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Iraq’s Stalled Government: Which Blocs Will Form Core?

September 2, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Margaret Warner reports from Baghdad on the growing frustration among Iraqis -- and allies -- that a government has yet to be formed five months after parliamentary elections.

JIM LEHRER: And now again to the latest on Iraq from Margaret Warner.She reports from Baghdad on Iraq’s political stalemate.

MARGARET WARNER: The book market along Baghdad’s Mutanabi Street is a reminder of the city’s faded past, where students hawk pamphlets, intellectuals look for their favorite authors, and the chattering class gathers to chew over politics.

The Humvee at the entrance is a reminder of the car bomb that ripped through the market in 2007 next to the stall of bookseller Munaf Fadel.He says the terrorists were targeting Baghdad’s educated elite.

Every day, he worries, it will happen again, and he blames Iraq’s leaders.

MUNAF FADEL, bookseller (through translator):I have to emphasize, there’s no government; therefore, there’s no security.Stability depends on the government’s ability to enforce the law.We don’t have a government, so we don’t have security.

MARGARET WARNER: Haiem Mahdi al-Shatri, who’s been selling books here for more than 50 years, can’t understand how a civilization that brought written language to the world has spawned such unworthy leaders.

HAIEM MAHDI AL-SHATRI, bookseller (through translator):It’s a game they’re playing with us.Is it logical that no one could form a government?For the last seven years, what have Iraqis benefited from their government?Nothing.

MARGARET WARNER: Iraqis voted in parliamentary elections nearly six months ago.No party won a majority, and, ever since then, the four leading parties have been tussling over how to form a new government.

Iraq’s former Deputy U.N. Ambassador Feisal Istrabadi:

FEISAL ISTRABADI, former deputy Iraqi ambassador to United Nations:The wrangling has not been over policy or over principle.It’s simply a matter of who occupies the seat of power.It’s a personal — almost a personal dispute, in which, I must say, the interests of the country come a distant second.

MARGARET WARNER: The dispute pits the top vote-getter, former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and his coalition of Sunnis and secular Shiites, against the close second-place finisher, current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.A Shiite, he, like Allawi, ran on a secular platform.

But the distrust is deep.Both sides raise the specter of utter catastrophe if their opponents assume the top position of power.Here’s what the country’s highest elected Sunni official, Vice President Tariq Al-Hashemi, warns will happen if Maliki remains prime minister.

TARIQ AL-HASHEMI, Iraqi Vice President:This could lead easily to another dictatorship.

MARGARET WARNER: A dictatorship by whom?

TARIQ AL-HASHEMI: By whoever, al-Maliki himself.If he’s going to be prime minister, and he’s not going to change his course, definitely, this country is drifting to a dictatorship within might be the umbrella of — of a fragile democracy.

MARGARET WARNER: And Najaf Governor Adnan Al-Zurufi, a member of Maliki’s coalition, warns of a return to Saddam-era Baathism if Allawi is in charge.

ADNAN AL-ZURUFI, governor of Najaf:It’s about the society and the power.So, that’s why we believe that, if those people came back, there’s no democracy.

MARGARET WARNER: This week, U.S. Vice President Biden was in Iraq, urging the two leading parties to resolve the stalemate by forming an all-inclusive government between them, and, with the two other leading parties, one all-Shiite, one Kurdish.

JOSEPH BIDEN, Vice President of the United States:The government has to reflect the outcome of the election, which is another way of saying, all the four major entities that did relatively well have to be included in the government.That’s a difficult thing to put together.

MARGARET WARNER: And if they don’t?Many Iraqis fear, if negotiations don’t bear fruit soon, Sunni and Shia political leaders may once again resort to sectarian violence to resolve their differences.That could well happen, warns Vice President Al-Hashemi, if Maliki cuts a deal with the other all-Shiite party and excludes the Sunnis.

TARIQ AL-HASHEMI: I’m afraid the response from the Arab Sunnis will be again negative.I can’t control the behavior of my constituency, and I’m afraid that this country back to the sectarian strife.

MARGARET WARNER: Istrabadi says this six-month political deadlock has already taken too high a toll.

FEISAL ISTRABADI: Even if, tomorrow, somehow, a magic wand were waved, say, and a government were formed, it’s going to take, I think, a tremendous amount of time for the government to reassert its authority.

MARGARET WARNER: Leaving Iraqis to wonder if their government elected by the people will ever be able to work for the people.

