Let’s make a deal

Prime Minister Maliki last night accused the Fuad Masum, elected President of Iraq on July 24, of violating the constitution, which reads:

The President of the Republic shall charge the nominee of the largest Council of Representatives bloc with the formation of the Council of Ministers within fifteen days from the date of the election of the President of the Republic.
Maliki, whose State of Law coalition won the largest bloc in parliament in April,  then beefed up the security forces in Baghdad, in an apparent “autocoup” to prevent anyone from trying to remove him from office.
Despite the apparent contradiction, the State Department is backing President Masum as the guardian of the constitution, even though he has failed to give anyone a mandate within the specified 15 days. The Americans want Maliki to step aside, as they believe he will not be able to form the kind of inclusive government they think is needed to fight off the Islamic State.
The problem is that no one other than Maliki has appeared on the horizon with a larger bloc in the Council of Representatives. A substantial majority of the parliament–including Shia as well as Sunnis and Kurds–appears to want someone other than Maliki, but they haven’t been able to agree on who it will be.
In the first instance, this is an issue for the Shia political parties to decide. Ammar al Hakim and Moqtada al Sadr, the leading lights of the Shia community, have not agreed a joint candidate, who could then command a larger bloc parliament than Maliki. The Iraqi constitutional court decided in 2010 that such a post-election coalition should be given first dibs, as is the case for example in the UK. Maliki will find it hard to argue against a post-election majority coalition if it emerges, since he formed one last time around (and the constitutional court blessed it).
In the meanwhile, the Islamic State (IS) and Kurdish forces are battling in the north, with the Americans managing some well-targeted bombing that has enabled at least some Yezidis to escape from Sinjar Mountain and the Kurdish peshmerga to slow or even reverse the IS advance on Erbil.
But a few well-placed bombs are no substitute for forming an inclusive and legitimate government in Baghdad. That is looking even more difficult today than it has the last few days.  None of the candidates the Washington Post considered five weeks ago looks promising:  many are Maliki’s sidekicks, others are anathema to Sunnis or Kurds, and others are acceptable to Hakim but not Sadr or vice versa.
This is a mess. It is likely the reason President Obama looked so grim the other night announcing his intention to authorize air drops and strikes in northern Iraq. He knows there is no reason to believe that the political crisis in Baghdad can be resolved quickly or easily. He is explicitly anticipating months of American military strikes, though even that won’t be sufficient if no agreement is reached on who will be prime minister.
It is a mistake to expect whoever emerges to be a miracle worker. It may even be one of Maliki’s minions, as his votes in parliament will remain vital. What is needed is not the magical non-sectarian who represents all the people of Iraq but rather someone who can make a deal and keep it. Maliki made many deals, but he followed through on few of them. Now no one trusts him, for good reason.
The shape of the deal is all too clear:
  • the Kurds need to get assurances that the money they are entitled to get from Baghdad and the oil they want to export will flow unimpeded;
  • the Sunnis need more autonomy for the provinces in which they are a majority, along with the resources needed to deliver services to their citizens;
  • the Shia need a central government in Baghdad that can protect them (and everyone else) from the Islamic State.

This is not a tall order, but it is also not a magic potion. Once a new government is formed, it will be months, if not a year or more, before the Iraqi security forces can fight IS effectively. In the meanwhile, expect the Americans to continue bombing as well as supplying intelligence, logistics and materiel.

PS: Shia parties today apparently nominated a Maliki sidekick, Haider al Abadi, to lead the next government, but Maliki is not giving in, yet.

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