Iraqi government formation a marathon not a sprint

Iraqi government formation a marathon not a sprint

Iraqi government formation a marathon not a sprint
The Sadrist bloc led by nationalist cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr — claimed to have a majority. (AFP)
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Three months after Iraq’s legislative elections, the country’s fifth parliament held its first session on Sunday amid heightened tensions, especially among the various Shiite blocs and parties. The session saw fist fights and interruptions as two opposing Shiite groups — the so-called Coordination Framework, which is dominated by pro-Iran parties and militias, and the Sadrist bloc led by nationalist cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr — claimed to have a majority.

While the Sadrists and their Sunni and Kurdish allies won the day — succeeding in electing a speaker and his two deputies — the split in the Shiite camp will haunt the new parliament as it moves slowly to elect a new president and prime minister.

The formation of the next government is a marathon not a sprint. The coming weeks will witness further confrontations inside parliament, while serious political rivalries could ignite a cycle of violence across the country.

The Shiite split is the most serious since a new constitution was adopted in 2005, two years after the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Based on a quota system, the Shiite majority was able to run the country virtually uncontested. But that domination came at a hefty price. Pro-Iran politicians allowed Tehran to infiltrate the political stage and arm proxy militias that became a threat to the stability of the state. Ethno-sectarian tensions deepened and led to the persecution of Sunnis, which was exploited by radical extremists such as Al-Qaeda and Daesh. Iraq was on the verge of collapse as a state as mass corruption, terrorism, sectarian violence and poverty gnawed at its key institutions.

If change was needed, it had to come from within the Shiite camp; thus Al-Sadr’s insistence on forming a national majority government that rejects the quota system and calls for the disarmament of all militias as the only way to change the country’s current trajectory.

His message was embraced by millions of Iraqis, leading to his bloc winning 73 seats in the country’s 329-seat parliament. On the other side, the pro-Iran Fatah Alliance saw its share collapse from 48 seats to just 17. The fact that Mohammed Al-Halbousi was reelected as speaker means that Al-Sadr and his Sunni allies, including the Kurdistan Democratic Party, are in a position to be named as the largest bloc, which will allow them to select the president and prime minister.

If and when Al-Sadr’s broad coalition succeeds in forming a new government, he will need the support of Iraq’s Arab neighbors

Osama Al-Sharif

The Coordination Framework, led by former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki and the Fatah coalition, had tried to lure Al-Sadr into keeping the Shiite camp unified, but he was unrelenting. Their attempt to contest the election results and even intimidate judges and Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi failed. The Fatah leaders’ threats to use force to change the election results also failed.

Al-Sadr’s only compromise was that if he is not allowed to form a national majority government, then his bloc will sit in the opposition. It now seems that he is on his way to also luring independent deputies to his camp.

This is not to say that his mission will be plain sailing. His Shiite rivals will do their best to derail the next government. Some observers believe that, because of the enormity of the challenges facing the incoming government, Iraqis will not see an immediate improvement in their livelihoods. And lurking in the shadows is Iran, which will fight to keep its influence over Iraqi politics.

If and when Al-Sadr’s broad coalition succeeds in forming a new government — which will take months — he will need the support of Iraq’s Arab neighbors. Even though Al-Kadhimi’s government made little progress on economic reforms and improving basic services, the PM was able to distance his country from the US-Iran showdown. In fact, Al-Kadhimi has proven himself as a nationalist with no connection to a foreign agenda.

Al-Kadhimi remains favorite to be nominated again as premier, which would be anathema to Al-Maliki and his partners. His politics is in line with that of Al-Sadr and he has the backing of Iraq’s Arab neighbors. He has also confirmed that any remaining US troops will only offer training and consultations for the Iraqi army. He also wants all armed militias to disarm.

The road ahead for Iraq is not easy. Armed militias, under the Popular Mobilization Units umbrella, will resist disarming. Their ideological attachment to Iran will continue to threaten Iraq’s stability. The next Iraqi government will have a tough time fulfilling Al-Sadr’s mandate of bringing Baghdad back into the Arab fold. It is ironic that Iraq’s biggest challenge is coming from some of its own citizens, who have no qualms about seeing their country becoming an Iranian dependency.

• Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010

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