Published by the Guardian.
A coalition government dominated by Nouri al-Maliki and the Iranian-backed Sadrists would do little to solve Iraq’s problems.
Coverage of the Iranian-brokered deal between Nouri al-Maliki and Muqtada al-Sadr has focused on fears that Iranian influence is eclipsing US power in Iraq. But the threat to the US is exaggerated. Being forced to turn to Iran for help has been embarrassing for Maliki, who ran an Iraqi nationalist election campaign that distanced itself from Iran and emphasised Iraq’s sovereignty.
Rabid anti-Iranian sentiment among both Shia and Sunni Iraqis, including many of Sadr’s supporters, mean that Iran’s grip over Iraq is largely limited to times of political desperation. Among ordinary Iraqis, Iran is almost as unpopular as the US. Thus, with some political will, the US can claw back the narrow strategic advantage that the Iranians may win through a Shia coalition deal.
A far more worrying prospect is the irreparable damage that a Maliki-Sadrist government could inflict on Iraq. Maliki’s power and intransigence have been a major cause of delay in the formation of a new Iraqi government. Early in the post-election period both the Sadrists and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) offered to negotiate a coalition with Maliki’s al-Da’wah party on the condition that Maliki would not be prime minister. Maliki refused.
Negotiations with Iyad Allawi, leader of the secular-Sunni Iraqiya list, broke down over the same issue, namely Maliki’s insistence on remaining top dog. And Maliki is not a force to be ignored. As he used his first term in office to build a formidable power base among supporters and in the military and intelligence establishments, many fear the level of power that Maliki may be able to accrue with another four years in office. Some Iraqis are even asking: is Maliki destined to be another Saddam?
Perhaps most seriously, Maliki presided over a collapse of faith in Iraq’s political system. The 2010 parliamentary elections were shambolic and the continued failure to form a government has undermined any remaining credibility. On the eve of the election, the Justice and Accountability Commission (JAC) – headed by a Shia politician who was himself an electoral candidate – disqualified 458 mostly Sunni and secular candidates from participation in the election. The JAC claimed that the candidates were Ba’athists, but failed to release the evidence on which these claims were based – preventing those affected from mounting effective appeals. The debacle threatened to derail the entire election.
Even after the election the JAC attempted to retrospectively ban candidates accused of having links to Ba’athism without even awarding the lost seats to the political party that they had represented – thereby changing the results of an extremely close election after the event. External pressure forced the JAC to drop their case, but faith in the political process had been well and truly shaken.
The most urgent task of the next Iraqi government should be constitutional and electoral reform that reassures voters flagrant manipulations of the political process will not be tolerated. A government dominated by Maliki and Sadr will not make these crucial changes – it is their opponents who stand to lose the most from the status quo.
As for the Sadrists, they are dangerous partners in government. Sadr refused to countenance the idea of renewing Maliki’s term as prime minister in the early post-election period, protesting against Maliki’s 2008 attempt to crush Sadr’s militia, the Mahdi army. We can only speculate what Sadr’s conditions were for making his recent U-turn to support Maliki. The release of men convicted of sectarian killings? A relaxation of controls over the Mahdi army? There are even reports inside Iraq that a slow trickle of Mahdi army leaders are already being released from prison. The possible implications for the revival of civil war in Iraq make for queasy thinking.
In what now feels like the distant past, the results of the March 2010 elections were hailed a great success for Iraq. Voters had thrown out the most sectarian parties in favour of al-Da’wah and Iraqiya, who had both campaigned on anti-sectarian, Iraqi nationalist platforms. But seven months on, Maliki’s proposed coalition with the Sadrists sounds the death knell for Iraqi cross-communalism and the future of Iraq looks bleak.