Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Biden Visits Iraq: Where Is the Government-Formation Process Heading?

Posted by Reidar Visser on Saturday, 3 July 2010 20:52

The reality is that four months after the parliamentary elections and at the time of an unexpected visit by Vice-President Joe Biden to Baghdad, the political process in Iraq is almost at a standstill. Little in the way of real negotiations is taking place since no one knows which party will supply the prime ministerial candidate. Even if one month has lapsed since the final result was certified, players on the Iraqi political scene keep bending the constitutional framework according to their own preferences.

As of today, there is only one candidate that technically satisfies the constitutional criterion of being the “[premier] candidate of the biggest parliamentary bloc”: Ayad Allawi of the secular Iraqiyya. This is so because even though some Shiite leaders claim to have formed a bigger sectarian Shiite bloc through merging with each other, they cannot agree on a prime ministerial candidate and therefore do not satisfy the constitutional criteria for supplying one either. As of today, they simply do not exist as a parliamentary bloc in relation to the question of government formation, and at least members from one half of the new alliance – State of Law (SLA) headed by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki – increasingly recognise this fact and say a failure to produce a single premier candidate will effectively mean the end of their alliance. The other half, the Iraqi National Alliance, is prepared to accept any prime ministerial from within the alliance – as long as it is not Nuri al-Maliki, the sole candidate of the other side!

What this stalemate at least makes perfectly clear is that the dream of an “all-inclusive government of all the winning parties” is unlikely to come into effect in the real world, because someone will inevitably get offended along the way if the constitutional procedure is followed. If Iraqiyya does not get the premiership it will walk out or splinter; if Maliki is sidelined, the projected Shiite alliance will disintegrate. Of course, there are some – including most prominently the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) – that argue in favour of abandoning the constitutional framework altogether by for example introducing a roundtable, and there is already talk of “compromise” PM candidates from miniscule blocs within the INA that could emerge under this type of scenario. The defenders of this kind of unconstitutional approach might as well go all the way and try to stage a military coup, since they do not appear willing to take seriously even those parts of the constitution that are crystal clear.

In this kind of situation and at a time when the two main Shiite lists are still strong enough to vote down an Allawi government even if it gets formed, it is a refreshing sign that the “180 option” of the two biggest blocs in parliament joining together to solve the problem (Iraqiyya with 91 seats plus State of Law with 89 seats) is now at least being talked about openly in the Iraqi media. Predictably, Kurds and ISCI are condemning it, but they are of course incapable of presenting a constitutionally-based rejection, since the scenario is in fact perfectly constitutional. It will be interesting to see what the US position on this will be. So far, while in principle committed to a focus on timelines and the anticipated draw-down of US forces, the Obama administration has tended to publicly support the most time-consuming government-formation scenario of them all: A grand coalition that will have to overcome both an internal premier competition within the new Shiite alliance (which  apparently cannot be won) as well as endless negotiations with the Kurds (over issues that cannot be solved within a short time frame). In a good sign, Ambassador Hill in a recent BBC interview at least acknowledged the scenario of an SLA-Iraqiyya government as an option. If the stated intention of Joe Biden to meet with Ammar al-Hakim on Monday is just meant to calm down Iran and Ahmad Chalabi then it can make some sense (INA is already talking about the SLA-Iraqiyya scenario as an “American plot” even though it has received no support previously); if on the other hand it indicates a continued US preference for an oversized government of “national unity” then that means Washington is itself effectively undermining its declared aim of a timely process of government formation in Iraq.

12 Responses to “Biden Visits Iraq: Where Is the Government-Formation Process Heading?”

  1. Reidar,
    In recent reports Chalabi is supporting the nomination of Maliki for PM, does this carry much weight?

  2. Reidar Visser said

    I’ve only seen that in reports citing unnamed sources, which are of limited value. Is there a quote from Chalabi directly for this? If it reflects a more fundamental shift in the Iranian position towards accepting Maliki then it would clearly be significant since it would mean that more INA elements would feel a pressure towards voting for Maliki for the greater cause of keeping the Shiite alliance intact.

