New Iraq government will struggle

The Iraqi government’s patchwork alliance may struggle to survive

On Tuesday, Iraq just about managed to form a government – only days before a constitutional deadline, and nine months since the elections took place. With the cabinet now named and accepted by parliament, the hard work starts for a country that still has many challenges and disputes to overcome.

High on the agenda for the Iraqi government and the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, (who will run the ministries of interior and defence himself until accepted candidates are found) will be to consolidate the security gains of the past three years. In tandem with this will be the usual efforts to improve basic services and infrastructure. Yet, all this depends on the ability of this new government to actually function.

Whether it can function is by no means certain. The government is composed of unlikely political and ideological bedfellows and is the product of desperate power-seeking efforts among easily compromised domestic elements.

The difference this time is the all-inclusiveness of the government. Iraq’s Sunni Arabs are now better represented, with the Sunni-dominated Iraqi National movement (INM) of Ayad Allawi taking the parliamentary speaker’s post, the deputy premiership and the all-important finance ministry, among others.

The Kurds and the major Shia-dominated groups, including Maliki’s State of Law coalition and the Sadrists, took a collection of sovereign and service ministries. While this means Iraq has a truly national government, what it will achieve in terms of policy and direction is not so great, given that it has been formed on the basis of promises and compromises that may be reneged on or delayed at the very least.

Lasting peace and stability depends on resolving outstanding disputes with the Kurds on oil, revenue-sharing, security and the disputed territories (Kirkuk in particular). The Kurds, rather than exploiting their kingmaker position to take a stronger proportion of ministries in Baghdad (they are taking just one major portfolio – the foreign ministry), are instead banking on guarantees from Maliki to implement their list of 19 demands that includes resolving the above disputes in their favour.

They may have been naive, though. With their historical and federalist partners, the Islamic supreme council of Iraq in decline, the Kurds may be isolated in the new government – a government dominated by the nationalistic and centrist characteristics of the INM, the Sadrists and indeed State of Law.

Maliki may, therefore, turn out to be unable to grant concessions even if he wanted to and could use Osama Nujayfi, the new ultra-nationalist speaker of parliament and Kurdish foe, to absorb the Kurdish criticism and insulate himself from any attacks.

Then comes the role of Iraq’s empowered Sunni representatives, the INM. Their complaints have centred on under-representation and what they called the dominance of the Iranian-backed Shia. Whether they intend to play a positive or obstructive role in government will depend on the extent to which their own agenda has changed.

It is a question of whether they still harbour suspicions towards Maliki and contest his legitimacy (in which case they will seek to utilise their newfound power to undermine him and the country) or, alternatively, whether they are now seriously committed to bridging the sectarian divide and steering Iraq away from instability.

Similarly, Iraq’s ruling Shia groups must also prove that they are committed to the process of reconciliation and peaceful politics.

Eyes will be particularly fixed on the Sadrist bloc, which won nearly 40 seats in the elections, to see if they have given up on violent politics. The Sadrists walked out on Maliki’s first government in 2007 and only joined his current one at the behest of Iran. For now, their control of the service ministries (housing, public works, labour and planning) will be utilised to strengthen their grassroots base.

As it stands, the new government has been determined on the basis of appeasement rather than accountability, efficiency and effectiveness, bearing in mind that this was the country’s first chance to have a serious opposition, in the form of the INM, that could hold the government to account.

At worst, the power-sharing arrangement will lead to fragmentation or, at best, stagnation. The internal strife has already started, with the Kurds rejecting official and media reports that suggest Hussain al-Shahristani, the former oil minister who has been at loggerheads with the Kurds over energy contracts, will retain his influence over the energy sector in his capacity as deputy premier.

What will also be a point of contention are the powers of the new National Council of Strategic Policies, headed by Allawi subject to it being granted its powers by parliament. Granting the council powers that restrict those of the prime minister will satisfy and placate Allawi. Restricting it to a mere advisory role may provoke a rebellion, albeit a weak one given that the INM is divided and Allawi’s powerful colleagues like Salah al-Mutlaq (deputy prime minister) and Nujayfi are now unlikely to follow suit.

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