As the Haj holidays end Iraqi politics is expected to shift into high gear with the formation of a new government top of the agenda.
Although all the parties intend to play hardball there are at least three reasons for optimism.
The first is that the numerous parties and groups that contested last month’s general election are coalescing into four big blocs, reversing a tendency towards fragmentation caused by personal and sectarian agendas.
As usual in post-liberation Iraq the Kurds have taken the lead in that direction by announcing an “irrevocable merger” of the two rival administrations they had set up in Suleymaniah and Erbil since 1991. Those familiar with Kurdish politics would know how important that development is for Iraq as a whole. The two rival administrations represented two political parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iraq (KDPI) that had a history of four decades of mutual suspicion and enmity before the 2003 liberation. The PUK and the KDPI had fought at least three civil wars, the last in 1995, and, in the process, had made alliance with almost anybody including Saddam Hussein and the mullahs in Tehran.
This Kurdish unity creates a major force against the threat of sectarian politics.
The second bloc represents a good part of Iraq’s Shiite population, some 60 per cent of the total, and is expected to end up with half of the 275 seats in the new parliament. This would not be enough to enable the bloc to form a government alone. Looking for coalition partners, it would have to work either with the Kurds or with one or both of the two remaining blocs. The bloc could become even weaker if some Shiite groups decide to abandon their sectarian sentiments and join a larger coalition in the name of pan-Iraqi nationalism.
Nevertheless, as in the Kurdish case, the fact that Shiite parties that had been rivals and had, on occasions, fought bloody battles among themselves, have now come together is important. Also, the creation of such a bloc could reduce the influence that Iran exerts through small but well armed and well-funded Shiite militias.
The third bloc consists of the supporters of the maverick mullah Muqtada Sadr and Ahmad Chalabi. It may end up with enough seats to prevent the main Shiite bloc from securing the majority needed for forming the new government even if it makes a deal with the Kurds. It could also play a disproportionate role in deciding who the Shiites will put forward as candidate for prime minister. The Sadrists have kept their options open and, if offered good terms, may even join a secular pan-Iraqi coalition government.
The fourth emerging bloc cuts across sectarian and ethnic divides. Labelled Maram (Aim), it includes the Arab Sunni parties plus the Iraqi National list led by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. Maram is a rainbow coalition in which Islamists, both Shiite and Sunni, work alongside secularists, democrats, socialists, and communists.
Last week, the bloc chose Allawi, a secularist Shiite, as overall leader. The bloc also includes rising stars of the Sunni community including Salih al-Mutlaq and Adnan al-Dulaimi who lave shown remarkable statesmanship during the past few months.
The bloc may end up with anything between 80 and 100 seats, thus creating the theoretical possibility of forming the government in coalition with the Kurds, some of the Shiites, and smaller ethnic factions representing Turkmen, Assyrian and other Christians.
The second reason for optimism is that the terrorist-insurgent alliance may be losing whatever support it had among the Arab Sunni community.
Arab Sunni parties ignored an appeal by Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Al Qaeda number-two, and Abu-Mussab al-Zarqawi, the Al Qaeda chief in Iraq, to boycott the general election. Last week the two terrorist leaders returned with another appeal to the Sunnis, this time to withdraw from the political process. The Sunni response could not have been more damning for al-Zawahiri and al-Zarqawi. The Sunni parties baked Allawi as the leader of the Maram bloc. And Allawi, of course, is the man who, as prime minister, organised the US-led operations that flushed Zarqawi and his gang out of Fallujah in 2004. Since then Zarqawi had put Allawi top of his hit-list.
Iraqi Sunnis are beginning to realise that, provided they build alliances, they could win a major share of power through the new democratic system. They now see that the Zarqawi scenario has failed. Over the past three years terrorism, conducted in the name of the Sunnis, has claimed some 30,000 Iraqi lives, mostly civilians, without securing an ounce of power. A single election, however, has put the Sunnis back at the centre of Iraqi politics as a major power bloc. Arab Sunnis now understand what Iraq’s Shiites and Kurds understood soon after liberation: no single community could impose its rule on Iraq as, from now on, power-sharing is the name of the game in Baghdad.
Although the Iraqis voted largely on ethnic and sectarian grounds it is now clear that the new parliament and government will be shaped on the basis of broader national political considerations, especially the controversial issue of federalism.
For all that Iraq is not out of the woods.
Despite the emergence of four big blocs, grid-lock politics remains a threat.
The new constitution gives immense powers to the legislative while weakening the executive. In some way this may not be a bad thing. For too long Iraq was an over-centralised state, with power concentrated in the hands of a single individual representing the executive branch. A weaker executive could enable other organs of government, including the judiciary, to acquire the authority and power they never had. At the same time, however, a weak executive combined with a grid-locked parliament could lead to the virtual disappearance of central governmental authority in Iraq. And that, of course, could encourage sectarianism and tribalism, and, in time, frustrate the nation’s democratic hopes. The new parliament should review the constitution and amend it to make the executive slightly more powerful while lessening the risk of gridlock in the legislature.
Another danger is that some Sunni politicians may be tempted by Machiavellian siren songs from Sunni circles in other Arab countries and try to play a double game of politics combined with armed insurgency. Such an option could make them even bigger losers. In the process, however, Iraq as a whole would also lose.
Finally, there is the danger that by focusing too much on who gets which post, the blocs may be ignoring more crucial issues such as the remodelling of the economy, the future of the coalition’s presence in Iraq, and the role that new Iraq should play in the region.
Despite having suffered half a century of despotism Iraqis seem to be learning the ropes of democratic politics fairly fast and, more importantly, appear to like it. And that certainly is also cause for optimism about the future of Iraq.