  3. My gut judgment is that, though many in the US bureaucracy would like to try to stay and ‘control’ Iraqi politic, the majority view in both the administration and Congress is to continue implementing a (by US standards) ‘hasty’ exit… for many reasons, most of them selfish and/or bad. (E.g., the sky-rocketing US budget deficit; a desire to minimize the US footprint to more easily ‘enable’ a US or Israeli military aggression against Iran; and/or plain old ennui with the whole idea of nation-building.)

    by these standards, continuing to push for the wall-to-wall ‘government of all parties’ is too much hassle and/or counter-productive. Therefore, my expectation is they’ll let go and ‘allow’ a coalition of the two biggest blocs in Baghdad, thereby once more screwing the Kurds (and others)… But, even more worryingly, all this will be allied to a continued march toward the increasingly probable military aggression against Iran… (And don’t imagine for moment either that Biden has any principled reasons for feeling Kurdophilic from time to time or that he even knows what he’s talking about regarding Iraq.)

  4. Jwing said

    Everyone state of law and iraqiya talk there’s a big deal about it in the press and rubies of an impending deal. But after it happens people come out and say that Maliki is only trying to pressure the national alliance. I expect this to continue for several more months.

  5. SK said

    Dear Reidar,

    Is there any indication from Syria or Saudi Arabia (who are apparently together on the preference of Alawi) ,or even Iran, that they are willing to consider the ‘180 option’ you mentioned. You previously had said that these countries (US included) had little interest in a strong, centralized Iraqi government and so would fight for a sectarian or weakened government. I wonder if you are seeing any shifts in their positions as time goes on and the stalemate continues.

    Also, do you feel the divergent positions of Iran and Syria on the Iraqi front could have repercussions elsewhere in the region?

    Thank you very much,

  6. Ali W said

    Could it be possible that SLA will get rid of Maliki and replace him with one of their own? Someone acceptable to INA and which will maintain the grand NA intact.

  7. Reidar Visser said

    Joel, the way some members of SLA and Iraqiyya have publicly invested themselves in the idea of a bilateral alliance goes beyond the level of rumours and tactics. Consider for example the following:

    وأوضح الشابندر أن التوصل الى عقد تحالف دولة القانون والعراقية سيضع حدا للتدخل الخارجي في شؤون البلد وسيؤدي إلى انحسار الطائفية والمحاصصة ويسهم في حصول تغير ايجابي في العملية السياسية عازيا تقارب دولة القانون من العراقية إلى ما وصفه بفشل المباحثات داخل التحالف الوطني في الاتفاق على مرشح لرئاسة الحكومة

    وكان عضو ائتلاف دولة القانون حيدر الجوراني قد قال في وقت سابق أنه في حال عدم توصل الائتلافين داخل التحالف الوطني إلى صيغة توافقية لختيار مرشح رئاسة الوزراء سيتجه ائتلاف دولة القانون إلى القائمة العراقية.

    قال المتحدث باسم القائمة العراقية شاكر كتاب ” ان لقاء قادة /العراقية/ ودولة القانون لم يأت بضغط امريكي ، بل جاء بضغط شعبي نتيجة الازمات التي يمر بها العراق “.

    واضاف للوكالة الوطنية العراقية للانباء /نينا/ :” ان هذا الضغط اكبر من الضغط الامريكي والايراني والدول الاخرى ، اذ ان الجماهير وصلت الى المرحلة العليا من الوعي ، وعلى السياسيين ان يتحملوا مسؤوليتهم “.

    وتابع كتاب :” قد تكون هناك مساعدات من قبل بعض الاطراف في الجمع بين هاتين الكتلتين ، لكن ما جرى هو استجابة لظرف تاريخي يجب ان يكون في هذا الوقت “.

    قال القيادي في ائتلاف دولة القانون عزت الشابندر :” ان المشتركات التي تجمع ائتلاف دولة القانون بالقائمة العراقية اكبر بكثير من نقاط الاختلاف التي تنحصر بموضوع المواقع”.

    واوضح الشابندر للوكالة الوطنية العراقية للانباء /نينا/ :” ان المشتركات بين القائمتين تتعلق بالبرنامج الحكومي وبثقافة بناء دولة العراق المستقبلية، التي ستذوب في ذاتها كل نقاط الاختلاف بين القائمتين”.

    SK, I think we need to take into account that the basic idea of the “180 plan” is that it will minimise regional influences, and therefore is likely to encounter a degree of scepticism from all the regional players. I think the mathematical logic is clear: A minimal-winning government with just about a good margin over 163 is far more likely to develop internal coherence and autonomy of action versus regional players, whereas an oversized government of “national unity” will lack internal coherence and be more susceptible to all sorts of ploys and machinations by regional states. So I would not expect their position to change much. Iran is of course the strongest advocate of a “national unity” government since it would secure Shiite hegemony. Saudi Arabia, unfortunately, is locked in its irrational hatred of Nuri al-Maliki. Syria and Turkey could perhaps grow more sympathetic to the Iraqiyya/State of Law scenario over time.

