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Choosing a Future in Iraq

January 20, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: Iraqis gathered this morning to watch the announcement in cafes around the country five weeks after the parliamentary vote took place.

SPOKESPERSON (Translated): We as Iraqis are proud of the election which was held in the country. It is right that some fraud happened, but thanks to Allah the results are good.

RAY SUAREZ: The main coalition of Shiite political parties, the United Iraqi Alliance, won the largest number of seats, 128, but fell short of the two- thirds majority needed to rule without partners. The main Kurdish coalition again ran second, claiming 53 seats in the new parliament, down from 75 a year ago.

Picking up 55 seats were two Sunni parties which are sometimes at odds. After boycotting the election last January, Sunnis turned out in large numbers for this parliamentary vote. And a secular Shiite group headed by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi took 25 seats. The remaining 14 seats went to smaller parties.

The posting of results came one day after an international monitoring body confirmed that there was fraud during the election, but declined to call for a re-vote. The new parliament must choose successors for the prime minister and president.

The current prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, is again a candidate for prime minister as part of the main Shiite alliance. Kurdish President Jalal Talabani is expected to run again. The new parliament also needs to fill cabinet posts and negotiate changes to the constitution.

The election created Iraq’s first permanent, constitutionally-elected parliament in more than 50 years. It will govern for four years.

RAY SUAREZ: So what do Iraq’s election results tell us about where the country is headed? For that, we’re joined by: Rend al-Rahim Francke, executive director of the Iraq Foundation, which promotes democracy in Iraq– she served as Iraq’s acting ambassador to the United States under the country’s first interim government, and was in Iraq for the vote; and Vali Nasr, professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. He’s written widely about Middle Eastern politics.

Ambassador, does this election result provide a useful base to form a government and start running the country day to day?

REND AL-RAHIM FRANCKE: Well, it is an essential base. It was the necessary first step towards creating a four-year government, a four-year parliament, and a fully sovereign state.

The problem with the elections is that they polarize the country even more than they were polarized in January on a sectarian basis. The advantage, of course, is that the Sunnis came in to parliament, but they came in as a very large Sunni block and a smaller Sunni block.

In other words, they came in, in the name of Sunnis — not in the name of all of Iraq. So what we have now is a major Shia bloc, a major Sunni bloc, and a major Kurdish bloc.

The parliament is made up of what is now fashionable in Iraq to call “the constituents of Iraqi society.” There is no middle ground. There’s no centrist ground where these Iraqis can politically mix and blend. And I think this is one of the problems that we have.

It is very important, of course, that the Sunnis have come in. It was a great absence in the last parliament. And it gives them a very strong negotiating position in the formation of the government and in the selection of the presidential council.

So they are going to have a say that they haven’t had in the politics of Iraq, really since the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

RAY SUAREZ: So Professor Nasr, given the results, given the ambassador’s analysis, can you form a government out of those results?

VALI NASR: Well, not easily. I mean, I do agree with the ambassador’s points. I also think that there’s much to be sorted out on both the Shia and the Sunni side.

If one thing, these elections confirm for the first time that Sunnis are not the majority in Iraq. They’re a minority, and that psychologically, a lot of the Sunnis have to come to grips with that.

But as far as forming a government is concerned, there are a lot of negotiations likely to happen. The question is: What does it take to placate the Sunnis and would the Shias and the Kurds be willing to give that much power, resources, cabinet positions in order to placate the Sunnis?

And if that does not happen, if there is not a possibility of a strong government in Iraq there, would be a great deal of incentive for the Kurds and the Shias to go back to arguing for a decentralized Iraq, for a strong federal Iraq.

If anything, this two-thirds majority requirement for forming a government, rather than bringing the communities together may actually make it very difficult to form a strong government in Iraq.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, given the need for a two thirds control in order to effectively run the country from day to day, are there blocs, are there alliances that look likely, that look possible in this early going?

VALI NASR: I don’t think so. I think they are far apart. I don’t think that even though that the Sunnis have participated as a community, they’re not psychologically ready to accept the fact that they are no longer going to be dominating Iraq, and these elections have had the quality of a census, the first being short of a census to confirm that despite the large turnout they were not able to trump the Kurdish and Shia position.

And on the other side, the Shia and the Kurds will also be negotiating among themselves, within themselves as to what extent are they committed to a strong central Iraq.

And I think in the coming months, the absence of a powerful government, the inability to form a powerful government, is likely to actually increase competition, both within these camps and between these camps.

