Balancing the ethno-social political triangle in Iraq

Four months after the much anticipated national elections in Iraq that was hoped to foster the first all encompassing government in Baghdad, Iraqi politicians continue to jockey, debate and pursue tense negotiations with view to assembling the required majority to form government. Giving the Iraqi track record, a lengthy period of government forming is hardly surprising. However, the process was exasperated with contentious delays to the election itself, controversy over banned politicians on eve of political campaigning and then bitter disputes over the final election results.

In many ways, Iraq has made a lot of progress since the previous elections marred by Sunni boycotting, not least on the security and sectarian front. However, as the democratic process has become stalled in recent weeks, this has afforded a chance for insurgents to relay the road of instability and sectarianism. 

The critical government forming process has been giving added bite with the expected withdrawal of U.S. combat forces by the end of August. While the departing of foreign forces may have been a welcome sight for many Iraqis, the presence and influence of the U.S. all too often masked political and security cracks, and this has now become more evident than ever.

At critical times over the past several years Washington has used its substantial sway on Iraqi politics to ensure the Iraqi democratic bandwagon rolled on. Stability and success in Iraq shortly after the nightmare that ensued post-2003 became an American obsession. After all, in such an aftermath, anything short of peace, relative democracy and stability in Iraq would have catastrophic consequences, especially with neighbouring predators already circling with intent.

U.S. military presence will drop significantly from a peak of 170,000 just a few years ago. While the sheer U.S. military expenditure and involvement in Iraq may have been taken for granted in recent years, as the democratic journey continues to remain frail, the readiness, loyalty and impartiality of Iraqi security forces will be put to a firm test.

Government shaping has been further complicated with the lack of a clear winner at the polls. Although Ayad Allawi’s al-Iraqiya group won the most seats, it was marginally ahead of incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition, and debate continues to rage on the party that has the legal jurisdiction to attempt to form government. Although Maliki did not win, he strengthened his claim to form government with an alliance with the religious based Shiite Iraqi National Alliance, meaning that his party was only seats away from attaining the majority needed to form a new government.

The Kurds, who continue to hold a key card in the formation of the new government, have taken their time over the selection of any alliance this time and aim to seek written guarantees on nationalistic issues before committing to bring another power in Baghdad. The natural and preferred alliance of the Kurds will be to work once more with their Shiite counterparts. However, persistent foot dragging on key Kurdish interests by Maliki put doubt in the minds of many a Kurd, especially as Maliki’s dominance and political standing solidified. However, the predominantly Sunni umbrella of Allawi is hardy the tonic that weary Kurds seek either. Al-Iraqiya was direct in competition to the Kurds in the tense oil-rich province of Kirkuk and has often voiced its intent against Kurdish attempts to annex disputed territories.

If Kurds do join the mainly Shiite coalition of Maliki, there is a danger that they may not receive their first choice government posts, as may have been the case a few years ago. However, more critically a Kurdish-Shiite alliance without the key Sunni parties and the ultimate victor of the polls, Allawi, will sow a new chapter of democracy in Iraq on shaky foundations.  After all, it was the sidelining of Sunni’s after their decades of near dominance that triggered Iraq to the brink of civil war. For years Baghdad and particularly the U.S. have sought to appease Sunni’s and bring nation reconciliation in Iraq.

While in theory US Vice President Joe Biden’s comments this week that Iraqi politics was “not a lot different” from other countries, may speak true on the surface. Unlike some other countries, democracy in Iraq produces brittle results. This is owed to the ethnic and sectarian disparity of Iraq. Regardless of election results, Kurds, Sunni or Shiites will still demand power in government. The ‘triangle’ can not always be massaged based on election results. Shiites will always form a majority in Iraq and Sunni’s will always refuse to succumb to all-out Shiite dominance, especially with the proviso of a strong Tehran hand in Baghdad. At the same time, Kurd will never submit to Arab dominance and influence, due to their autonomous existence, history and national interests.

This means that key posts must be divided carefully regardless of the election outcome. The sidelining of any major group will only spell trouble.  The elections themselves are generally formulaic, Kurds will always vote for Kurds, Shiites for Shiites and so on, even if the elections this time around swayed from a sectarian underpinning compared to before.

The triangle became more interesting in recent weeks with the thawing of relations between Allawi and Maliki, raising the prospect of what seemed an unlikely political marriage. A coalition of such proportions may seem a dramatic gain for democracy but this may also mean that key positions such as President and Prime Minister will go to Shiites. Furthermore, this has raised anxiety in Kurdistan that they lose political sway and key posts in Iraq to Arab coalitions.

The US has largely stayed out of the political manoeuvring this time around. However, Biden’s visit was a clear indicator that Washington is getting itchy feet. While their forces may withdraw, their high stakes in Iraq will not dwindle. Stability and prosperity in Iraq has become a keynote health gauge of the Middle East.

As for the political process itself, it is still better to endure more months of protracted progress and frustrations in hope of genuine gains, than short-term achievements under US pressure as witnessed too often, that may lead to shaky coalitions and more fundamental Iraqi issues been swept under the political rug.

It is these real issues such as oil sharing, broadly represented security forces, federalism and resolving of disputed territories that often become sidelined for the sake of progress on the surface. Any new government must make firm commitments to these aforementioned principles and critically to the implementation of the constitution that is after all meant to be the blueprint of the democratic existence in Iraq.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Peyamner, Various Misc.

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