It took more than nine weeks, fiery haggling and backroom deals for Iraq’s politicians to compose a new government.
The president is Kurdish warlord Jalal Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, who enjoys close ties with both Washington and Tehran. The two vice presidents are: Adel Abdel Mahdi of the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), a senior Shi’ite leader of the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution (SCIRI) in Iraq and the interim finance minister, and a former Maoist turned free-marketer who last December promised in Washington to privatize the Iraqi oil industry; and the previous president, Ghazi al-Yawer, a former exile and influential Sunni sheikh of the Sammar tribe. Talabani is finally set to appoint Da’wa Party senior leader Ibrahim Jaafari of the UIA as prime minister.
It’s about time. Iraqis have grown increasingly exasperated with the political haggling since the elections on January 30 – on the lines of “how could we have elected those people?” It got so bad that the four grand ayatollahs in the now de facto shadow capital Najaf were about to call a massive street protest to bring the politicians to their senses. This was compounded by the fact that many Iraqis repudiate political life reduced to religious sectarianism, a legacy of the United States’ Coalition Provisional Authority, which imposed the current institutional arrangement.
It’s emerging that the real meaty matters in Iraq – federalism, who gets oil-rich Kirkuk, and, crucially, what happens to the oil industry overall – will be settled by the constituent assembly. But two developments are ominous. The attribution of ministries for the “new” government once again will be sectarian. And every faction will remain armed to their teeth. The Kurds keep their independent peshmerga militia, and financed by Baghdad. The SCIRI keeps its Badr Brigades. The Da’wa Party also keeps its own militia. None of these will answer to Baghdad – which mobilizes its own, US-trained Iraqi security forces. Cynically, one might add that outside the political process, the Sunni resistance will also keep its thousands of fighters.
It’s too soon to perceive the substantial details of the Shi’ite-Kurd deal – between them they hold more than two-thirds of the 275 seats in parliament. But what’s happened since January 30 is definitely not a good omen.
Among the 275 parliamentary players involved in the nine-week political football, there were only 17 Sunni Arabs, as the majority of Sunni Arabs boycotted the elections. Clearly, these Sunnis are unlikely to be representative of the Sunni Arabs, who make up 20% of the population. The crucial Sunni Arab grievance is that because they are a demographic minority – although nobody really knows for sure, there is no census and there may be more Sunni Arabs than Kurds – this does not mean they have to accept their political marginalization as a fait accompli. The fact that Sunni Arabs involved in the political process are viewed by many Sunni Arabs as illegitimate explains why former president Yawer didn’t want to become parliamentary Speaker.
Indeed, the manner in which the new Sunni Arab parliament Speaker, Hajim al-Hasani, was picked upset the Sunnis. Of the 17 Sunnis in parliament, three contested the elections on the UIA list – so they were unacceptable to the Sunnis themselves. Of the remaining 14, 12 were parliamentarians under Saddam Hussein or had some kind of Ba’athist credentials, so they were unacceptable to the Shi’ites and the Kurds.
So there were only two Sunnis with standing: Yawer and Hasani. Both are non-Ba’athist former exiles. Hasani, a native of Kirkuk and a former member of the Iraqi Islamic Party, a successor of the Iraqi Muslim Brotherhood, studied and lived for years in the US. And that goes to the heart of why he was not the Sunni first choice for Speaker: he had been an exile for too long; and to make matters worse, during the leveling of Fallujah – when he was one of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s ministers – he refused to resign, unlike the leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party, Muhsin Abdul Hamid (the party later expelled Hasani).
So why was he elected Speaker? Because he’s one of only two Sunnis who did not contest the elections for the UIA who is acceptable to the Shi’ites; the other, Yawer, wisely refused the hot potato.
The ramifications are ominous. Shi’ites understandably would be resentful of any Sunnis who were connected to the Ba’ath Party. Yet Iraqis know that during Saddam’s era this was the only way to get things done, and in many cases survive with some dignity. To make matters worse, the new deputy Speaker, Hussein Shahristani, an engineer very close to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has labeled 12 of the 17 Sunni parliamentarians as Ba’athists. So the Shi’ites are caught in a see-saw of wanting Sunni Arabs to become involved in the political process – with the objective of weakening the guerrilla war – just as they are falling over themselves to alienate them.
Most Sunni Arabs can be expected to view the story as one of falling from total control of government and society in Iraq to the point of being represented in a dodgy parliament by a former exile with negligible local support and connections and who was discarded by his own political party. To compound the climate of untrustworthiness, the Kurds suspect Hasani of being a fundamentalist Sunni Arab from Kirkuk.
If the Sunni Arabs inside the political process are not recognized as legitimate, the ones who are remain outside the process: the Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS), under its leader Harith al-Dari, and what we have described as the Sinn Fein strand of the Sunni Arab resistance. The minority secular Sunni Arabs, inside the political process, are concerned that the AMS may be configuring itself as a religious, pro-resistance Sunni counterpower: they fear this would represent a certified Lebanonization of Iraq. But the fact is the AMS has been cleverly filling a Sunni political vacuum: it has even admitted publicly it would condemn the resistance in Islamic terms, as long as the new Iraqi government came up with a definitive timetable for a complete US military withdrawal. You can’t get more popular than that in Iraq. The AMS already makes a clear distinction between “noble” guerrillas – who attack the occupying forces – and the murderers who attack Iraqi civilians.
The big question now is how the Shi’ites and Kurds will deal with marginalized Sunni Arabs – paying close attention to their political grievances or clobbering them with peshmergas, Badr Brigades and Iraqi security forces. It’s politics or civil war.