RAY SUAREZ: Ambassador, do you agree that there’s no likely candidates for a coalition partner for the Shia list?

REND AL-RAHIM FRANCKE: I don’t happen to agree. Actually, I think that there are going to be coalitions. You have to have collations, because nobody has an overall majority in parliament. You need a two-thirds majority to form the presidential council. You need a simple majority to form the government, to approve the government.

But it’s the presidential council that appoints the prime minister, so that is what comes first, and that requires a two-thirds majority. I think that we will have to have coalitions, and the coalitions will not be hard and fast.

In other words, on some issues, there will be a coalition between the Shia and the Kurds. On other issues, there will be coalitions between the Sunnis and the Shia. These will be shifting coalitions on a number of issues.

The real test is going to be not just the formation of a government but the four months that we have to revise the constitution. If you recall, the Sunnis — some Sunni groups in October 2005 agreed to support the constitution on condition that we can change the constitution or revise it with a new parliament. And the Shia bloc agreed to that; so did the Kurds, by the way.

So we now have a four-month period in which certain changes to the constitution are permissible, and there’s going to be a commission. I think that is where the real problems are going to arise.

That is where the real challenge is going to be for whether these Iraqi sectarian ethnic blocs can compromise sufficiently — can think in terms of what is good for the country as a whole, rather than what is good for my community and come up with the amendments that are absolutely necessary, that are the bottom-line amendments that can make everybody happy, and where nobody loses 100 percent.

RAY SUAREZ: But, Professor, when the ambassador cites that deal that was struck with the Sunni parties in order to get them to participate, that is reassurance that the constitution can be revisited, re-negotiated, aren’t there prominent Shia opinion leaders who are already beginning to back off or cast doubt on just that idea?

VALI NASR: Yes, there are. And, actually, the ambassador is correct. Forming a government — it’s possible to bring different sides together and form coalitions, but on much more fundamental issues, they are far apart. And the really key question is: what does it take to placate the Sunnis and to make them happy and whether the Shiites and the Sunnis — I’m sorry, and the Kurds are willing to pay that price.

And I think the constitutional issues that the ambassador alluded to are the first place that this is going to be visited, and already, Abdel Aziz Hakim of SCIRI has suggested that he will not be willing to go as far as revise the constitution in a manner that would be acceptable to the Sunnis.

RAY SUAREZ: SCIRI being the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

RAY SUAREZ: Does this one way or another, bring the date of American withdrawal closer in your view, this result?

REND AL-RAHIM FRANCKE: Well, I –

RAY SUAREZ: The ambassador first.

REND AL-RAHIM FRANCKE: Yes. I think we should segregate, to a certain extent at least, the security situation from the political situation.

To the extent that American presence is predicated only on the security situation, then you can’t look at the political situation. But I think the political situation is in the long run the more dangerous one for Iraq.

RAY SUAREZ: But, excuse me, haven’t American policymakers closely associated the two by saying when there is political control, that will help stabilize the security situation?

REND AL-RAHIM FRANCKE: Well, I think if we do not come up with a good, strong governing coalition, if the parties in Iraq cannot negotiate the terms of a constitution in such a way that everybody feels happy, everybody feels they’ve got something out of it, then I think the political situation, it is then, over the constitution, that the political situation will deteriorate, and with that, the security situation will deteriorate.

I think the political soundness of the system that we create over the next year is really the key to whether the U.S. can withdraw or not. But in Washington, it appears to be — they think of it as the security situation that is the key. I think we should be looking first at the political situation because that is the one that’s going to determine the security situation.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor, what do you think?

VALI NASR: I agree. I think the political situation is key because in many ways, the United States has been the fourth faction in Iraq, aside from the Kurds, the Sunnis and the Shias. And it has been playing the brokering rule of getting them together on constitutional negotiations at time of elections, and it will play a very important role in trying to put together a government.

And I think the one-year period, and particularly the four months of constitutional negotiations, will not allow the United States essentially to move away. Its presence is critical in making sure that all the sides talk to each other and cobble together an agreement.

But, also, this parliament, for the first time, will have much more anti-American elements in it, both from the Sadres group on the Shia side and the Sunni groups who have come into the parliament.

It’s quite possible that the parliament will now make the departure of U.S. troops a major political issue in Iraq, and will put it front and center into the Iraqi political debate, and that is no longer an issue just for the American public and the American lawmakers to debate, but they will have to confront this debate within Iraq itself as well.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Nasr, Ambassador Francke, thank you both.

REND AL-RAHIM FRANCKE: Thank you.