A Power Vacuum in Iraq?

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WHERE'S THE GOVERNMENT? A delegate sits alone in the Iraqi National Assembly chamber

More than two months have passed since 8 million Iraqis braved death to go to the polls, but still they have no new government. The new National Assembly met for a second time on Tuesday, with agreement on the makeup of a new executive branch as elusive as ever. So deep was the discord, in fact, that the Assembly failed even to choose a Speaker. Instead of showing signs of progress to an increasingly impatient electorate, the session portrayed the new legislature as a hung parliament. As tempers flared among legislators, TV coverage was cut off in order to stop the broadcast of an embarrassing spectacle. But the reason for the deadlock is not simply a failure of Iraq's elected leaders to achieve consensus. The rules of Iraqi democracy, as bequeathed by outgoing U.S. administrator J. Paul Bremer, require the support of a two-thirds majority in the Assembly for the creation of a new government, a standard that the U.S. political system might struggle to meet.

The rules have forced the United Iraqi Alliance, the coalition led by Shiite religious parties that won a narrow majority of Assembly seats in the election, to cut a deal with the Kurdish list that claimed 27 percent of the seats. The Kurds see their once-off kingmaker role as their best opportunity to press for maximum autonomy and oil-revenue share for their independence-minded people. As their price for endorsing a Shiite-led government, they're demanding not only an extension of their de facto autonomy in their three northern provinces — including the right to retain their own armed forces and prohibit the national army from entering their domain — but also control of the divided oil-rich city of Kirkuk and of Iraq's oil ministry. That's a prohibitive price for the Arab majority, both Shiite and Sunni. The Kurds, however, mindful that their 27 percent of the Assembly counts for far more in this one moment when a two-thirds majority is required than it will ever count for again, are digging in their heels. And so, the deadlock persists, and threatens to create a long-term power vacuum.

A Weak Government

If Bremer's Transitional Administrative Law (TAL) looks likely to create a relatively weak central government in Baghdad, that was its intent — restraining any one ethnic or religious group from dominating others on the basis of a simple majority. But the price of that restraint has been to give the Kurdish minority the means to blackmail the majority, which in turn sets the scene for an acrimonious aftermath. The Kurds want to resolve such contentious issues as Kirkuk while their power is at its peak; the Shiites insist it should be done on the basis of a consensus achieved in the new Assembly. And the electorate that put the Shiites in power — and their mentor, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani — are unlikely to accept the legitimacy of any such far-reaching agreements achieved on this basis. Sistani himself never accepted the TAL, and urged that it be changed by an elected Iraqi body, not simply because its authors had been a U.S. occupation authority but because he rejected the de facto veto it gave to the Kurds. Sistani has begun sending increasingly urgent exhortations to the Assembly to get on with forming a government.

Tuesday's failed assembly session highlighted the fact that the Kurdish-Shiite negotiations are not the only sticking point. There had been broad agreement that the post of Assembly Speaker would go to a Sunni Arab as part of an effort to draw that community into the new polity, but when acting President Ghazi al-Yawer declined the post, legislators could not agree on an alternative. The mortar shells exploding outside the chamber may have served as a reminder that none of the Sunni elements in the Assembly right now can be deemed representative of a community that mostly stayed away from the polls, and Iraqi politicians appear to have recognized that ending the insurgency requires reaching agreements with more hard-line but influential groupings such as the Association of Muslim Scholars. That goal may be growing more elusive, as some recent meetings of clerics and tribal chieftains in Baghdad have expressed support for the insurgents and called for violent “retaliation” against Kurds and Shiites.

Who's in Charge?

Even as the politicians haggle over control of ministries and key posts in the new government, the seat of real power in Baghdad becomes increasingly difficult to identify. Right now, executive authority remains in the hands of the lame-duck government of interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, the U.S. appointee who garnered only 14 percent of the vote in the election and who has turned down offers of a cabinet post in order to claim the role of opposition leader.

Control of the security forces, meanwhile, remains effectively in the hands of the U.S. military, despite being formally answerable to the interim government. Washington retains no formal or open political role in Iraq, and the U.S. embassy there routinely insists, when asked by journalists, that it has no hand in the political process. That remains a wise posture, given the implacable hostility of both the Shiite and Sunni leadership to American tutelage. But given the depth of U.S. investment in lives and treasure in Iraq, it is widely assumed among Iraqis that the U.S. will seek to ensure the most favorable outcome by using its role as the guarantor of security, and the major underwriter of reconstruction, as leverage.

The U.S. priority may be to ensure that the ministries concerned with security remain in friendly hands. But the Shiite list — whose leaders have kept the U.S. at arm's length — wants the security ministries for itself, and plans to resume a vigorous program of “de-Baathification,” purging the security forces of many of the elements of the former regime that had been quietly reinstated by Allawi. They also envisage a far greater role for forces such as the Iran-trained Badr Brigade, the armed wing of the Shiite list's leading party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, in a revamped security arrangement.

Still, the post-election scenario leaves Washington with no formal levers to influence Iraqi politics. As long as it remained the formal occupying power, it held the ring for the competition between rival Iraqi factions. Now, nobody really holds the ring, and the contest to shape post-Saddam Iraq is more wide-open than ever. The election has not resolved the basic political conflicts among Iraqis, but it has turned the current U.S.-appointed government into a lame duck and has diminished U.S. influence over the next one.

Popular Frustration

The political gridlock has deepened the frustration of ordinary Iraqis. Their first experience of democracy may be acquiring a bitter aftertaste, having braved death to go out and vote for lists of candidates who were kept almost entirely anonymous due to security concerns, only to see a familiar cast of characters haggling behind closed doors to divide the spoils of power. They don't know who is really in charge, and they don't see anything being done to improve their lives.

But the danger is far greater than a disappointing experience of democracy, or what now seems to be an inevitable delay in the timetable for the drafting of a new constitution. The relentless bloodletting of the insurgency continues, and most of its victims are Shiites and Kurds. Pressure for reprisals is growing despite the insistence by the Shiite and Kurdish leadership that their people resist the provocation intended by sectarian killing — after all, Sunnis already imagine themselves marginalized by the transition in Iraq, and any sectarian reprisals will only deepen Sunni support for the insurgency. A majority of Iraqis voted for the promise of change, choosing an alliance that promised peace, security, jobs, reconstruction and a timetable for U.S. withdrawal. So far, they're not seeing much progress on any of those fronts. Now the chemistry of post-Saddam Iraq may be growing even more volatile than it was before the vote.