    Ali, that idea of an internal challenge to Maliki has been on the cards for many months now but it has failed to materialise. Let’s not forget that many of the SLA seat-winners owe their success to Maliki’s popularity and to ditch him now would not look good in the eyes of the electorate.

  8. Salah said

    Its very important to review and remind ourself with what Biden/US like to see in Iraq and what if “180 option” is an option?

    Biden spoke of a need to broker a grand bargain between Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, and to resolve disputes between “the different confessional groups.” He made clear that he — and, presumably, the United States — saw Iraq’s challenges and solutions largely in terms of sectarian or ethnic groups. Discussing Iraq’s problems in such terms pushes Iraqis back toward the boxes they have been trying to leave behind — and undermines incipient movement away from the dominance of sectarian political identities toward issues-based politics.

    Let read for this women who made herself from Iraq, Esquire magazine was chosen her as one of their most influential Americans for the coming century. Tellin what US interst in Iraq after the election:

    It is fashionable to argue that the United States has no influence in Iraq anymore. But the reality is more subtle. Certainly, U.S. financial leverage dissipated years ago, when Iraq’s oil revenues skyrocketed; similarly, U.S. military leverage was always hard to use, because threats of withdrawal were credible only in extreme circumstances.

    Yet, although Washington is less central than in the past, it remains influential. The United States is the only party respected, if grudgingly, by nearly all sides. No other entity has the same power to convene in Iraq — not Iran, not the United Nations. This power can be critical in a crisis or a deadlock.

  9. Reidar Visser said

    Salah, yeah I had a similar criticism of Biden during his previous 4 July visit in 2009, at

    But of course, this is 2010, and we might have hoped he had changed his stale categories of analysis. Alas, so far, the signs are not promising, according to one report, “the aides, speaking on condition of anonymity to more candidly discuss Biden’s thinking, said it appears that Iraqi leaders also agree on potential risks of a government that alienates any of the competing political factions.” This is a classical case of ethno-sectarian opportunists managing to convince foreign forces that unless their communitarian aims are met, tragedy will ensue.

    By the way, since you link to Meghan O’Sullivan, she has a much better take on Iraqi politics today than Biden has, see for example this:

  10. observer said

    Chalabi on the move!!!. I looks like he is really concerned that SOL and Iraqiyya may divide the important ministries between them. I am betting he is angling for the ministry of finance or oil as a rest stop on his way to PM….

    Happy fourth to all. It is a good time to read the preamble to the american constitution…an incredible piece of writing….

  11. Anonymous said

    Where ever I look, i see more talk about the INM-SLA alliance.
    This wait could be a blessing in disguise. An SLA-INM allaince would ensure the mahdi army would never reyurn, and wahabi threat to be elminated.

    Today Barazani announced that he would not mind that kind of alliance.

  12. Wladimir said

    Kurds don’t object to coalition between Iraqiya-Dawlat al-Qanoon

    Baghdad: The Kurdistan Alliance does not object to a potential coalition between the Al-Iraqiya Alliance and Dawlat al-Qanoon Alliance, President Massoud Barzani of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region said from Cairo, Egypt. “We don’t object to a coalition between the two alliances, provided that it does not marginalize others,” Barzani told the press. He noted that the Kurdistan Alliance will not be part of the problem, but part of the solution to form Iraq’s new government. aswataliraq info

    Iraq: Sources Close to al-Maliki Confirm Agreement with Allawi

    Baghdad, Asharq Al-Awsat –High level sources have informed Asharq Al-Awsat that Nuri al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition has sent a delegation to the National Iraqi Alliance that is led by Ammar al-Hakim to inform it that it may withdraw from its alliance in order to form a new alliance with Iyad Allawi’s Iraqiya bloc. The delegation also reportedly informed al-Hakim’s coalition that the State of Law coalition is also attempting to move closer to the Kurdish Alliance, in what represents the most intense period of tension between the State of Law coalition and the National Iraqi Alliance.

    Maybe there will be the government you wanted in Iraq, Reidar.

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