Why Iraq deal could fall apart

The US, Iran and Iraq’s Arab neighbours were all involved in the making of the fragile deal for a power-sharing government eight months after Iraqis elected a new parliament. Under the deal, the 325 member national assembly elected Usama al-Nujaifi, a Sunni, as speaker; President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, was given a second term; and he called on incumbent Premier Nuri al-Maliki, a Shia, to form a government.

But there are many reasons why the deal could fall apart.  The first is deep mistrust of Maliki. When parliament met 12 hours after the arrangement had been concluded, members of Iraqiya, the largest faction, stormed out of the chamber, proclaiming that its partners had broken the deal by not promptly seating three Iraqiya deputies banned due to alleged ties to the outlawed Baath party.

While Iraqiya lawmakers attended the session on Nov 13 after they were assured the ban would be lifted, the bloc is divided. Its head, Ayad Allawi, a former post-war premier, announced that the deal is ‘dead’ although a majority of Iraqiya deputies disagree. They could change their minds if Maliki does not deliver on the deal. Allawi has been promised the chairmanship of a national security council but if it is not vested with powers to oversee the armed forces and police, he and his followers could either boycott the assembly or go into opposition.

Insurgency option

Without the participation of Iraqiya, the new regime would be a continuation of the 2006 Shia-Kurdish partnership which marginalised Arab Sunnis, secular Iraqis, Christians and others who voted for Iraqiya. If sidelined once again, Sunnis could join al-Qaeda or resume the nationalist insurgency.

Aware of this threat to the stability of the country, all the external powers, including Iran pressed the squabbling Iraqi politicians to reach an ‘inclusive’ deal incorporating Iraqiya.     

Nevertheless, Maliki is unlikely to cede his monopoly over the security forces to Allawi, his main rival for the premiership, who will not be satisfied with a post empty of authority. Maliki, a Shia sectarian closely tied to Tehran, is not really ready to empower Sunnis, secularists,  former Baathists and others who do not subscribe to the ethno-sectarian system imposed on Iraq by the Bush administration.

Maliki took on risky allies to secure a second term. First, Iran compelled anti-US Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to form the alliance with Maliki that gave him the seats he needed to form a government. Sadr, however, deeply dislikes Maliki who in 2008 ordered US and Iraqi forces to crush the Sadrist militia which held sway in the south and in Shia areas of Baghdad.

Second, Maliki turned to the Kurdish bloc which laid down 19 conditions for backing him.  The Kurds want a referendum in oil-rich Kirkuk and adjoining provinces to determine if a majority of the residents want to join the Kurdish autonomous region. Arab and Turkomen inhabitants of the areas the Kurds claim threaten civil war if Baghdad accepts this demand. The Kurds also want control over their region’s oil resources which most Iraqis insist must be controlled by Baghdad.

The external powers that pressured the Iraqis to make the deal are also destabilising because they are working at cross purposes. The Obama administration, which intends to pull out US forces by the end of next year, wants the new Iraqi government to be inclusive and an expression of national unity rather than a regime run by Shia sectarian and Kurdish separatist parties. However, the administration, desperate to depart from Iraq, is prepared to accept any sort of government as long as it hangs onto power long enough for the US to declare victory and leave.

Iran seeks to maintain the considerable influence it has acquired in Baghdad since the fall of the Baath party and to transform Iraq into the world’s second Shia power. This would boost Iran’s standing in the region and the Muslim world at the expense of the US and the West. Since Iraq has the world’s second largest oil resources, Iran stands to gain leverage over western powers that depend on West Asian oil and gas for energy. This will make it more difficult for them to impose sanctions on Tehran to compel it to halt its nuclear programme.

Iraq’s Sunni neighbours — Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Syria and Jordan — which supported Allawi’s bid for the premiership in the vain hope that he would be able to re-establish a secular, nationalist regime in Iraq, see US influence waning, oppose the Iranian project and are wary of Maliki and the Kurds.

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