It took eight months from the last Iraqi national election before the Iraqi parliament could form a government. Most of that time, the various parties refused to speak to one another, even as the country backslid into violence. In a culture where the power/challenge dialectic runs from bedroom to boardroom, from playground to parliament, the Iranian-backed party of Nouri al-Maliki was daggers drawn with a chiefly Sunni nationalist party led by the secular Shi’ite and former interim prime minister, Iyad Allawi.
As incumbents, al-Maliki’s Islamic Dawa party had the most to lose from Allawi’s al-Iraqiya, which garnered more seats than did Dawa, but too few to form a government. This tension left Massoud Barzani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan, in the position of kingmaker – something to which both Arab parties took eight months to accustom themselves. From the WaPo’s David Ignatius:
The American role here was a strange mix of action and inaction: Wary of slipping back into occupying Iraq, the U.S. never declared its own candidate for prime minister — which basically opened the way for Maliki. That had the weird consequence of putting Washington and Tehran on the same side.
The saving grace in the U.S. strategy was our “rope-a-dope” approach of delaying approval of Maliki unless he agreed to take into his government his main rival, former prime minister Ayad Allawi, whose party actually got more votes in last March’s election. The Iranians flailed away for months, hoping to pummel Allawi into submission, but thanks to U.S. support (backed by our most solid ally in Iraq, Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani) the Iranians had to settle for a coalition that included Allawi.
It was telling that the final meeting Wednesday in Maliki’s office to sign off on the deal had four players: Maliki, Allawi, Barzani and U.S. Ambassador Jim Jeffries.
The deal nearly fell apart yesterday, with the Iraqiya party staging a walkout after lodging complaints of bad faith:
The moment of high drama came when members of the Iraqiya bloc – which, by a slim margin, won more seats in Iraq’s 325-member parliament than any other bloc – walked out of the session to protest what they called duplicitous tactics by political rivals and broken promises to roll back a controversial law that they feel unfairly targeted their members.
“They have to know that they cannot run the parliament the way they want,” said Falah al-Naqib, a legislator from Iraqiya. He called the walkout a strong and important message of Iraqiya’s power. “There is no trust. The political process is very fragile. You can see that there are major differences. They should at least respect their promises.”
Whether such a government in such a culture can long endure is very much open to question. A question that the Iraqi people themselves will have to answer, and which answer they will have to live with, or die by. It’s hard to be optimistic, frankly.
But this is a land of least worst, a fact perfectly reflected in the parliamentary result.