Iraqi Assembly Fails to Elect Speaker Showing Nation’s Political Rifts
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MARGARET WARNER: To explain what’s behind the current stalemate in Iraq, we turn to Larry Diamond, who served as political adviser to the coalition provisional authority in Baghdad for several months last year. He’s now a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford.
And Reuel Gerecht, the former CIA operations officer in the Middle East from the mid ’80s to mid ’90s. He’s now a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Welcome to you both. Mr. Diamond, in the broadest political terms, explain why the Iraqis are having such a hard time forming a government.
LARRY DIAMOND: Well, basically, Margaret, it’s an interim constitution that allows for the formation of this government with a lot of veto points and which requires a great deal of consensus.
In order to begin to form a government, they have to elect a presidency council, and they have to do that by a slate, and it has to be elected by a two-thirds vote. So there’s a lot of consensus, logrolling and coalition-formation that’s necessary to put this together and they’re trying to do everything at once. So it’s very complicated.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Gerecht, how much of it is also the fact that you have these three ethnic factions that have no history of either negotiating with one another nor really experience in the art of political compromise?
REUEL GERECHT: I think that has a lot do with it. I mean, dictatorships do not breed a spirit of compromise and tolerance. I mean, I think there are three overarching themes that you have going on there, and certainly what you might call behind everything is a sectarian idea, a sectarian politics that the Sunnis, the Shia and the Kurds have something that rightfully ought to belong to them.
It’s important, I think, to remember that there are issues of religion and state that will divide them. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the religious Shia against the less religious Sunni and Kurds.
There’s federalism, which is a very important issue for the Kurds. And attached to that issue actually is also oil wells, the division of the oil wealth of the North, which the Kurds think should go primarily to them, and the Sunnis and Shia have, of course, a somewhat differing view.
MARGARET WARNER: And Mr. Diamond, going back to the point you made about the need for consensus, if we reduced it to the political ABC’s, it is that though the Shiites won a clear majority, they have more than 50 percent, the rules under which they’re operating mean they cannot muscle things through on their own, is that right?
LARRY DIAMOND: Well, Margaret, you could put it that way in the sense that you need a two-thirds vote to get a presidency council who then have to unanimously agree to nominate a prime minister.
But keep in mind that the United Iraqi Alliance predominantly Shiite but not exclusively, actually won only 48 percent of the vote, and a number of Shiite votes, probably 30 percent of Shiite votes, went to other parties, primarily the interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s list.
So Shiites are divided among themselves to some extent and even within the United Iraqi Alliance, it’s a coalition that’s riven with its own internal factions, even though they unite under the somewhat more religious or Islamist banner in orientation symbolized by the blessing of Ayatollah Sistani.
MARGARET WARNER: Alright, and then if we turn to the Shiites and Kurds, expand a little bit, Mr. Gerecht. Have the Kurds being playing hardball? They’ve got 75 votes.
The Shiites, even if they can agree, and as Mr. Diamond explained, they don’t totally agree on everything, but even if they were, they need some Kurdish votes. Have the Kurds been playing hardball?
REUEL GERECHT: Oh, sure. They’ve definitely been playing hardball. I mean, the Kurdish history in modern Iraq is not a happy one.
What the Kurds certainly want to guarantee is that they have enough autonomous authority, federal authority, to guarantee them certain political rights and civil rights, which would not be subject to any type of parliamentarian, majoritarian vote.
And I think they’re going to be quite tough on those issues. There’s also the issue obviously of the oil in the North and the city of Kirkuk in particular, which the Kurds see as sort of their Jerusalem, and they want to reverse the process of Arabization that occurred under Saddam Hussein.
So they’re going to hang very, very tough. Now the Shia don’t have any history of bad blood with the Kurds, however, the Shia really are the progenitors of modern Iraqi nationalism. They certainly believe in a unified state.
So there is friction there, and that friction, I assume, is going to continue. I think they will reach a compromise, but it’s going to be tough.
MARGARET WARNER: Alright, now talk to us about the Sunnis, Mr. Diamond, because the immediate stumbling block yesterday was that though the Shia and Kurds very much want to give the post of speaker to a Sunni that the Sunnis could not agree on one. What’s the problem there?
LARRY DIAMOND: Well, the problem it seems is not so much that the Sunnis couldn’t agree on a speaker, but that the person that the predominant powers in the assembly had invited, namely the interim president, Gazi al-Yawer declined it because he felt that having served as president the post wasn’t good enough for him.
