Is Iraq's new government worth the record 8-month wait?

By David Bender

What exactly did Iraq wait 8 months for? 

It's been seven weeks since Iraq smashed the record for the longest period of time between an election and the formation of a government. But last week there was finally a breakthrough of sorts between the country's squabbling political factions. It's not yet a done deal, but it's now finally possible to speculate about what the next Iraqi government will look like -- and time to ask the question of whether it was all worth the wait. 

The deal struck last week between the Shia-dominated National Alliance, Sunni-backed Iraqiya, and the Kurdish alliance provides the basis for the next government. But it isn't a basis for a stable government. The agreement was an attempt to satisfy everyone in the short term, while delaying decisions on important political issues further into the future. The next government is likely to have little policy coherence, much infighting, and numerous contradictory agendas. That's a troublesome dynamic given that Iraq faces an impending onslaught of tough technical and political questions in 2011. The Kurds will press hard for progress on their territorial issues and their right to sign their own oil contracts, provincial governments will call for greater shares of the profits from Iraq's oil and gas, al Qaeda is attempting to reassert itself going after soft targets, and someone competent will need to direct and oversee the upcoming massive infrastructure expansion needed for the growing Iraqi oil industry.

The outlook for a government capable of managing all these challenges is not good, and the process that got us here was chaotic. Nouri al Maliki will remain prime minister after he skillfully navigated the long political limbo by using his incumbency to project a sense of inevitability that he would retain the premiership. This occurred despite the fact that nearly every other political bloc in the country despises him. Maliki's hold on the job was finally sealed when Iran brokered a deal in Qom, the Iranian city home to many of that's country's senior religious leaders, between Maliki and followers of firebrand Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who had previously declared they would sooner support the devil as prime minister. It's not clear what the Sadrists have been promised in exchange for their support, but they are likely to be a meaningful player in the next government. That's bad news for virtually everyone, because the Sadrists' hard-line nationalism, religious extremism, capacity for violence, and generally uncompromising attitude will make them a disruptive force in Iraqi politics.

But Maliki needed more than just Sadrist support to gain majority backing in parliament. He also looked to the Kurds, who had enough seats to give him a comfortable majority. The Kurds responded with a long list of demands, but ultimately were likely to support him. The United States, which had been keeping its distance from talks, feared that Iraq was heading toward a narrow Shia-Kurdish government that would exclude Sunnis from any meaningful political participation, increasing the risk of a spike in sectarian violence. Washington began working feverishly behind the scenes to push Iraqi politicians to find a compromise that would bring Iyad Allawi's largely Sunni Iraqiya into the next government. So the United States succeeded, sort of.

The White House and other leaders hailed the "power-sharing" agreement that would permit a national unity government to be formed when Parliament convened on Nov. 11. How much power will be shared remains unclear. In the deal, Iraqiya was offered the position of Speaker of Parliament, while Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, would remain president. For Iraqiya, which actually won two more seats than Maliki's State of Law, being given what is perceived as the third best position in the government was an insult. This despite the fact that the speaker, who has control over legislation in the parliament, is arguably more influential than the president, whose powers are largely symbolic. Under the deal, Allawi is to be named head of a newly created national security policy council, which in theory will check Maliki's control over the security forces.

But formally changing the chain of command in Iraq would require a highly unlikely constitutional change, and it seems unlikely that Maliki will ultimately agree to a significant reduction in his powers. He has argued that the new council will function as an advisory panel with no independent authority. If Allawi decides he is powerless in his new position, he could resign and become a forceful leader of the opposition.

Between an unclear Iraqiya role, an uncomfortably large Sadrist contingent, rising Kurdish demands, and no unity of purpose among any of the political groups, the prospects for the next government are not great. But the overall situation in Iraq will probably improve anyway. The next government isn't going to resolve much of Iraq's deep social and political dysfunction, but having it in place will finally allow the oil sector, budget, and infrastructure projects to begin to move ahead.

Was it worth the eight (soon to be nine) month wait? No.

But is it a good thing that there's likely to be a government by the new year? Absolutely.

David Bender is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Middle East practice.