Iraqis Spinning Their Wheels

Last month, Secretary of State John Kerry made his second trip to Iraq since taking on his current position, hoping it would end better than his first visit. In March 2013, Kerry tried, and inevitably failed, to get Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to halt Iran’s use of its airspace to transport arms to buttress the survival of the Syrian regime against an insurgency. This time, he received assurances that a new government would be formed on July 1—beginning with the selection of a new speaker of parliament. Unfortunately, the parliamentary convention Washington hoped would pass without incident ended in failure as Sunni Arab and Kurdish parties walked out in protest.

While the walkouts do not represent any permanent damage towards the political process, it comes as no surprise that Iraq’s elites were not ready to agree on a power-sharing government. Indeed, by pushing the Iraqis to commit to timetables, Washington contributed to the unhelpful walkout incident. The stipulation of deadlines assumes that political processes will thereby fall into an orderly mechanism of implementation. Sadly, the United States fell into the same mistaken tendency it maintained towards other democratic transition states in the Arab world: equating expediency of the process with stability. US officials have yet to see how rushing the process can place too much strain on a delicate political system, backfiring and precipitating the opposite of the intended effect.

In hoping to steer Iraq away from another civil war, the United States is betting on the formation of a national unity government to quell the Sunni insurgency, and help turn the Sunni Arabs against the militants of the Islamic State, an al-Qaeda splinter group that recently declared the establishment of a caliphate stretching across Syria and Iraq. Within such a power-sharing government, the parties that make up the three major sects—Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds—would participate in a governing coalition. But while timetables are unhelpful in Iraq, Washington’s fundamental flaw towards government formation lies in its fixation on the country’s identity politics, rather than the bargaining process.

As the occupying power, the United States had used ethnic identities to determine the distribution of power and resources, thus helping to create and harden the sectarian structures that now dominate the politics of post-Saddam Iraq. Since the fallacies of exclusionary politics and the Sunni boycott of the electoral process in 2005, the United States has pushed for an inclusive framework to advance Iraqi national unity and stability. Despite the lessons of yesteryear, Washington continues to focus on getting all three sects into a governing coalition, when it ought to be focused on fulfilling a critical mass of bargains upon which a government can be founded.

Indeed, there is an extensive and intricate bargaining process that precedes the formation of the government. The Iraqis do not enter a power-sharing arrangement unless their interests are negotiated down to the last tee. This has not happened yet, and various parties have struck no significant bargains. If a unity government were formed without sufficient compromises that help glue the coalition together, it will most likely crash and burn, creating another cycle of political crises.

Up until the July 1 session, the most talked about package was Tariq Najm Abdullah (Shiite) for the premiership, Salim Jabouri (Sunni) for the speakership, and Barham Salih (Kurd) for the presidency. Unfortunately, by the time the session began, none of the individuals were finalized as the candidate from their respective sect, as each still faced internal challenges to their nomination. While having been tentatively postponed till July 8, the next session was unlikely to proceed on time.  As of today, there is no consensus on any of the initial names considered for the premiership, speakership, or the presidency. In fact, the talks surrounding the prospective Najm-Jabouri-Salih package have collapsed entirely now with the decision to postpone the government formation process until mid-August—well after the holy month of Ramadan.

Aside from intra-sect competition, each communal side wants the other to reveal their cards before showing theirs. As of this moment, Sunnis and Kurds are waiting to see who the Shiites nominate, before deciding on their own candidates. Intra-Shiite politics has the most significant impact on how everything else will play out. As long as there is no consensus among the Shiites, the government formation process will stall, despite the constitutionally mandated process that begins with the election of a speaker, then president—all before a prime minister is designated to form the government. It appears that Maliki’s confidence is growing, not only because his opponents are divided among themselves, but also given indications that Iran still backs his candidacy.

In Iraq, the usual case is that nothing happens until everything happens. The Iraqis will not start the clock until the politics have been settled on how the next government will be formed. Indeed, 99 percent of the government formation process takes place behind closed doors, while only 1 percent is open to the public and simply ceremonial. In the end, the formation of a unity government based on identity politics will not quell the Sunni insurgency. Instead, the political discontent that underlies the crisis must be resolved as part of the bargaining process. For the United States, this means that the focus should not be about the ethnic makeup of the next government, but on getting the right political issues on the negotiating table to be discussed and hashed out by the parties. Indeed, ousting Maliki from power is not enough for the various components of the insurgency, as his removal is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

Ramzy Mardini is a nonresident fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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Image: Dhafer al-Ani (C), a prominent Sunni Arab lawmaker, speaks during a news conference by members of Sunni political bloc Mutahidoon after the first session of the Iraqi Parliament in Baghdad, July 1, 2014. Sunnis and Kurds walked out of the first session of Iraq's new parliament on Tuesday after Shi'ites failed to name a prime minister to replace Nuri al-Maliki, dimming any prospect of an early national unity government to save Iraq from collapse. Parliament is not likely to meet again for at least a week, leaving Iraq in political limbo and Maliki clinging to power as a caretaker, rejected by Sunnis and Kurds. (Photo: REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani)