New Political Storms in Iraq?

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BIG WINNER: Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Shiite coalition, which has a commanding lead in early election results

Even as President Bush celebrated the Iraqi election on Capitol Hill this week, the jockeying among Iraq's contenders for power suggested that new political storms may be fast approaching. Although the arcane process of forming a new government even after the election results are announced means that many weeks may pass before its makeup is known, it will, nonetheless, be the first post-Saddam government not handpicked by the U.S. And early indications are that it may be led by political groups who do not consider the U.S. as natural allies, which could pose complex and unforeseen challenges for the Bush administration's Iraq strategy.

Allawi's Role

Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, the last U.S.-appointed leader, is behaving as if he won Sunday's election, calling for national unity and magnanimously reaching out to various parties to propose compromise and consensus arrangements for a new government. Not so fast, say the leaders of the Shiite-dominated United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), who by early indications appear to have taken the lion's share of the vote. The first 3.3 million votes counted (of an estimated tally of around 8 million) give the Shiite list a commanding 67 percent of the vote, compared with just 18 percent for Allawi's list. So, the Shiite leaders say they, not Allawi, will be leading the next government and drawing in the smaller parties.

Asked to respond to Allawi's overtures this week, the top candidate of the Shiite list, Abdelaziz al-Hakim told an Arab newspaper "there is no room for power sharing ... because (our) expectations indicated a sweeping victory with a large majority (voting) for the United Iraqi Alliance list." Instead, Hakim spoke of reaching out to the Kurds and drawing in minorities, including the Sunnis who for the most part appear to have stayed away from the polls. And his coalition has already begun negotiating a coalition arrangement with the Kurdish alliance, which is expected to win around 20 percent of the vote.

Power Play

Allawi does not expect to win a majority, or even a plurality of the vote. To stay in power, he appears to be attempting to trade on fears of clerical and Iranian influence in the UIA and even hoping to cherry-pick allies from within the improbably broad Shiite coalition. The goal would be to use the provisions of the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL) governing the process to parlay a minority share of the vote into a leading role in government. That's because the TAL, drawn up by U.S. administrator Paul Bremer, essentially requires the support of two thirds of the National Assembly for a new government. The process begins with the Assembly choosing, by two thirds majority, a president and two vice presidents, a troika that must unanimously agree on a prime minister. So, the thinking goes, even without a plurality or a majority, as long as Allawi can assemble a coalition that exceeds one third of the Assembly members, he can filibuster himself a place as a "compromise" candidate for prime minister.

Allawi's best bet would be to draw the Kurds into his own bloc. But the Kurds, secular and seperatist, they are hardly natural allies for the moderate Islamist-nationalist UIA list assembled under the auspices of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Still, they may see the Sistani list as a more viable government, if they can strike a deal that gives the Shiites the power they seek in Baghdad in exchange for de facto Kurdish independence in the northern provinces — largely at the expense of Sunni Arabs and ethnic Turkmen in Kirkuk and other contested areas. Ultimately, however, the Kurds are likely to choose the horse that appears most likely to secure their interest in entrenching, and even expanding, their de facto independence.

Most attention on the prospects for a new government has focused on the question of drawing in the alienated Sunnis in the hope of undercutting the insurgency, and of containing Kurdish independence ambitions. But those issues may yet be eclipsed by a power struggle between the Shiite coalition and the pro-U.S. secular groups headed by Allawi. The rules of the game give Allawi openings to maneuver for power even if his opponents win a clear majority of the vote and the seats in the National Assembly. But Shiite leaders — none more so than Grand Ayatollah Sistani himself — have long questioned some of the provisions of Bremer's transitional constitution, the TAL, and the right of Americans to set the rules for Iraqi democracy. Sistani aide Ahmad al-Safi reiterated this week in an interview with al-Diyar television that many Shiites believe the TAL is "unfair" and "does not have legitimacy, especially since it was not adopted by the UN Security Council."

Sistani's objections to the TAL are that it offers minorities veto power over majority decisions, for example in allowing a two-thirds no-vote on a new constitution in any three of Iraq's 18 provinces to strike it down. And it's not hard to envisage a situation where if the provisions of the U.S.-bequeathed law are used to deny the Shiites the majority power they believe they won in a democratic election, Shiite opposition to the TAL — and to the influence, even the continued presence of the U.S. in Iraq — would harden.

What About the Troops?

The future of the U.S. military mission in Iraq could become a major point of contention for the new government. The first issue is a timetable for U.S. departure. None of the major parties is calling for an immediate U.S. withdrawal, but the Shiite list appears far more inclined to press the issue than does Allawi. "No one welcomes the foreign troops in Iraq. We believe in the ability of Iraqis to run their own issues, including the security issue," UIA leading candidate Hakim told an interviewer this week. "Of course this issue could be brought up by the new government." Allawi argues that U.S. troops can be withdrawn only once Iraqi forces are ready to replace them, and President Ghazi al-Yawer this week said that while talk of an immediate withdrawal was "nonsense," he envisaged a substantial draw-down of U.S. forces by year's end.

A more immediate concern date will be the rules that govern the continued presence of U.S. forces. Ahmed Chalabi, the former Pentagon favorite who has since thrown in his lot with the Shiite list, has called for the U.S. to negotiate a "status of forces" agreement with a new government. While such agreements are quite common with U.S. forces deployed in most parts of the world, given the recent history of U.S. military involvement in Iraq the government may be inclined to set limits on the freedom of action of the U.S. forces, which could prove nettlesome for U.S. commanders.

Equally important is the question of creating Iraqi forces. Until now, these have been assembled, trained and deployed under ultimate U.S. command and according to U.S. plans. But the new government will likely seek far greater control over what would be, essentially, its own security forces. The Shiites, for example, are unhappy at the return to command positions of many former Baathist officers. UIA leader Mowfaik al-Rubaie has made clear that "the new government wants to have radical changes in the leadership of the Iraqi security forces."

If the benchmark for U.S. withdrawal is the capacity of Iraqi security forces to defend the country, then the Iraqi government will have cause to challenge the direction being pursued by the U.S. in training and assembling those forces. Even in the most optimistic view, which says there are some 125,373 personnel fully or partially trained (the U.S. acknowledges that only about one-third are combat-ready), some 110,577 of those are police, national guard and border patrol units — dedicated primarily to dealing with domestic threats. Right now, according to the U.S. government's own figures, there are only 14,786 Iraqis fully or partially trained to serve in its conventional army. But in order for Iraq to be in a position to defend itself without depending on the U.S. — a non-negotiable demand for a government led by the Shiite parties — Iraq will need a conventional army substantially larger than the 36,635 soldiers currently envisaged in U.S. planning. And it will need an air force, armor, artillery, and other standards of a modern army, most of which the U.S. has not begun putting in place. On the basis of the current patterns of force-development, the need for a U.S. presence could persist for years. But in light of the sentiments expressed by Hakim and other Shiite leaders, it's unlikely that would be unacceptable to a Shiite-led government.

In the end, the onset of democracy has given Iraqis great hope that their fate is now in their own hands. And that reality may soon significantly alter the terms of post-Saddam Iraq's relationship with the U.S.