For the past few days, US media has been full of comment and speculation about the effect that the reduction in the number of American troops might have on future developments in Iraq.
Some commentators speak of a ‘landmark’ event, giving President Barack Obama credit for honouring an agreement signed under his predecessor. The idea is that the president would be able to claim that he was the man who finished a war that his ‘evil’ predecessor started.
The problem, however, is twofold.
First, Obama adulators are uncomfortable with admitting that the massive troop withdrawal was made possible because the new Iraqi army and its US allies have succeeded in defeating Al Qaeda in Iraq.
Secondly, the reduction in the number of troops does not mean an end of US involvement in Iraq. The US will continue to maintain some 50,000 troops, backed by hundreds of warplanes and a full flotilla of battleships in the region. The fact that the remaining units are labelled ‘non-combat’ does not change anything. If and when necessary, that label would be changed to ‘combat units.’
Those who would die rather than admit that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein was a good thing and that Iraq today, though not a bed of roses, is better than it was under the Takritis, also point to the fact that Baghdad politicians have not yet made a deal to form a new government.
One pro-Obama pundit claims that the political impasse in Baghdad shows that Iraqis are not ready for a pluralist system of government based on elections. The subtext here is that, had Saddam Hussein not been removed from power, he would have been able to form a new government in five minutes.
Taking time to form a coalition government, however, is not limited to Iraq. Belgium, which has a history of over a century of democracy, is still without a government after two years of attempts at coalition building and two general elections. Right now, another well-established democracy, Australia, is grappling with the complexities of forming a coalition government.
The last general election in Iraq was just the first step towards a non-sectarian political culture in that country. This was the first time that political rather than sectarian identities were presented as the main criterion for making a choice. Nevertheless, it may take half a dozen more elections before voters fully learn to vote for political programmes rather than sectarian affinities.
Leaving aside the clash of egos, a feature of all political systems, forming a coalition government in Iraq has run into a major difficulty. The main parties capable of forming a coalition feel obliged to negotiate accords over issues for which they have no clear electoral mandate.
Three main issues could be identified.
The first concerns the actual control of the nation’s oil resources and revenues. The issue was not highlighted during the election campaign and none of the main parties offered a clear position on it.
Nevertheless, at least two views could be identified.
One view is that of those who want a strong central government and insist that Iraq’s oil belongs to all of its people and must be exploited on behalf of the whole nation. This means that all decisions regarding oil expiation and exploitation rights, and all related contracts, must be taken in Baghdad.
The second view is that, because new Iraq has a federal structure, decision regarding the oil industry must also be devolved. At present, this means that the autonomous Kurdish government, set up in three northern provinces, should have the right to develop oil resources in the territory it controls.
However, if that principle is accepted other ‘federal’ units could claim that same rights in the future.
The second major issue is the barely hidden agenda of some Shiite parties, backed by Iran, to set up an autonomous federal region in eight southern provinces. Such a unit would include most of ‘useful Iraq’ and more than 70 per cent of he country’s oil reserves. It would leave Baghdad as a large head without a body.
Creating an Arab satellite state has been part of Iran’s strategy since the 7th century AD. The first such state was created as a buffer against the Byzantine Empire. The planned buffer state in southern Iraq would be used against the United States and its regional allies. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which s emerging as the true power in Tehran, has already set up a special unit to ‘ manage relations’ with the putative mini-state in southern Iraq.
The third issue concerns Kirkuk, with most Kurdish parties sold to an openly annexationist posture that regards even Mosul as a future target.
With such high stakes, it is not surprising that coalition talks have taken so long. The parties involved have no mandate from their respective electorates to make any deals on oil, federalism and Kirkuk. This means they are trying to settle crucial issues that must be decided in a future election.
The practical way out of the impasse would be to forma government on the basis of existing realities rather than future conjectures. Iraq today is work in progress, its final shape to be determined through years of necessarily uneven political development. In this work in progress, no party or community is able to impose its views on others. Thus no endurable compromise is likely on any of the three crucial issues under discussion. The best that the parties could do is to dance around the issues, thus delaying the formation of a government even further.
The wisest course would be to set these issues aside for the time being and concentrate on creating a coalition that could work to further improve security and the provision of essential government services. Iraq also needs to renegotiate its international status, notably by seeking a removal of all United Nations sanctions, while preventing neighbouring countries from intervening in its affairs.
It took the United States almost a quarter of a century to fully work out its federal system, and it was not until after the War of Secession in the middle of the 19th century that the full status of individual states and their relationship with the central government in Washington was worked out.
In practical terms, the three issues that have delayed the formation of a coalition in Baghdad are mere abstractions because, even if agreement is achieved, the government, in its present weakness, would not be able to deliver on any of them.
What Iraq needs is a government dealing with here and now. And the sooner the better.