The Apparent End of the Strategic Policy Council

The following article was published on Thursday by Reidar Visser, an historian of Iraq educated at the University of Oxford and currently based at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs. It is reproduced here with the author’s permission. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

The rumours began circulating yesterday and today they have been confirmed: Ayad Allawi, the leader of the secular Iraqiyya movement, no longer considers himself the candidate to the position as chairman of the projected “national strategic policy council”, a new political institution with ill-defined powers that was included in the grand political agreement on a new government by Iraqi leaders last November. It should perhaps be added that Allawi has gone far in dismissing the council in media interviews previously; his level of outspokenness on this occasion is however unprecedented.

The council, an extra-constitutional concoction created largely to compensate Allawi personally for his thwarted prime ministerial ambitions, was always going to be a difficult proposition. Unsurprisingly, from day one there was disagreement on its exact prerogatives, with Allawi hoping it would include executive powers in key areas of government, and with Nuri al-Maliki and his all-Shiite State of Law alliance taking the opposite view of it, i.e. seeing it more as a deliberative think tank. Marshalling the arguments of constitutionalism and separation of powers, State of Law had some success in making the case that it would be hard to accommodate an additional executive institution in Iraq’s political system. It should be added that even the draft versions of the law that did exist had watered down the powers of the council and Allawi’s role in it quite considerably: For example, an 80% consensus requirement for decisions to have executive force meant that the council would rarely have played an active role in shaping government policy anyway – and that Allawi’s personal role as chairman would not be particularly prominent. Symptomatically, perhaps, the latest rounds of debate between the blocs have focused on petty issues concerning Allawi’s precise ceremonial status in relation to the existing ranks of leadership positions. It is to be expected that the whole project will founder if Allawi is no longer interested.

Even as Allawi is making this dramatic decision, it is hard to follow his attempt at reorientation. The eminently logical thing for him to do would be to take as much of Iraqiyya as possible into a purely opposition role in parliament, where the bloc would be free to speak its mind on core issues that resonates with its electorate. Instead, today, he is reverting to old talk of good relations with the Sadrists, ISCI and the Kurds, apparently forgetting that those were the forces that ultimately betrayed his prime ministerial ambitions in summer 2010, and that a critical mass of them still seem interested in playing along with Maliki inside government.

It cannot be stressed sufficiently that the strategic policy council was first and foremost Washington’s project in Iraq, and an attempt at keeping up appearances and creating a consolation prize for Allawi while tacitly – in the case of Ambassador Chris Hill, actively – accepting Iran’s push for a government formation based on a sectarian Shiite alliance. Last November, sources in the Obama administration gave glowing accounts of how American diplomats were present during the final negotiations where the deal on the strategic policy council was supposedly clinched, whereas the Iranians were absent. Today, four months later and with the apparent death of the strategic council, the power-sharing structure of Iraq’s new government is looking even more like 2006 than before.

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