Iraq Has a New Government … at Last

BY Robert Zeliger  December 21, 2010 at 1:30 PM EST


Iraqi Parliament members vote for the new Iraqi Cabinet (Photo by Iraqi Prime Minister Office via Getty Images)

The Iraqi people cast their votes on March 7. More than nine months later, after months of political turmoil, deal-making, and frustrating starts and stops, Iraq finally has a new government.

The parliament Tuesday signed off on a second term for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and approved his choices for Cabinet. Maliki, whose State of Law coalition came in second in the election, acknowledged the new government had its flaws.

“I do not say that this government, with all its formations, satisfies its citizens’ aspirations, nor the political blocs’, nor my ambition, nor any other person’s ambition, because it is formed … in extraordinary circumstances,” he told parliament.

The biggest hold-up for the past few months had been the negotiations between Maliki and his chief rival, Ayad Allawi, whose political bloc, Iraqiya, finished ahead of Maliki’s by two seats. Political fortunes tilted toward Maliki in October when he reached an agreement with Muqtada al Sadr, a former rival and a fierce critic of the U.S. presence in Iraq. In the past, Maliki had dispatched the Iraqi military to go after Sadr’s powerful militia.

In November, with the backing of both the U.S. and Iran, Maliki reached a tentative agreement with Kurdish parties as well as Allawi’s coalition, which consists mostly of Sunnis.

The deal called for the reformation of a dormant government oversight committee, called the Council for Strategic Policies, to be headed by Allawi. It was supposed to have expanded powers and be able to check Maliki’s strength. Though, so far, no committee has been shaped. As McClatchy reported this week, establishing the council would require amending Iraq’s constitution, and now that a government is formed, “the council risks becoming an afterthought.”

“That is the reality of Iraq today. We have poor governance, but relative stability.”
Joost Hiltermann, International Crisis Group

“Maliki, in the end, pretty much had a clean sweep,” said Joost Hiltermann, an Iraq expert with the International Crisis Group. “Yes, it was a coalition government, but given the election results, that’s not surprising. It was necessary. But, in terms of a coalition government, Maliki had to concede fairly little. He controls the government, the Cabinet. And we have yet to see the Council for Strategic Policies. It was not part of the package deal in that sense.”

Hiltermann said Maliki is stronger today than he was before the election because he has the advantage of time and experience on his side. He doesn’t have to start from scratch, the institutions of the state are tilted toward him already.

Some potential roadblocks ahead include whether Allawi will remain committed to this new government and how big of a role the Sadrists will have in it. According to Hiltermann, they are pushing for more cabinet posts than they are getting at the moment.

Another trouble spot is that several key Cabinet positions in charge of security remain unfilled, including the ministers of national security, defense, and the interior (which controls the police force). It is these ministries, his critics note, that Maliki had been accused of running single-handedly out of the presidential office. They will remain under his control for the time being, as he has appointed caretaker leaders.

On the plus side, all ethnic groups are represented in the new government. On the downside, Hiltermann said, the coalition may be too large and unwieldy to do much of anything.

Once the government gets up and running, “I think we’ll find out there won’t be a lot of actual governing,” Hiltermann said. “There are four blocs, it will be incohesive. It will be hard to make major decisions. Each individual almost has leverage and can block deals. Poor governance, I think, is going to be the hallmark of this new government. But that was the trade. And that is the reality of Iraq today. We have poor governance, but relative stability.”

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