More than nine and a half months after Iraqis went to the polls in a credible parliamentary election, Nouri Al Maliki secured confirmation of an “inclusive” government comprised of Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds. However, during the over-long period of gestation, the process of forming the government lost credibility.
Furthermore, the government itself has little credibility because it is comprised of faction figures nominated just 24 hours before Maliki announced his line-up rather than competent technocrats who could solve Iraq’s many urgent problems. Maliki’s cabinet has 42 ministries but he could make firm appointments to only 29 posts because of factional bickering.
Ten portfolios are temporary while Maliki retains the sensitive ministries of defence, interior and national security until agreement can be made on permanent candidates for these ministries. This means the jockeying for position and power continues while Iraqis suffer from insecurity, unemployment, lack of electricity, and inadequate services.
During the process of putting together a cabinet before the Dec.25th deadline, Maliki compelled all factions to jettison their agendas and whatever principles they may have had. This meant they joined the government simply because they wanted to be within the magic ruling circle and to enjoy the privileges and perks connected with cabinet positions. There are no “power-sharing” arrangements and no checks and balances. This means Maliki has concentrated power in his hands.
As the bloc with the largest number of seats in parliament, Iraqiya should have had the first chance to form a government but had to settle for the key appointments and the promise of the chairmanship for bloc leader Ayad Allawi of a yet to be created national security council. The speaker-ship was awarded to Usama Al Nujayfi, an influential Sunni politician from the north and the finance ministry to another Sunni Rafi Al Essawi, a former deputy premier.
The appointment as deputy premier of Iraqiya’s Saleh Al Mutlaq symbolised the return of Sunnis and secularists to government. Mutlaq is a Sunni and former Baathist who was barred last year from participating in political life. Ahead of the presentation of the government, parliament lifted the banning order, a demand set by Iraqiya for participating in the government. However, by joining Maliki’s government where posts are allocated on the basis of ethnicity (Kurdish or Arab) and sect (Shiite, Sunni, and Christian), Iraqiya sacrificed its own raison d’etre as a secular nationalist party eschewing the communal system imposed on Iraq in 2003 by the Bush administration.
Maliki’s own State of Law faction, holds the second largest number of seats, has taken the oil ministry and raised Hussein Al Shahristani, the former incumbent, to deputy premier in charge of energy. The Kurds have secured only one major ministry, foreign, for the former incumbent Hoshayr Zebari.
It is not known whether Maliki signed the Kurds’ list of 19 demands in exchange for their support of his bid to form the government. But since many of these demands have to be accepted by the other parliamentary factions — to which the demands are unacceptable — it is unlikely that the Kurds will get what they want: Kirkuk, control over their oil, increased decentralisation, etc.
The Ahrar faction loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Al Sadr received two middle ranking ministries and expect to secure high offices in the southern provinces. Pressed by Tehran to back Maliki in spite of their deep antagonism towards him, the Sadrists have already expressed dissatisfaction. This could be dangerous because the Sadrist Mahdi Army militia remains strong on the ground in Sadr City in Baghdad and the south.
The three other main Shiite factions, Fadila, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC) led by Amman Al Hakim, and the associated Badr organisation have been marginalised. They, like the Sadrists, could express their dissatisfaction through violence. Reidar Visser, a Norwegian Iraq expert, argues that Maliki is trying “to gradually liberate himself” from the Kurdish and Sadrist “kingmakers” who made possible his second premiership. Visser also suggests that Maliki will follow the strategy he previously adopted with the Kurds: procrastination over their demands.
This could also be risky as the Kurdish autonomous region is upgrading its security forces (peshmerga) into an army with the aim of being in position to impose its demands by force on Arab Iraq. Although on the surface it looks like a partnership of convenience between State of Law and Iraqiya — which hold the major ministries — the new government is all too clearly a vehicle which Maliki expects to drive. Iraqiya, which remains a reluctant ally, could pull out of their unequal arrangement.
Maliki, a dour man who has no charisma and speaks poor Arabic, does not enjoy the support of the Iraqi people. He may have defeated his opponents — Iraqiya and SIIC — and co-opted the Sadrists, but he is not trusted by many Iraqis. His decision to hold onto the security ministries has deepened this mistrust. During his first term, Maliki was accused of being a tough and brutal operator who took the levers of power into his own hands.
As commander in chief of the armed forces, he put officers loyal to him in key positions, took control of provincial headquarters, and secured domination of the intelligence apparatus. He has used the army’s Baghdad Brigade against opponents and has operated secret prisons where Sunnis accused of aiding the insurgency have been held illegally and tortured. He also put his own people into the commissions formed to investigate corruption — which is rampant — and settle property disputes from the Baathist era.
While the US claims to be satisfied with the new government, Iran is more than simply satisfied. Tehran’s man is back in the top job, the ethno-sectarian system of governance which favours Shiites remain in place, and Iraq continues to be dominated by a Shiite from a religious party closely tied to Iran. Maliki is insisting that there can be no delay in the US troop withdrawal due to be completed by the end of 2011.
This means that once the last soldier departs, US influence in Iraq is likely to wane while the influence of Iran, which has developed lucrative trade and tourism arrangements with Iraq, is certain to wax at the expense of Iraq’s Sunni Arab neighbours. They, however, are not prepared to allow Iraq to shift into Iran’s political orbit and can be expected to finance and arm Sunni salafis — including Al Qaeda elements — infiltrating Iraq with the aim of attacking its Shiite-led government, keeping the former solid core country of the Eastern Arab World off-balance and in a state of unrest.