Finally, an Iraqi Government

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NEGOTIATIONS: Jaafari and Talabani during a press conference in Baghdad

More than six weeks after Iraq’s election, the people finally get to see their government in action today when the National Assembly meets for the first time, another historic milestone in Iraq's transition to democracy. Besides appointing a government and governing the country over the next year, the Assembly will oversee the drafting of a new Iraqi constitution. How that document will turn out, and whether the new Iraq will take the shape that the U.S. would like, is still very much up in the air, and will depend on how Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis accommodate their differing concerns. A look at some of the issues:

Kurdish power

The big winner on election day was the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), a mostly Shiite list assembled under the auspices of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and led by moderate Islamist parties with historic ties to Iran. The UIA, which has nominated Dr. Ibrahim al-Jaafari as prime minister, won 140 of the 275 seats in the Assembly, giving it the simple majority required to pass legislation, but not the two-thirds required under the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL), the interim constitution bequeathed by former U.S. administrator J. Paul Bremer, to choose a government. That means the Shiites have to negotiate a deal with the parties that will give them the votes required to create a government. And that requirement has made kingmakers of the Kurds — 3 million out of Iraq's 27 million people — and given them an unprecedented opportunity to press their own demands for autonomy.

The Kurdish list, representing the main factions of the independence-minded people of the three northern provinces, won 75 Assembly seats, making it the natural coalition ally for the UIA because between them, the two lists account for 75 percent of the seats, making further alliances unnecessary. The chief rival to the Shiite list, the secular Iraqi list of U.S.-appointed prime minister Iyad Allawi finished a distant third at the polls, winning 40 seats in the Assembly. Allawi had initially hoped to team up with the Kurds and persuade more secular-inclined members of the Shiite list to break away in order to return him to office, but that now appears to be a fantasy. Allawi insists he will accept no job other than the one he currently holds, and is preparing to assume the role of leader of the opposition in the new Assembly — although that may be a bargaining position designed to ensure an important cabinet post in a national-unity oriented government.

The Shiites and Kurds have reportedly achieved the outline of a deal, in which Jaafari will replace Allawi as prime minister, with the presidency going to aging Kurdish guerrilla leader Jalal Talabani. One of the two vice presidencies will go to Adel Abdul-Mahdi, the current finance minister who is also on the Shiite list, while the other will go to an as-yet unnamed Sunni — possibly current interim president Ghazi al-Yawer, although he is also believed to be a top contender for the role of speaker of the Assembly, which will also be reserved for a Sunni in the hope that the community that largely stayed away from the polls must nonetheless be accommodated in the new political arrangements if there is to be any chance of snuffing out the insurgency that continues to kill scores of Iraqis every week.

The sticking point in negotiations between the Shiite and the Kurdish lists has been less over the makeup of the executive branch than over broad guarantees demanded by the Kurds for secularism and adherence to the TAL (which is rejected, in principle, by Sistani, among others) — and more importantly, over Kurdish separatist demands. The Kurds are using the kingmaker status granted them by the TAL to demand not only that they maintain the autonomy they have enjoyed for over a decade under the protection of the Allied “no-fly” zone, but also that their domain be extended to include the fiercely contested oil-rich city of Kirkuk. They want a greater share of oil revenues, and also insist on keeping their ethnic militia — the peshmerga — intact, simply incorporating it under the umbrella of the Iraqi national army but making it the de facto defense force of the Kurdish region, into which no other national army units would be allowed to enter. In essence, the Kurds are naming as their price for cooperation the right to put in place the basic infrastructure of secession in an expanded Kurdish region

Shiites squeezed

The Shiites are reluctant to concede many of these points, which are anathema to a wide range of Arab Iraqis, both Sunni and Shiite, and also to the small Turkoman population of the north. They have tried to persuade the Kurds to let questions such as the status of Kirkuk be resolved in a democratic parliament rather than in back-room talks, but until now the Kurds have driven a hard bargain.

The Bremer constitution was designed to dilute and disperse the power of the majority Shiites, but in the process it considerably amplified the power of the Kurdish minority. That threatens national stability; by parlaying their kingmaker role into a series of autonomy guarantees to be written down even before the new parliament has convened, the risk of breakdown in the system grows. Conceding to Kurdish demands on Kirkuk, for example, will further alienate the Sunni population of northern Iraq. Also, if the peshmerga are maintained on the terms demanded by the Kurdish leaders, it will inevitably be more difficult to persuade other factions to disarm their own militias. The Sunnis may not currently have significant representation in the political process, but a significant segment of the community is represented on the battlefield by the insurgency. If the Kurds and Sunnis continue to bear arms, there may be less incentive for militias attached to various Shiite factions to put down their own weapons — unless they, too, can be incorporated into the national army.

Security concerns

Such security issues may pose some of the trickiest challenges for the new government. Key leaders of the UIA, such as Abdelaziz Hakim of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, have made clear they want to conduct a wholesale purge of the security forces to weed out former Baathists. But in the past year Prime Minister Allawi has quietly reversed the U.S. policy of “de-Baathificiation,” which he viewed as dangerous mistakes. A renewed push to purge former Baathists could create further tensions that would play into the hands of the insurgency.

The future of U.S. troops in Iraq could also become a point of contention, with UIA leaders suggesting that while they don't want them out right away, they want to see a timetable for U.S. withdrawal. Some UIA leaders are also pushing to make Islamic Sharia law the basis of personal-status law in the new Iraq, governing issues such as marriage, divorce and inheritance — a proposal that would leave the legal status of women far inferior to what it had been under Saddam Hussein. But the more Islamist leaders in the UIA may not be able to count on the support of many of their more moderate and secularist colleagues, let alone their coalition partners.

The rules of government

Bremer's rules were designed to force Iraq's sectarian political leaders to work together and find the compromises necessary to build consensus. But they may also have inadvertently built in a basic instability to the system. The Shiites, in particular, will be watching carefully to see that democracy gives their leaders a political dominance equivalent to their demographic dominance. If the Bremer rules are perceived to be holding them back, they'll challenge them. After all, the primary purpose of the new National Assembly is for the Iraqis themselves to design their own rules for the next stage of the political contest.