Making Sense of Iraq's Political Deadlock

Baghdad -- A popular refrain throughout the Middle East is that "the Arabs agree to disagree." And in fact this is what appears to be happening in the top political circles of Iraq today, where the only issue on which the various leaders seem to agree is that their differences cannot be reconciled.

More than five months after the March 7 general election, Iraq still does not have a new government. Ayad Allawi, whose secular list Iraqiya won the most seats, 91 out of a total of 325, maintains that under the constitution he has the right to form a new government. But the wording of the constitution is vague and open to interpretation, and Iraq's Supreme Court has ruled that the right to form a government belongs to the largest coalition--regardless of whether that coalition was formed before or after the elections.

That ruling favored Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, who is vying to retain his position at the helm of the Iraqi government. After his State and Law list came in second, with 89 seats, Maliki, sought to outflank Allawi by establishing an alliance with the other Shi'a bloc, the National Alliance, which is dominated by the followers of the populist cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr and those of Hammar Al-Hakim, leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, an influential political party with ties to Iran.

Together, Maliki's list and the National Alliance would have had 159 seats, just four short of the majority required to form a new government. But after months of talks this "all Shi'a coalition" fell apart, due to disagreements over who would obtain the coveted post of prime minister.

The National Alliance requested that the new prime minister be either Ibrahim Al-Jafaari, the preferred choice of the Sadrists, or Adel Abdul Mahdi, one of the two vice-presidents of Iraq. In any case, the Sadrists were seemingly prepared to accept anyone but Maliki, whom they loathe for having launched a series of successful military offensives against the Mahdi Army in the southern city of Basra and in the Sadr City suburb of Baghdad.

Maliki, however, is firm in his determination to serve another term as prime minister, and this eventually led the National Alliance to withdraw from talks with his list.

"Maliki does not want to give up power. He is acting like a dictator," said Jalal Al-Din Ali Al-Saghir," a prominent Shi'a cleric and a member of parliament for the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. "We will not join any government in which Maliki is the prime minister. Our doors are tightly closed to him," he said.

Now the National Alliance may decide to form a coalition with Allawi, even though he heads a secular list. Wahil Abdul Latif, a judge and a member of parliament within the National Alliance bloc, told me that he personally supports Allawi because of his ability to reach out to the Sunni minority. He also said that the National Alliance would be willing to join forces with Allawi and support his bid to become the new prime minister, if only he accepted to remove certain "tainted" Sunni leaders from his list. Among these, he named Vice-President Tariq Al-Hashimi, the leader of one of the main Sunni political parties, and Saleh Al-Mutlak, another Sunni, whom he accused of conspiring with Ba'athist reactionaries to overthrow the Iraqi government.

Allawi, however, is unlikely to exclude these individuals from his list, since they represent pillars of his cross-sectarian outreach strategy.

When I asked Abdul Latif how long it might take the various leaders to reach an agreement on the formation of a new government he laughed and said: "This could take another two months. Perhaps more." Such a delay, though, could severely strain Iraq's fragile institutions, since it would not only protract the current state of governmental paralysis but might also lead the army and police to question the constitutional authority of their leadership.

"They continue talking but they cannot agree," said Mahmoud Othman, an independent member of parliament within the Kurdish bloc. Intrigued by the use of the pronoun "they" I asked him to elaborate. "The Kurds are not part of this conflict. We have no preference as to who gets to form the new government," he said. Indeed, the conventional wisdom in Iraq is that the Kurdish leaders are ready to make a deal with whichever coalition is willing to grant the most autonomy to their region. Othman agreed with this assessment. "Yes, of course, we will shift to the side that offers us the most," he said.

The prospects for a speedy resolution of Iraq's political deadlock do not look bright, particularly if we keep in mind the track record of similar political stalemates in the region. In Lebanon, for instance, the negotiations leading to the appointment of the current president, Michel Suleiman, took more than six months.

As Iraqis brace for the holy month of Ramadan with little or no electricity in the sweltering summer heat, their only consolation is that at least for the time being these power struggles have not led to violent clashes between rival party militias. When I asked Yanar Mohammed, the President of the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq, what she thought about the current stalemate, she said: "At least they are fighting in parliament and not in the streets. Hopefully the sectarian war of 2006 and 2007 has transformed itself into a political dispute among competing parties."