If a week is a long time in politics, it is a very long time in Iraq. The first day of this week in Iraqi politics witnessed a Sunday 23 May meeting between Iraqiyya leader Iyad Allawi and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. On the same day, the Washington Post released a new interview with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that gave excellent insight into the premier’s current mindset. So what’s going on behind the scenes and how far away is the ratification of a new prime minister and cabinet of ministers?
The overarching trend is that we are headed towards a sprawling “unity’ government that might be described as “a government of everyone and no-one.” This means a government in which almost everyone is a participant to some extent, but no-one has signed on to an agreed manifesto regarding how the government will act. Such a government would not be a meeting of equals; a sub-set of three political coalitions would form the core of the government and would hold the balance of votes in the cabinet – the forum at which many key decisions would be made.
What are the indicators that point to this conclusion? The first and most important is the difficulty of getting Maliki and Allawi in the same room, despite behind-the-scenes US and Gulf Arab pressure to make such a meeting occur. For many policy-makers in Washington and the Arab world, the ideal solution would be a Maliki-Allawi tie-up. In theory, this would assure a strong federal state, a more favourable investment climate, cross-sectarian balance and curtailed Iranian influence. Personality and alliance dynamics, plus insistent prodding from Tehran, make it unlikely that a nationalist super-coalition will emerge.
In the absence of such a nationalist alliance, it is equally unlikely that Allawi’s primarily Sunni Arab bloc will be excluded from government completely. The United States, Ayatollah Sistani and the Kurds have all been vocal on the need for an inclusive government. On 23 May, Maliki noted: “How could the government be formed without Iraqiyya whether as a bloc or as Sunnis?” Maliki added a further inducement to Allawi’s bloc members, noting: “the Iraqiyya list and the Sunni component must be in the sovereign posts, not in secondary posts.”
The comment shows that Maliki retains a clear-headed appreciation of Allawi’s weaknesses. Maliki correctly divines that Iraqiyya is struggling to hold together and may be easy to fragment. On 23 May, the premier noted: “I read the real situation and I see Allawi's path as difficult; he has many problems ahead of him. I don't say that I have no problems but mine are less. I have a coherent list unlike the others. So, imagine the problems for Allawi and the others.” Maliki has been consistent in rebuffing all possibility that Allawi will lead a new government and the Sunday meeting between Allawi and Sistani failed to produce any favourable outcome for the Iraqiyya leader.
A greater challenge for Maliki is to reassure Shia, Kurdish and Sunni partners that he can be trusted to take a less authoritarian stance during a second term. Some elements of the pan-Shiite Iraqi National Alliance (INA) such as the Sadrists will require very significant inducements to accept Maliki as prime minister, including so-called "service ministries" such as health, labour and transport. The Kurds and Sunni Arab factions also have a strong bias against the premier. Though Maliki can offer many tempting pay-offs to allies in the form of ministries, there is an under-current of antipathy that suggests Maliki will be shunted aside at a very late stage in government formation and a more acceptable (and weaker) prime ministerial candidate placed atop the sprawling “unity” government.
Whether Maliki remains or is removed, the resultant government may be unlikely to emerge before the start of Ramadan in mid-August. Whenever the government does emerge, we can expect significant churn in the ministries, with most or all of the ministerial portfolios redistributed during the summer negotiations. The aforementioned sovereign ministries – Finance, Interior, Oil, Defence, Foreign Affairs – may be split between political appointees of five main factions. This could result in some favourable results for investors, such as an Iraqiyya or Maliki pragmatist in the Ministry of Oil or a Kurd in an Arab-KRG confidence-building role at the Ministry of Finance. The shuffle could also see unsavoury characters implanted in key positions. In the lottery of government formation, only one statement can be made in confidence -- that many existing relationships will be rendered null and void, requiring the work of commercial positioning to begin afresh.
Dr Michael Knights is Vice President and lead Iraq analyst at Olive Group, the first security company to operate in Iraq. He has worked on Iraqi political and security risks since the mid-1990s, first as an oil and gas journalist and later as an academic, receiving his PhD on Iraq at the Department of War Studies, King's College London. Since 2003, Dr Knights has run the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's Iraq programme, advising US government agencies on Iraq policy and publishing a series of books on local politics and security in Basrah, Maysan, Dhi Qar and the northern provinces including Kirkuk. Since joining Olive Group in 2006, he has produced in-depth social and political analysis of 26 of Iraq's major oil and gas fields and keeps a close eye on national security and politics.
He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org