JIM LEHRER: Ray Suarez talked to Margaret after she filed that report.

RAY SUAREZ: Margaret, welcome.You have shown us the stalemate in Iraq.Has there been any movement to report in recent negotiations?Are there any proposals on the table for breaking the stalemate?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Ray, there are some proposals on the table that would help a sort of power-sharing arrangement between the two top vote-getters, Prime Minister Maliki, former Prime Minister Allawi.

But Vice President Biden really came here to give the two sides a kick in the pants, if you will, and to say, you have to get serious about talking to one another.And he told them that the U.S. administration is growing alarmed that some of these recent terrorist attacks we have seen aimed at government institutions, army, police, municipal buildings, are being encouraged by this political vacuum.

So, he talked turkey to both of them.He said to Maliki, look, no one else is going to accept you as prime minister unless you give up some of the power you have accrued to yourself while prime minister.For instance, he has this 56th Brigade.And it’s basically an army brigade that’s answerable only to him and bypasses the military bureaucracy.

He then said to Allawi, look, you did win the most votes.You won 28 percent, though, and we think you’re a great guy, but we don’t see you getting to 50 percent.And the only way you’re going to do it is in partnership with Maliki.And you ought to be willing to talk seriously about power-sharing.

So, what I’m told today is that it has galvanized the players somewhat, but certainly nothing has come out of it yet.

RAY SUAREZ: The U.S. has carefully avoided taking sides in the deadlock, but two very different outcomes, two very different governments could emerge from the process.

What might the U.S. face in Iraq if it goes one way or another?

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, that’s a great question, Ray, because the key here is, which two blocs form the core of this new government?

If it is Maliki’s Shiite bloc and the other Shiite bloc, which is composed of parties with real ties to Iran, including Muqtada al-Sadr, the fiery cleric we all know, that is not a good scenario for the United States, because it’s believed that it will be heavily influenced by Iran.And with Sadr in the coalition, he is very anti-American.

If it is Maliki and Allawi’s coalition, then the U.S. thinks that’s a government it can do business with, because, in fact, both Allawi and Maliki to some degree do want to have a working relationship, and they think, if they are the key core partners, they will be able to be free of too much Iranian influence.

Iran, meanwhile, sees it the other way.And we have been — I have been told by a member of both Maliki’s coalition — and then I met with Allawi today — and he implied the same — that Iran is very worried that if, say, it were the scenario the U.S. wants and headed by Allawi, that Iraq might be used as a base for the U.S. to invade Iran.

So, what you really have are regional power politics on a grand scale here.

RAY SUAREZ: As you mentioned, this has already gone on for almost six months.What’s the risk for Iraq if the standoff continues?Can it go on much longer?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, people in the street think it’s very risky, and — and you saw this in my taped piece.We heard that over and over again.And it’s kind of amazing to me, actually, that people are even paying attention to an arcane subject like the formation of a government.But people say, look, we went to the polls.We mostly voted for secular parties.We want people who can get something done.And now they’re just dithering around.

So, the — and the public does see these attacks as related to that vacuum.Whether or not that’s the case, no one is sure.But U.S. and Iraqi intelligence do believe so.So, the risk, of course, as I said in the piece, is that, if it keeps going, that the temptation here, which happened three years ago, is that some of the political players may decide to use violence themselves as a pressure point.

And that would really be a dire scenario for Iraq.And the Sunni camp told me that — that Biden, Vice President Biden, made clear — in this visit, he said, if this place descends into sectarian violence again, the U.S. will not be able to ride to the rescue with more troops, the way we did in ’07.

That said, Ray, both Allawi today told me, and the vice president said yesterday he sees another month or two before this is resolved.

RAY SUAREZ: And what do you have coming up in your next report?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Ray, my last piece tomorrow on the broadcast is going to be about why there isn’t more electricity here in Iraq.

As I have reported before, I mean, people have been sweltering all summer in 120-degree heat.And here in Baghdad, power goes off all the time.In fact, I think every single interview we have done has been interrupted by a power failure.It goes black, and then the private generators have to kick in.

So, we have got, I think, a fun and interesting story about that tomorrow.And then I have been doing a lot online, blogs.And I take viewer questions that will be on tonight.So, I hope people will tune into that, too.

RAY SUAREZ: Our Margaret Warner in Baghdad, good to talk to you.

MARGARET WARNER: Great talking to you, Ray.