-election political battles have American observers on edge. At one level, this is odd since it could hardly have come as a surprise. Virtually all commentators and analysts predicted in advance of the March 7 parliamentary elections that a long, arduous process of government formation awaited Iraq’s political leaders. And yet, when the post-election maneuvering began, many of these very same commentators reacted with horror and shock. To be fair, even jaded Iraq watchers had to marvel at the opaque and capricious turn events took as politicians eschewed prudence at a sensitive juncture, seeking short-term advantage with little regard to the long-term costs to Iraq’s nascent institutions and its fragile political system. The fierce language and cynical maneuvers tried the nerves of those worried about a relapse of violence.  

But now the preliminary post-election stage appears to be nearing a merciful end. The de-Baathification electoral battle has been settled, the partial recount in Baghdad demanded by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been completed with no overarching effect on the results, other claims of electoral malfeasance appear to have been dropped, and the unlikely specter of military intervention has receded as Iraq’s leaders have come to accept the legitimacy of the electoral results, however grudgingly. While no deal appears to have been finalized yet, the road to a coalition government now appears to be paved. But the long-term damage that has been wrought on the country’s supposedly neutral institutional superstructure and the political process itself cannot be underestimated. And while temporarily concealed by the unexpected victory of Ayad Allawi’s al-Iraqiyya list, the election did not actually produce significant changes in the Iraqi political landscape.

For all the excitement around al-Iraqiyya’s upset, the basic parameters of the government formation process and the fundamentals of Iraq’s politics remain relatively stable. Maliki split the Shiite vote during the election campaign to advance his own interests, allowing Allawi’s list to take the initial lead, but Iraq remains a Shiite-majority country and reconstituting a Shiite list remains the most plausible route to a government. Sunnis have rejected the Shiite parties despite attempts by Maliki and others to adopt a language of cross-sectarian Iraqi nationalism. Sunni-supported candidates, such as Allawi, could only be in a position to rule if intra-Shiite divisions remained and created an opening. The Shiite-dominated parties still zealously guard their prerogative to dictate the terms upon which a government is formed, including the right to select one of their own as the country’s next premier. And the Kurds remain wary, continuing to offer their support to the coalition most likely to grant them carte blanche in their own provinces and advance their interests in the major upcoming negotiations over disputed territories and oil. 

One of the sharp lessons of the election process is that Iraq is still grappling with the establishment of a democratic culture under the rule of law despite its admirably contested elections. There have been few independent and impartial checks on the excesses generated by a hard-fought election of high stakes. Tellingly, this has once again solidified many of the dividing lines within Iraqi society that have been forged through years of Baathist repression, postwar chaos, and the descent into sectarian civil war.  The election results and post-election maneuvering offer a grim reminder that ethnosectarianism is still the organizing principle of political division despite tentative moves toward cross-sectarian politics. The Iraqi Federal Supreme Court opinion on the eve of the elections that gave primacy to post-electoral parliamentary coalitions did no more than codify this existing reality.

The various responses of the central Shiite political players on the issue of de-Baathification have also been illuminating, mainly in elucidating the popular red lines of Iraq’s traumatized Shiite majority. While Maliki’s acquiescent response to these political purges was a failure of leadership in choosing not to defend the rule of law, his approach was a function of the electoral environment. This pandering should be understood more clearly as an electoral calculation reflecting his appraisal of the limits of inclusive discourse among his core Shiite constituency. More recent moves to rein in the unchecked and haphazard course of de-Baathification should also be seen as reassertion of the Iraqi political class’s vested interest in maintaining the legitimacy of the political process — an interest that was threatened recently when the most zealous and demagogic proponents of de-Baathification, such as Ali Faisal al-Lami, continued to press the issue long after the stunt had served its purpose in polarizing the electoral debate on sectarian grounds and solidifying lines of division with an eye toward government formation.

In the near future, the political struggle will shift from the intra-Shiite battle for the premiership to a broader process to determine the exact composition of the next government. Based on the public statements of many leaders, including Ammar al-Hakim, the leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, the distinct possibility exists that the formation of a national unity government would include Allawi’s Iraqiyya list, which has transformed itself into the main vehicle for Sunni political expression. A national unity government is in many ways an incoherent construct with no unifying political program and little to bind its fractious components. But this is true of almost any conceivable future government, and the addition of Iraqiyya will not substantially distort a political coalition comprised of the major Shiite parties and their traditional Kurdish allies.

As Maliki has asserted himself in carving out a distinct platform and identity, he has drifted away from many of the positions that previously dominated Shiite politics, particularly with respect to his belief in a strong central government and his more confrontational approach to issues involving Kurdish aspirations. As such, his State of Law list has narrowed many of the substantive gaps with Allawi and his followers.  

While a national unity government would do little to bridge the gulf that exists between the key players on fundamental questions regarding power, resources, and territory, these crucial issues will not be resolved through an up-or-down majority vote in the parliament. Instead, due to the sensitivity of the issues, they will almost certainly be dealt with gradually and through extraparliamentary modes of compromise. With this context in mind, a government of national unity should not be judged to be the enshrinement of political paralysis any more so than the potentially divisive alternative whereby al-Iraqiyya would be shut out of a prospective government.    

These political struggles have been accompanied by a somewhat misplaced rise in hysteria regarding Iran’s role in Iraq. Recent events have not seen a surge of Iranian influence — that strategic end was achieved with the toppling of Saddam Hussein and the adoption of democratic elections in a Shiite-majority country reeling from decades of Sunni-led repression. Recognizing Iran’s significant influence is far different than simply ascribing Iraqi political decision-making to Iranian machinations. Iran is influential primarily because its perceived interests often converge with those of Iraq’s Shiite political class. Iran may be able to amplify existing trends and exacerbate divisions through its historical ties and material support to key Shiite leaders. But it cannot force Iraqi political actors to act against their own interests or bend Iraqi politics to its own ends. The de-Baathification process was not an Iranian diktat, despite the country’s obvious interest in pushing a more nakedly sectarian agenda. This appears to be a central tenet of Iraqi politics: While various outside actors (whether Iran or the United States) can distort or aggravate existing political trends, they cannot dictate the shape of Iraq’s postwar politics.

Finally, despite the understandable fears of many American analysts, violence has not escalated to a point of strategic concern as the United States prepares for a major drawdown of its troops. The remnants of the insurgency remain capable of executing sophisticated and coordinated attacks, as was demonstrated on May 10 when scores of geographically dispersed attacks killed over 100 Iraqis, but the tempo has remained choppy and this inability to significantly raise the pace and span of violence at a critical time of transition points to the eroded capacity of the insurgency. Iraq is a violent country and will remain so for years to come, but there are no credible indications that the country is on the precipice of a broad-based insurgency or a reversion to sectarian civil war. 

Iraq’s long-term stability will only be forged if the country’s political forces are able to construct a consensual and inclusive national compact. Certainly, the bruising electoral season has done little to encourage movement toward this goal. However, based on the trauma of recent Iraqi history, the uneven course of Iraq’s political evolution should not come as a surprise. As the country nears a major drawdown of U.S. troops, recent developments do not portend a collapse of the nascent Iraqi state. In fact, in many ways, as the country’s political leaders have reconciled themselves to the results of the parliamentary elections, Iraq has most likely begun to emerge from the most fragile stage of the government-formation process.

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

Michael Wahid Hanna is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation. His article on the use of public order in Egyptian law will appear in the forthcoming issue of The Review of Faith & International Affairs.

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