I think we may look back historically and judge that this was a serious error on President al-Yawer’s part. You know, part of the problem, Margaret, is that because so few Sunnis, perhaps only 25 to 30 percent of them came out to vote, and it was a proportional system, only about 6 percent of the seats in the national assembly are held by Sunnis.
So you’ve got 17 Sunnis, and they’re looking now for another one that would be judged to have sufficient stature to be the speaker, formally the president of the national assembly.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Gerecht, someone I read today also noted that the Kurds know they will probably never be as powerful as they are now because the Sunnis didn’t participate.
I mean, the Kurds have an outsized presence in this current assembly, do they not? As compared to their population, so they’re trying to take full advantage of it.
REUEL GERECHT: Yes. I mean, they definitely want to use whatever leverage they have, the leverage is greater now before they actually had a written constitution, before the politics of Iraq becomes solidified.
I would add, though, I think in the future, even though the past history of Iraq is largely of Sunni Arabs oppressing, brutalizing the Kurds, that down the road, not that far down the road I wouldn’t be surprised to see sort of a Kurdish/Sunni-Arab entente to sort of balance the power in Iraq against the Shia community.
MARGARET WARNER: And, Mr. Diamond, is it known yet, and I know deal is final until everything is final, but is it known yet on the question of the role of Islam whether that has been privately agreed to yet between the Shiites, among the Shiites and with the Kurds, the role of Islam in the new Iraqi government?
LARRY DIAMOND: It isn’t known, and, of course, what the permanent constitution will say about the role of Islam in political life and its relationship to law and the state can only be determined in the negotiations over the permanent constitution.
I think the interesting near-term question that people will be looking at is whether there will be an effort to impose Islamic Sharia Law in personal and family matters. The Iraqi governing council, the representative body during the occupation, voted in a sort of late-night partial vote to impose this in December of 2003.
And then it was reversed by the full governing council a couple months later in an extremely acrimonious session. My guess is there’s probably no agreement on this now, and it’s something that’s going to play itself out over the course of many months.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Gerecht, what’s the impact? What are the potential dangers of this ongoing delay?
REUEL GERECHT: Obviously if it continues and continues and continues, it’s possible that it could reverse the real momentum that was evident after Jan. 30. I mean, it appears that the violence has been diminishing, that Jan. 30 really was a revolutionary moment for Iraqi society.
If, in fact, the process to establish this first real government implodes, that’s not good. However, again, I think most Iraqis, even though they’re very frustrated by this and they complain about it quite openly.
Nevertheless, I don’t think they really expected this to go terribly easily, that the Iraqi expectation was that this would be solved on the very last day, the very last moment of the very last day right when they’re on the edge of the precipice.
And I strongly suspect that’s the way it’s going to come out, that right when they’re on the precipice, the forces will come together, the elders of the Shiite, the Sunni and the Kurdish societies will come together and they will work out a deal, and they will move forward.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Diamond, have they reached that precipice yet? I mean, there’s no timetable for actually just these early appointments. Have they reached that yet where the elders are going to come in and force a deal?
LARRY DIAMOND: I don’t think so. You know, what’s happening is a more subtle process, Margaret, of gradual erosion of public confidence and enthusiasm.
And the longer this goes on, the deeper the erosion will be and the more people will become disillusioned with these politicians and maybe with the larger democratic political process.
I think that if they meet on Sunday and can resolve these issues and within the next week get a government together, things can move forward. There’s still an underlying reservoir of hope, enthusiasm and goodwill that can be exploited.
MARGARET WARNER: And if they can’t, Mr. Gerecht, then also what is the impact — I’m thinking of what Gen. Abizaid had to say — on the insurgency?
REUEL GERECHT: Well, if in fact the momentum of Jan. 30, of the hope and promise of Jan. 30 is derailed, then I think you will fuel the insurgency because the Sunni insurgents will believe that in fact the new order hasn’t arrived and that there is some way they can actually overturn the democratic revolution which they oppose.
So that is the worst-case scenario. I still remain fairly optimistic here. I think there has been erosion of the initial enthusiasm after Jan. 30, but I think again the history of Iraq is so very bad that the expectations, the hopes of something better, I think aren’t terribly hard to fulfill.
And it’s very, very likely that you will see certainly on the Shiite and the Kurdish sides a consensus developed, fitfully, painfully and with a great deal of screaming.
MARGARET WARNER: At least they’re talking instead of fighting.
REUEL GERECHT: Yes.
MARGARET WARNER: Reuel Gerecht, Larry Diamond, thank you both.