It’s too bad America and Iran can’t build on their alliance behind Nouri al-Maliki, the newly selected Iraqi Prime Minister. But chasing power can turn enemies into friends before turning them back into enemies.
al-Maliki’s return to office presents one of the Iraq war’s greatest ironies. While Washington busied itself with the Afghan surge and allegedly tuned out of Iraq’s withdrawal, according to Iraqi officials from all parties, Tehran swooped in unchallenged to play a guiding role in formulating the new government. Already backing al-Maliki over Iraqiya chief Ayad Allawi and supporting the second largest Shia coalition, National Iraqi Alliance, Iran finally coerced the resistant Muqtada al-Sadr’s 39 seats into al-Maliki’s coalition, putting him several seats short of the 163-seat threshold.
al-Sadr, more a Shia nationalist than an Iranian puppet, exacted a heavy price that Washington surely fears. Twisting al-Maliki into offering al-Sadr security guarantees, Iran ensured Shia legitimacy in case US forces decide to hang around after 2011, which US officials expect to re-negotiate with al-Maliki. Washington did everything in its power to exclude al-Sadr from the new government - and ended up more inseparable than ever.
Now that Iraq’s government has finally formed, a Guinness World Record 250 days later, America has achieved only part of its objective in returning al-Maliki to power. Tehran can lay claim to most of the breakthrough, its own political and military dilemma, and the final outcome yields independent risks to Iraq’s stability and US policy. One Iraqiya lawmaker, Kazim al-Shimmari, attributed al-Maliki’s return to his survival skills: "He was able to rally a diverse array of blocs and political groups around him, including the enemies of the past. Al-Maliki's maneuvers were deft and he was very clever in taking advantage of the mistakes made by our bloc."
But resilient as al-Maliki may be, he needed every last ounce of Iranian support to push him over the top. Saleh al-Mutlaq, a senior Iraqiya official, unequivocally blamed Iran for al-Maliki's return to office, lamenting, "The pressure of Iran was too much.”
Such a statement punctures the illusion of Iraq’s surge. The Pentagon’s conversion to counterinsurgency is one of many effects of the war - so did it really intend to leave behind Iran's political hegemony? No, Washington expected political, economic, and military preeminence, but Tehran has fought to a stalemate on these fronts. Now, with its overriding influence in the new government’s formation, Iran appears to have gained the upper hand politically and militarily. This makes for neither a competent withdrawal nor sustainable counterinsurgency, which, in its infinitely paradoxical nature, has melded success with defeat.
Any government seems better than no government, however this notion will be extensively challenged by Baghdad in the transformative years ahead. It’s completely possible that al-Maliki restores a sense of normality to the country and begins pushing forward on much needed political and economic reforms. Yet his Iranian backing and strong-arm tactics also threaten Iraq’s future stability, as the insurgency feeds on political turmoil.
With fears of renewed Shia domination already on high alert, Iraqiya officials said the Shiites entered the final round of negotiations assured of the Prime Minister’s office, with the Kurds obtaining the ceremonial presidency through Jalal Talabani. "They offered Iraqiya the speaker of the parliament and said: `Take it or leave it,'” said one official. "We did not have a choice, knowing full well they will form a government with us or without us."
This isn’t how a stable, co-existing government is formed.
Among many areas of disagreement, al-Maliki has resisted funding Sunni tribesmen now trickling back to al-Qaeda’s lure of double-payments, and recently nixed an agreement to overturn a de-Baathification law which barred three Iraqiya members from being seated in parliament. And another compromise to place Allawi at the head of a new security and foreign policy council has been thrown into doubt by State of Law officials. One Iraqiya lawmaker, Haider al-Mulla, said the party is seeking “explanations from al-Maliki and the State of Law over their broken commitments.”
Iraqiya has since staged a walkout on al-Maliki during today’s parliament session, only the second since March 7th, which Allawi joined.
Aside from a fresh cycle of civil war, it’s difficult to imagine US policy in Iraq sinking any lower. After eight months of political stalemate, “too long” according to US President Barack Obama, Iraq’s political parties yielded one of the most tenuous political option available. Billed as secular but nevertheless the Sunni vanguard, Iraqiya secured the most overall seats (91 to al-Maliki’s 89) and temporarily drove up enthusiasm that Iraq could move past its sectarian divide.
But the realization quickly set in that al-Maliki and the other Shia blocs would do everything possible to minimize Iraqiya’s gains. More and more officials have spoken out against al-Maliki since last night, and unless further political agreements and reforms are secured, it seems that Iraqiya will remain marginalized from Iraq’s political decisions in relation to their electoral success. US officials claim to have supported a power-sharing government, yet pushed al-Maliki over Allawi the entire time. Having already been told by Vice President Joe Biden to compromise with al-Maliki, an unsubtle prod to step aside, Obama himself reportedly told Allawi to take what al-Maliki gave him.
"The apparent agreement to form an inclusive government is a big step forward for Iraq," said Tony Blinken, national security adviser to Biden. "All along we've said the best result would be a government that reflects the results of the elections, includes all the major blocs representing Iraq's ethnic and sectarian groups, and that does not exclude or marginalize anyone."But this is essentially what's happened.
"There is no goodwill," said Mutlaq. "Despite the flexibility we showed in order to prove we are positive, and we want to participate, it is clear they don't want the partnership. They want to monopolize the power."
If any of Iraq’s politics does bode well for its future, it’s the determination of Iraqiya to restrain al-Maliki’s power, which the Kurds also wish to see. Their challenge could spawn a new round of sectarian division, waged either politically or militarily - or both. But Iraqiya refuses to go down quietly and is determined to fight through political means. Despite Thursday’s dejection, many Iraqiya officials vowed to return Saturday for the next parliament session, ready for battle. They say al-Maliki cannot be allowed to believe he can walk over them.
Unfortunately the patience average Sunnis have for al-Maliki, after expecting Allawi to receive so much more, is significantly lower than their elected officials.
Try as the White House will to spin Iraq’s new government, this accomplishment has been diminished by the elapse of time, US bias, Iranian intervention, persistent insurgency, and ultimately a fractured, distrusting administration. Better than no government? Probably. But today isn’t close to the triumph Washington waited so long to hail. Despite US officials’ public optimism, new doubt and anxiety has likely crept into their minds.
Something else would be wrong if they didn’t when Iraq's counterinsurgency remains far from over.