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Iraq: National Unity Government Or Return To Sectarianism?

By Juan Cole

29 March, 2010

Patrick Martin of the Toronto Globe and Mail gets the diction right when he says that Iyad Allawi's list won a thin plurality. The official results of the March 7 Iraqi parliamentary elections have been announced by the Independent High Electoral Commission. Of 325 seats, 91 went to the National Iraqi List ("Iraqiya") of former interim prime minister Iyad Allawi. The State of Law grouping of incumbent Nuri al-Maliki came in at 89. The Shiite fundamentalist coalition, the Iraqi National Alliance, which includes the followers of clerics Ammar al-Hakim and Muqtada al-Sadr, garnered 70 seats. The Kurdistan Alliance won only 43 seats.

That leaves 33 seats in the hands of smaller parties, many of them wild cards.

Shortly before the results were announced, two large bomb blasts in Khalis, in Diyala Province northeast of Baghdad, killed 53 persons. Diyala is still the site of violent struggle between Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.

Most Sunni Arabs in Iraq have moved on from the violence and fundamentalism of groups such as the 'Islamic State of Iraq,' and most voted for the Allawi list as a way of reentering national politics.

Despite some breathless headlines, the outcome of the elections is not very different from previous elections. Allawi put together a coalition of Sunni Arabs and secular Shiites. In the December, 2005, parliamentary elections, those two groups received about 80 seats, only 11 less than Allawi's just list won. If the two major Shiite religious lists (State of Law and Iraqi National Alliance) had run on the same ticket, they would have nearly a majority, about what they won in December, 2005. The Kurdistan Alliance only has 43 seats, down from 54 in the last parliamentary election, but the overall number of Kurdish Members of Parliament is not so different from that in the last polls.

In spring-summer of 2006, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki put together a government of national unity, with the help of the US ambassador. It included Sadrists and Allawi's Iraqiya. But it gradually fell apart. This election is an opportunity for al-Maliki to attempt to repeat that feat. Indeed, a national unity government may be the first preference of the Iraqi National Alliance, which has, according to al-Sharq al-Awsat, swung into action to convince the other major lists that such a path is the only right one for Iraq at this juncture.

Although Allawi's list won the most seats, he is very unlikely to be the next prime minister. Al-Maliki's State of Law list is anti-Baathist and hasn't gotten on well with Sunni Arabs, while ex-Baathists and Sunnis are the backbone of Allawi's constituency. Likewise, the Shiite religious party, made up of Sadrists and members of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), among others, are unlikely to ally with secularist ex-Baathists. Allawi says that he is dialoguing with the parties led by Hakim and Sadr, as well as with the Kurds. But Allawi rejects a role in politics for Shiite clerics, which would make for an uneasy alliance with lists headed by clerics. Without the two big Shiite blocs, Allawi could only become prime minister by attracting the Kurdistan Alliance and all of the smaller parties and independents. Keeping such a disparate coalition together would be difficult in the extreme. Allawi is supported by Sunni Arabs who have sharp differences with the Kurds over the future of the mixed province of Kirkuk, which the Kurds covet. Allawi may therefore have a plurality that is incapable of growing into a majority.

It is also true that al-Maliki is deeply disliked by Muqtada al-Sadr and the Sadrists because he used the Iraqi Army to crush their Mahdi Army militia in Basra and East Baghdad in spring-summer of 2008. His party, however, the 'State of Law,' groups Shiite religious parties such as his own Islamic Mission Party (Da'wa), and the natural ally of Da'wa is the Sadrists and ISCI. Still, as Sadrist and ISCI officials admitted on Wednesday, their parties are natural allies with the State of Law. The easiest way to form a new government would be to dump al-Maliki and choose another leader of Da`wa as prime minister. The State of Law and the Iraqi National Alliance can form a coalition of 159 at a time when only 163 is needed for a majority. By picking up just 4 independents, these two could form a strong, stable government. Al-Maliki has gathered a lot of power into his hands, however, and unseating him may prove difficult and time-consuming. In the end, the Iraqi National Alliance may decide that he is their best bet for dominating Iraq in the near to medium term.

Al-Maliki said Friday that he rejects the announced outcome and demands a manual recount of the ballots. He had earlier warned of "violence" if the votes were not recounted. The reason for his adamant stance is that if he could nose ahead of Allawi by even a single vote, he seems to feel that he would have more of a mandate to remain prime minister. The Iraqi constitution stipulates that the president ask the head of the largest single party or coalition to attempt to form the government. As it now stands, al-Maliki will not be asked, while Allawi could be.

One possibility is for his State of Law to form a coalition with the Iraqi National Alliance [Hakim and Sadr] while easing al-Maliki out in favor of some candidate more acceptable to both. Iraqi courts have ruled that post-election coalitions will be counted as legitimate for the purpose of installing a government. The Shiites are thus still in a position to remain dominant, though if they remain divided then Allawi could pick up the pieces. A Shiite electoral alliance accompanied by the elegance of the numbers would detract from the quality of life.

It seems unlikely that anyone can become prime minister without the Sadr Bloc, now the majority component inside the Iraqi National Alliance. Sadr may well demand as a quid pro quo for joining any Iraqi government that the new PM pledge to accelerate the timetable for US troop withdrawal from Iraq, and also promise to end that troop presence altogether.

The difficult road ahead is indicated by the recent denunciation of al-Maliki by both Muqtada al-Sadr and Ammar al-Hakim for his initial warning that "violence" might break out if the ballots are not recounted. Muqtada called the implied threat of violence "political terrorism," thus ironically turning the tables on al-Maliki, who had hunted down Sadr-linked Mahdi Army commanders on the grounds that they were terrorists.

The big question now in Iraqi politics is whether the new government will look like the sectarian Shiite coalition with the Kurds in 2005, or more like the national unity government forged in summer, 2006. Each proved unstable in its own way, it should be remembered, so neither is a guarantor of a good outcome for these elections. The other question is how many concessions smaller parties can wring from the majority in order to form a government. It seems to me that if the Sadrists demand with sufficient vigor, they should be able to get a faster US troop withdrawal. Their platform since 2003 has been the removal of the American military from Iraq. They may finally be in a position to effect via the ballot box what they could not by their armed paramilitary, the Mahdi Army.



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