It was reported late last week that Iraq might finally form a government by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki giving more power to Muqtada al-Sadr. A few thoughts from those paying attention (and it's quite amazing to me how many are not). Abe Greenwald:
This represents a potential ruling alliance of strong-arm statists and radical Islamists. To get the full measure of how depressing that is, recall that one of the best strategic justifications for the initial invasion of Iraq was to head-off this very same toxic fraternization. There is always the chance that this story is being blown out of proportion in an otherwise static political landscape. But if not, it could mean much greater Iranian influence in Iraqi politics.
A new Iraqi government is still weeks, possibly months away. Allawi, Maliki, the Supreme Council, and the Kurds all have long days ahead of them trying to win over others to their positions. What the course of events so far points out is that Maliki has been the main focus of talks. His rise to power after being a weak and compromise candidate back in 2006 has worried all of the other parties about what he might do if he stays in office. Foreign powers such as the U.S., Iran, Syria, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia only have limited influence in these negotiations. Tehran for example, put together the National Alliance before the March vote, then got Maliki to join them afterward, and many believe their pressure led to Sadr's about face on the premier. At the same time, the Supreme Council has now split from the Badr Organization, which use to be its militia, and divided the Shiite vote in the process, which Iran spent so much time trying to unite. That shows other countries can help shape events, but Iraqis will ultimately decide on the future of the next government. The problem as ever is that very few are willing to compromise. That’s the reason why a new ruling coalition is still a long way off.
The Maliki-Sadr deal raises an absolutely crucial question: what about the Sunnis? This is precisely the government that the Sunni minority feared; they backed secularist Ayad Allawi, the top vote getting in last spring's elections, who will now be firmly shut out of power. This may see a revival of the Sunni insurgency that David Petraeus quelled with cash in 2007.
And what about, well...us? It is not certain that the Maliki-Sadr alliance will tilt toward Iran. Sadr has been anti-outsiders of all sorts in the past. But this does look like something less than the "victory" that John McCain and others were noisily touting last month.
[Maliki] still needs four more votes in parliament to secure the job. Maliki knows he needs the Kurds, and at least one story says [Arabic] he has them. Ayad Allawi's spokeswoman says they, too, are talking [Arabic] with the Kurds. Apparently Allawi's people are talking with everyone, including the Badr Organization. They have one thing in commong with Badr, the group opposes Maliki's second term.
Is Maliki’s recent success good or bad from the American perspective? At this point, it’s still hard to say. Obviously, the fact that the Sadrists the most anti-American faction in Iraq will be part of the government isn’t good news. But nor would it have been good news if Maliki had made a deal with ISCI, another major Shiite party also seen as extremely close to Iran. Some analysts are suggesting that these latest developments mean that Iran is calling the shots in Iraqi politics. I wouldn’t be so sure. There is no question that Iran has an influence but it is hardly in charge. No one is. At some level, this is good news for a country like Iraq, which has been scarred by so many years of dictatorial misrule. But there is a thin line between inclusiveness and chaos and Iraq is now on the border between the two. The failure of a political class to agree on a coalition government is undermining public confidence and providing an opening to both Sunni and Shiite extremists.
All in all, Friday’s developments seem highly likely to pave the way for a second term as prime minister for Nuri al-Maliki. He and his coalition partners will be more beholden to Iran than ever, and if I were the US Department of the Treasury I wouldn’t expect much Iraqi help with those sanctions on Iranian banks.
Game, set, match to Iran.
All eyes, particularly those of the west, will be closely fixed on what Maliki offers the Sadrists in return and especially whether he gives them the security and defence ministries they have desperately coveted. Sources suggest they will instead get a total of six service ministries, crucial still for the Sadrists since this will allow them to expand their grassroots political base. Maliki may also appease them by releasing some Sadrist prisoners, if not all of them. The west will be concerned, however, about suggestions the Sadrists could get one of the deputy prime minister positions that includes with it the defence and security files.
It will be interesting to see the relationship between American advisors and units commanded by Sadrists. ("Hey, were you at the Route Gold all-night firefight back in spring 2004? So was I!")
(Photo: : Nassar al-Rubaie (L) from the radical Sadrist movement, Shiekh Abdul Halim al-Zuheiri (2nd L), Minister of Education Khudair al-Khuzai (2nd R) and Hassan al-Senaid (R) of State of Law Alliance a Shiite Muslim grouping listen on as Faleh al-Fayad speaks to the press in the ground of the offices of the Sadrist movment in Baghdad on October 01, 2010, as Iraq's main Shiite parliamentary bloc chose incumbent Nuri al-Maliki as its candidate for premier, possibly clearing the way for an end to the country's seven-month political deadlock. By Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty.)