Dark Clouds Gather Over Iraq's Political Stalemate

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Khalid Mohammed / AP

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki

It's no surprise that the process of forming a government after Iraq's March 7 election has proven frustrating and messy. After all, Iraqi politicians don't exactly play well together. The acrimonious five-month delay in forming a government after the last parliamentary election, in 2005, helped lead to a bloody, sectarian civil war. Still, it is surprising that six weeks since the recent election, not only have serious negotiations to form a new government not begun, but there is no consensus on who won the vote.

An Iraqi judge on Monday ordered a partial recount of votes in Baghdad province at the request of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose State of Law coalition came in second when official results were announced on March 27, with just two parliamentary seats fewer than former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's Iraqiya coalition. Fearful that a partial recount would erase Iraqiya's victory, Allawi responded on Tuesday by calling for a broader recount to include areas in the south where his coalition fared poorly. And with Kurdish parties demanding a recount in the northern provinces of Nineveh and Kirkuk, and almost every other party demanding recounts in areas where they hope to pick up votes, the country's beleaguered electoral commission may have to hand-count all the ballots a second time, despite the fact that that international observers have called the country's election generally fair.

But the results of the recount — whatever its final scope — are unlikely to change the basic reality that Iraq's election was very close, and that no one party or bloc can build a governing coalition on its own. The process of cobbling together a coalition would have been hard even had the election gone smoothly; now, with the thin veneer of national unity expressed by the leading candidates during campaign season giving way to accusations of fraud and threats of violence, the prospects for coalition-building have darkened.

The main parties are bitterly divided over the balance of power between Baghdad and the regions, the distribution of the country's oil wealth, and the rights of ethnic and religious minorities. Both al-Maliki's Shi'ite-dominated State of Law and Allawi's Sunni-backed Iraqiya have seemingly intractable differences with the less-popular parties with which they would have to join forces. The Kurdish parties are unhappy that al-Maliki, their former ally, never delivered disputed territory claimed by Kurds in northern Iraq. But they are also suspicious of Allawi, who won strong backing among the Sunni Arab and Turkoman inhabitants of the disputed territories claimed by the Kurdish region. Likewise, the Iraqi National Alliance — an Islamist Shi'ite bloc that includes the followers of fiery cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose bloc of seats makes him a potential kingmaker — has its own grievances with al-Maliki, especially the Prime Minister's use of government troops against al-Sadr's Mahdi Army in Basra in 2008. But Allawi's many Sunni followers are unlikely to stomach an alliance with the Sadrists, whom they accuse of running some of the worst anti-Sunni death squads during the civil war.

Nor does it seem likely that Allawi's Iraqiya and al-Maliki's State of Law coalitions could easily put their differences aside and share power, despite the fact that al-Maliki recently said the next government should contain significant Sunni representation. Iraqiya politicians believe that al-Maliki orchestrated the move by a government de-Baathification committee to ban some 500 parliamentary candidates — most of them Sunni and many of them members of Iraqiya — from running in the election just a few weeks before it took place. And they have long claimed that the Prime Minister has been using a special counterterrorism unit to arrest critics and political opponents. On Monday, Iraqi human-rights officials said they discovered a secret prison run by al-Maliki's military office that contained hundreds of Sunni men who had been routinely tortured and raped by guards. It's beginning to feel like 2005 again in Baghdad.