By Sami Moubayed
DAMASCUS – Iraq recently broke a world record though its government vacuum, which has lasted since March, beating the Netherlands that stayed with no government for 208 days in 1977. The closest thing the Middle East had to such a record was Lebanon, which survived with no president from November 2007 to May 2008.
The record – damning as it is – speaks volumes about how difficult and potentially explosive the situation is in Iraq, seven months after the world hailed its parliamentary elections as a beacon for democracy in the region.
On Friday, optimists wrote about signs of hope coming from Baghdad, as the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), which includes heavyweights like Ammar al-Hakim, Ibrahim al-Jaafari and Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, decided to put their collective weight behind incumbent Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. The INA, however, commands no more than 70 out of 325 seats in the Iraqi parliament. Even if Maliki’s 89 deputies teamed up with the INA’s 70, they would still be four votes short of securing a 163-seat majority to make him prime minister.
The tipping balance, therefore, lies among Sunnis and Kurds, who control 57 seats. They can make or break the political ambitions of either Maliki or his prime rival and predecessor Iyad Allawi, who controls 91 seats.
Convincing the Sunnis, who have backed Allawi since March, to support Maliki will not be easy given the amount of bad blood between them and the prime minister. From experience, they don’t trust Maliki, who promised to fulfill many of their demands in return for supporting him back in 2006 and backed out on almost every one of his pledges.
Their representation was never expanded within the Iraqi government, no amnesty was granted to set thousands of Sunnis free from jails, and no steps were taken vis-a-vis reconciliation with the Ba’athists.
When the Sunnis walked out on the Maliki cabinet in the summer of 2007, he did not lift a finger to appease them and keep them onboard. Maliki continued to crack down on the Awakening Councils, a group of armed Sunni tribesmen established in 2007 to combat al-Qaeda, and meanwhile did nothing about armed Shi’ite militias roaming the streets of Baghdad.
To say “yes” to Maliki, Sunnis would need guarantees that malpractices of the past four years will not be repeated by the prime minister. That guarantee has to come through trustworthy states like Saudi Arabia and Syria, which on Tuesday, hosted Hakim of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC).
Additionally, the INA is not united in its decision to back Maliki for the premiership. This is clear from the statements of prime-ministerial hopefuls like Adel Abdul Mehdi, who said on Sunday, “Up till now, we haven’t seen anything that would make us change our decision not to support him.”
Abdul Mehdi, who was the INA’s candidate for the job of prime minister last March, blasted Maliki for “mobilization of power, bad governance, and no vision.” As for the Kurds, they have said that they won’t join or endorse a cabinet that doesn’t include Allawi’s Iraqi National List and the SIIC.
An approval from top figures in the INA, therefore, does not guarantee a smooth landing for the prime minister, despite all that has been written and speculated in the international media since Friday.
A few days ago, US Vice President Joseph Biden called on all major players in Iraq to uphold “a process, not a specific candidate or outcome” that results in an “inclusive government.” The US, however, is clearly unwilling to immerse itself at a micro-level in Iraq, as was done during the George W. Bush years, to support one candidate against the others. It has left day-to-day politics in Iraq to the Iraqis themselves and heavyweights in the region like Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran.
In September, it was “rumored” in Iraq that a “secret understanding” had been reached between the US and Iran over maintaining Maliki. Iran has apparently forgiven Maliki, after a prolonged grudge, for having gone astray and nominated himself on an independent list away from his traditional allies in the INA last March.
Everybody in the neighborhood feels that the cabinet crisis in Iraq has gone too far and now threatens to bring violence within Iraq, as well as export it to neighboring countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Syria.
July and August were among the worst months of violence in Iraq since 2008. In as much as the US would have loved to see the secular Allawi replace Maliki, it realizes that due to political dynamics within Iraq, this is becoming close to impossible. Heavyweight Shi’ite players will simply never endorse him, regardless of how many seats he commands in parliament.
Perhaps the best possible solution would be for all parties concerned to rule out the option of bringing either Maliki or Allawi to office and concentrate instead on other players who are acceptable to Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds.
In theory, neither Saudi Arabia nor Iran is 100% committed to either Maliki or Allawi. Iran is very keen however, on not making Allawi premier in as much as Saudi Arabia insists that it will not tolerate another four years of Maliki, who it sees as a sectarian politician who greatly harmed the interests of Sunnis.
This is where Syria’s say comes into play, given its excellent relations with Sunnis and Shi’ites, creating a balance that neither Saudi Arabia nor Iran enjoy. Syria has the ear of Hakim and Muqtada of the INA and also is very influential with Allawi and Sunnis.
All of these players – the Syrians, Iranians and the Saudis, as well as Iraqi Sunnis, Kurds and Shi’ites – need to be part of the deal that ends the cabinet vacuum in Iraq. Thinking that the approval of one party, like Muqtada’s, is enough to maintain Maliki as premier would be to nurse an optimistic illusion. Simply put: politics are not that clear cut in Iraq. Parliamentary majorities and numbers amount to little in such a complex game.
Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria