Feature

A dangerous power struggle in Iraq

After a close election, Iraq’s two leading politicians will try to woo other parties in an attempt to form a coalition government.

What happened Iraq’s two leading politicians began a lengthy—and potentially explosive—power struggle this week, in the wake of a tight, tense election that gave former interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi a slight plurality over incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Allawi’s candidate slate, comprised of nonsectarian Shiites and Sunnis, won 91 seats in the parliament, finishing ahead of al-Maliki’s Shiite slate, which won 89 seats. Since neither slate commands a majority in the 325-seat legislature, each side sought to woo other parties in an attempt to form a coalition government. But tensions climbed as al-Maliki obtained a court ruling affording him first shot at forming a government, and a commission run by two Shiites moved to invalidate six winning candidates, alleging they had ties to Saddam Hussein’s outlawed Baath Party. If that challenge succeeds, Allawi’s coalition would likely lose seats, allowing al-Maliki to retain power. “What do you expect?” said Hajim al-Hassani, a spokesman for al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition. “Everyone is going to accuse the others.”

The process of forming coalitions may take months, with the U.S., Iran, and neighboring Arab states all vying to influence the outcome. Meantime, Allawi denounced the Accountability and Justice Commission’s invalidation of candidates from his slate in stark terms. “I can tell you with confidence if they have their way and start twisting things,” Allawi said, “this country will be engulfed with violence, and this violence will not remain inside of Iraq.”

What the editorials saidDespite the continuing political conflict, said The Washington Post, Iraq just “held a competitive election that puts most of its neighbors to shame.” The two top vote-getters “rejected ethnic and sectarian politics” and adopted “a more national, multi-sectarian vision.” Yes, “there’s plenty to worry about,” but it would be naïve to expect that Iraq’s transition to democracy would be easy.

Some democracy, said the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. No one will know who won this election for weeks or months, and al-Maliki not only has demanded a recount, he’s received a friendly ruling from Iraq’s supreme court allowing him first claim to form a new government. To get enough seats, said The Economist, al-Maliki may have to bargain with the extremist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a leading figure in the Iraqi National Alliance, “an umbrella group of Shiite religious parties.” If al-Sadr becomes the “kingmaker,” and al-Maliki has to pay a price for his support, Sunnis will be furious. Iraq’s future as a unified, nonsectarian state remains very much in doubt.

What the columnists saidWe may not know who won, said David Ignatius in WashingtonPost.com, but we know who lost. This election was a “stunning defeat” for Iran, which spent “millions trying to stop an Allawi victory” and is the hidden force behind efforts to disqualify candidates on Allawi’s slate. Even al-Maliki bucked Iran, resisting its pressure to join forces with the Shiite parties of the Iraqi National Alliance. Nascent Iraqi nationalism may just provide a check on Iran’s ambitions.

If only that were true, said Michael Rubin in National Review Online. As U.S. influence in Iraq wanes, Iran becomes the regional powerbroker. Every Iraqi politician—“even, perhaps, Allawi”—must make an accommodation with Iran “in order to survive.” Even now, “Iran is knocking heads together” to push al-Maliki into a ruling alliance with the religious Shiite parties, said Robert Dreyfuss in TheNation.com. If al-Maliki retains power, he’ll owe his primary allegiance to Iran, not the U.S.

The longer the process of forming a government takes, the riskier it grows, said Michael Crowley in The New Republic. After the indecisive 2006 election, factions sought political leverage through violence, “fueling Iraq’s horrific civil war.” If that happens again, “how will Barack Obama react?” The U.S. is slated to reduce troop levels in Iraq from 90,000 to 50,000 by the end of August and remove all troops by the end of next year. With luck, Iraq will have gained some political stability by then. “But Iraq, unfortunately, is a very unlucky place.”

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