Iraq's Political Impasse: Who Needs a Government?

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Khaled al-Hariri / Reuters

Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, right, welcomes former Iraq's Prime Minister Iyad Allawi before a meeting in Damascus, Syria.

It's not much of a surprise that Iraq's dysfunctional political class still has yet to form a government five months after its election. More of a surprise is that the country hasn't fallen apart as a result of the political stalemate. After all, the five months of foot-dragging by Iraq's politicians after the previous election in 2005 was the prelude to civil war. This time, while Iraq remains a dangerous place and al-Qaeda-inspired militants are active in several cities, levels of violence have remained fairly stable — and far below their 2007 zenith. The fact that the country has held together without a government is even more remarkable considering that the U.S. is keeping to its timeline for troop withdrawals despite the political uncertainty. There will be just 50,000 U.S. troops in Iraq by August, down from more than 165,000 in 2007.

It remains to be seen whether or not the stable security situation will persist as the U.S. presence diminishes. Much of the debate in policy circles has focused on the readiness of Iraq's military to stand on its own. American officials tout the improved efficacy of Iraqi security forces, and their ability to plan and stage combat operations without U.S. assistance. Critics point out that while the White House has declared that all U.S. combat troops will be gone by August, American forces still run combat operations in dangerous cities such as Mosul, though the military calls them "stability" operations, and will probably continue to do so for some time.

But the debate about Iraq's military capacity may be beside the point. A major reason for the country's stability despite the political limbo is that the political class still sees more to be gained from playing the democratic political game than by returning to the streets. For now, they may have little choice: Iraq's political leadership, many of whom had lived in exile in the Saddam Hussein era, achieved their current positions on the basis of the democratic elections staged by the U.S. after it toppled the dictatorship. As a result, they have to at least appear to respect the wishes of the voters, and Iraq's voters voted overwhelmingly for secular, multi-sectarian coalitions that ran on platforms committed to national unity and the rule of law.

Still, the way the stalemate over a new government has played out certainly raises questions over the extent of commitment among Iraq's political leaders to peace and democracy. The two biggest vote-winning coalitions — former Prime Minster Ayad Allawi's Iraqyya list, which won 91 seats in the 325-seat Council of Representatives, and incumbent Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's State of Law coalition, which won 89 — have almost identical platforms calling for a strong central state. Though each has a different sectarian hue — Iraqya's support base is more strongly Sunni, while State of Law is more strongly Shi'ite — both are moderate enough and sufficiently non-sectarian that they could join forces tomorrow to create a governing majority that ought to please most of their supporters. Allawi and Maliki, in fact, met on Tuesday to discuss such a prospect. But once again, the discussion remained deadlocked, because both men want to be prime minister, and neither is ready to compromise for the good of the country.

Instead, Maliki and Allawi are playing factional politics, negotiating with avowedly sectarian or ethnically oriented groups in search of a majority coalition. Maliki has united with the conservative Islamist Shi'ite parties that favor more autonomy for Shi'ite majority southern Iraq, though he still doesn't have enough votes to form a government because radical cleric Muqtada al Sadr, who controls the largest faction within the Shi'ite coalition, refuses to accept Maliki staying on as prime minister. For his part, Allawi is flirting not only with Sadr (on Monday, the two men met in Damascus and called for Maliki to step aside) but also the Kurds. This is surprising because Allawi and the Kurds were major rivals during the election and remain ideological opposites. (Allawi favors centralization in Baghdad, while the Kurds want more autonomy for Kurdish northern Iraq.)

Nevertheless, earlier this month, Allawi met with Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani and announced the need for a sort of national unity government that would include a broad array of parties, no doubt including the Kurds.

In the end, some form of national-unity government will likely emerge. The stakes are too high, and the opportunities for self-enrichment and patronage too tempting, for the various minority factions to resist backing major players with whom they have nothing in common. The U.S. and the international community would likely welcome such a development, relieved that Iraq at least has a government. But such an administration would once again be divided into the kind of ethnic and sectarian fiefdoms against which the majority of Iraqis voted. And it would find itself hamstrung, once again, when it tries to tackle intractable constitutional and financial differences on issues such as federalism and oil revenues. Either Allawi and Maliki could yet blink and allow the other to become prime minister in exchange for control of a generous slice of control over other ministries. But given the tendencies exhibited by both men in the last five months — egotistical at best, authoritarian at worst — it probably wouldn't be long before the backstabbing begins, literally.