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Keeping Baghdad Stable

Richard Weitz

Friday’s bombings in Iraq are another warning that the country faces an uncertain future. The terrorists aim to disrupt U.S. military’s withdrawal plans, as well as exploit the lengthy coalition-formation process in the Iraqi government. It could be months before opposition leader Ayad Allawi, incumbent Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki or someone else forms Iraq’s next government. Nonetheless, the results of the country’s March 7 parliamentary elections have already answered some questions even if they have left others unresolved.

The figures released on March 27 by Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission confirm Iraq’s status as a functioning democracy in which multiple candidates and political parties compete for office in accord with international standards for free-and-fair elections whose outcome cannot be predicted in advance. Neither incumbency, tribal loyalty nor sectarian affiliation determined the results. The inability of a single party to receive a majority of the 325 seats-Allawi’s won the most with 91 seats-reflects the pluralistic nature of contemporary Iraqi society. Domestic and international observers, including the United Nations and the U.S. Embassy, found no evidence of pervasive serious fraud that might have substantially affected the outcome.

If Allawi becomes Iraq’s next prime minister, the country will become one of the few in the Middle East to have replaced its leader and ruling party through peaceful national elections. If Maliki remains in power or if someone besides the two current front runners heads the next government, Iraq will still have had its most democratic election in history.

In an acknowledgement of the country’s emerging democratic polity, the U.S. government has confirmed its plans to withdrawal a number of the remaining 95,000 American soldiers in Iraq. In marking the elections, President Barack Obama repeated his vow to remove all U.S. “combat” troops from Iraq by the end of this August. After that, only some 50,000 American soldiers will remain for another 18 months to serve as trainers and advisers. Both U.S. and Iraqi officials have indicated that they are prepared to increase American military operations in Iraq should violence increase, as it did after the 2005 poll, but American diplomats are vigorously lobbying Iraqi politicians to engage solely in peaceful political activities.

Even though it has started to sort out our military presence, the Obama administration has yet to specify what role Iraq will play in its future Middle East policies. Shortly before leaving office, the Bush administration signed a strategic-cooperation agreement with the Iraqi government that emphasized continuing political, economic, energy and cultural ties. Obama administration officials have not determined how to implement this agreement, simply releasing a statement on March 27 that, “The United States will continue to work closely with all Iraqi leaders to build a long-term, multi-dimensional relationship between our two nations.”

Iraq’s own foreign-policy remains unclear as well. The elections saw a disturbing pattern of internal-external alignments in the country. Exploiting the absence of a law restricting foreign financing of political groups, Iranians provided considerable support for Shiite-dominated parties, while their more secular opponents received substantial assistance from Sunni sources in the Persian Gulf. Allawi, whose backers include a large number of Sunnis alienated from Maliki’s government, has expressed interest in strengthening Iraq’s relations with other Arab governments whose ties are also strained with Maliki’s government, which was perceived as too close to Iran. Tehran recently hosted a meeting of all the major political parties except for Allawi’s secularist Iraqiya bloc in a transparent effort to exclude him from power.

Perhaps the key uncertainty is which individuals will occupy the key posts of prime minister, president and minister of interior. Since Iraq’s political parties are still weak, the personalities involved will matter more than their nominal political affiliation. Whatever the winning candidates said or did during the election campaign also matters little, since they are now free to form new coalitions and allegiances as they proceed to chose a new government.

Prime Minister Maliki’s role in all this is ambiguous. Will he heed his own election-day injunction for “all politicians to accept the results,” as “he who wins today may lose tomorrow and he who loses today may win tomorrow”? The prime minister and some of the leaders of his State of Law coalition have demanded manual recounts and the further exclusion of elected opposition figures for their alleged links to Saddam’s previously ruling, but now outlawed, Baath Party. Maliki’s vague references to his responsibilities as commander in chief unhelpfully implied some kind of martial law or other emergency measures justified on the need to maintain internal security. Iraq’s delicate ethnic and sectarian harmony might not survive a military coup.

Fortunately, the prime minister has thus far pursued his challenges in the media and the courts. Perhaps he was chastised by the observation of Amar al-Hakim, leader of the Shite Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq, who disparagingly stated that, “Some people believe in democracy only when it favors them.”

Allawi initially complained about the fraudulent pre-election exclusion of hundreds of his party’s parliamentary candidates by an Accountability and Justice Commission of suspect constitutional legality, but has since simply argued that they would have done even better had they been able to submit an unpurged list of candidates. The “de-Baathification” process might even have boosted Allawi’s totals among angry Sunni voters, though he also received substantial support among other groups who objected to the current government’s policies or performance. In any case, Allawi has now said he is prepared to work with all parties to form a new government.

Analysts can envisage all sorts of possible government coalitions, including a Allawi-Maliki “dual-power” deal in which their two parties agree to rotate cabinet positions among themselves. In these negotiations, a key issue will be the treatment of Iraq’s important religious and ethnic minorities, including the Sunnis but also the Kurds and Turkmen. These groups need to feel that they will have some ensured influence over the policies of the future Iraqi government.

For this reason, the most important attribute of the next and future Iraq governing coalitions is that they include Kurds, Sunnis, and other non-Shiites in more than token roles. Iraq is not Lebanon, where the important government positions are allocated to specific religious and ethnic groups, but it would serve Iraqis well if their leaders informally applied such a distribution principle to strengthen inter-ethnic harmony in the country’s still divided society.

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