After uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Iraqis are now joining the wave of protests upsetting the Arab world order as they demand better government services. As a result, increased political stability, service provision, and security in Iraq are even more urgent before the planned withdrawal of U.S. troops later this year.
Two key issues remain unresolved in forming a new government, however: the allocation of the security ministries among the major coalitions and the establishment of the National Council for Strategic Policies (NCSP), which is intended to advise and participate in executive policies, and act as a counterweight to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s power.
Both issues will define the distribution of power between the State of Law coalition led by Maliki and that of his rival, former prime minister Ayad Allawi, who heads the Iraqiya coalition and was slated to chair the NCSP. While Allawi advocates shared management of all executive functions—particularly security—Maliki keeps postponing both the assignment of security positions and the NCSP’s creation in order to hold onto power. The longer the process drags on, however, the narrower the prospects for equitable power sharing become—and the more the security situation will deteriorate on the ground.
When Iraq’s cabinet was announced on December 21, nine of 42 ministries were headed by acting ministers; since then, permanent appointments have come at an extremely slow pace. Most importantly, Maliki still controls the crucial ministries of defense, interior, and national security as acting minister of all three.
This is where the struggle for power between the State of Law and Iraqiya plays out. Managing the security ministries allows the party in power to control large divisions of the army and police, and to direct their operations and deployments throughout Iraq.
The ministry of interior is particularly important. It controls the police forces—who are the most numerous, the most deployed on the ground, and in charge of strategic checkpoints, making them extremely important in exerting territorial control. Many police divisions are bastions of recruitment for Sunni ex-insurgents, a further reason for Maliki to aim for the control of the ministry of interior.
Iraqiya fears that Maliki is not complying with the Erbil agreements, which fixed the allotment of the security positions among the three main coalitions and granted control of the defense ministry to an Iraqiya candidate. Faleh al Naqib—who occupied this post during Allawi’s transitional government in 2004—was the proposed Iraqiya candidate several times, but has been repeatedly rejected by Maliki on the grounds that he will serve Iraqiya interests. Shirwan al Waeli of the Kurdistan Democratic Party is expected to keep his post as minister of national security. However, the potential candidates for the interior ministry are Adnan al Assadi—the ministry’s former secretary general, Uqail al Turaihi, the former general inspector, and the Deputy Chief of Staff of the army General Abboud Qandar, all of whom are affiliated with Maliki’s Al Daawa Party. But none of these assignments have been made yet.
After Iraqiya’s latest proposal—a list of five candidates for the ministry of defense—Maliki announced that he would propose his own list to the parliament in case the two parties cannot reach an agreement. If the parliament rejects his list, Maliki will present a slate of new candidates until a final decision is reached. Maliki’s reluctance to share the ministries also led Allawi to abdicate the NCSP presidency, threatening Iraqiya’s withdrawal from the entire political process.
The establishment of the NCSP—which was expected last month—remains in limbo, particularly after Allawi’s abdication. Debate centers on the procedure to elect the council’s chairman, the chairman’s status and, most importantly, the council’s nature as an executive body. According to the latest draft proposed by Iraqiya, the NCSP should have authority in the strategic, political, economic, and security policies of the Iraqi state. It will be composed of 20 members, including a chairman, the Iraqi president, the council’s vice presidents, the prime minister and his deputies, the parliament’s speaker and his deputies, leaders of the major political blocs, and the chairman of the judiciary council.
Iraqiya wants the NCSP to be considered as an executive body that can issue legally binding decisions—when agreed to by a two-thirds majority for highly strategic issues such as security and resource allocation—and regular decisions when a simple majority concurs. It further believes the chairman should be elected by the parliament and “enjoy the same rights, privileges, and considerations as the prime minister,” according to the draft. The exact meaning of this is still being debated but, according to the article of the Iraqi constitution on the status of the prime minister, the chairman would be able to dismiss ministers with the prior approval of parliament. The draft also gives the chairman the right to call any high-ranking official to attend relevant meetings, including the high army commands.
Maliki countered this proposal by pushing for an advisory—rather than executive—body whose decisions would be compulsory only when made unanimously by its members. In his view, the chairman should be elected by a small committee within the NCSP itself and hold the function of a general secretary rather than a president, a position inferior to the prime minister in terms of executive power.
An NCSP able to issue decisions that force the executive branch to respond to its requests could provide Allawi and his coalition with an alternate platform to participate in the executive process. It would also give them a means to stop Maliki’s decisions from taking effect, particularly on security issues. Allawi has been pushing for the immediate activation of the NCSP, particularly one that would grant him sufficient power and juridical tools to counter Maliki’s weight in the government. Maliki, in return, raises issues over juridical details in the NCSP’s latest draft in an attempt to prolong the process and limit the scope of both the NCSP and its chairman.
Time is a critical factor in this scenario, and Maliki’s ability to draw out the decision making is his best tool for not sharing power. In the countdown before the expected U.S. troop withdrawal in December, time is on his side. The longer he delays making decisions, the more he pushes Iraqiya to give in to increasing pressure to complete the cabinet according to his agenda.
Allawi’s decision to give up the NCSP presidency could be seen as the first sign of Iraqiya caving in to Maliki’s timetable. The more NCSP activation is delayed, the less effectively it can counterbalance and correct a non-equitable distribution of power between the two coalitions. If the ministries are awarded the same time the NCSP is activated, however, those who have been penalized in the ministry allotment would have an alternate arena to help form Iraq’s strategic policies.
By taking further time to choose the security ministers and eventually giving the defense and interior positions to his own affiliated candidates without the NCSP, Maliki will deeply affect security on the ground and jeopardize his government’s already fragile stability. At first glance, Maliki’s centralized control could improve the efficiency of the security forces—still fractured between competing political parties—by unifying the army and police divisions under one chain of command.
However, such an outcome is more likely to harden the position of all parties excluded from the political arena and rekindle violence on the ground. It may also increase tensions with the Kurdish National Alliance, which already distrusts Maliki because of his strong centralization of power in his last term. Failure to allay Kurdish suspicions would hinder the integration of Peshmerga into the police forces and further complicate the resolution of the Kirkuk issue and the disputed territories between the Kurdistan Regional Government and the central government in Baghdad.
Most importantly, the marginalization of the Sunni-dominated Iraqiya from the political scene will surely drive the Sunni police forces and Awakening Council ex-insurgency fighters to collaborate with or rejoin insurgency groups. Any short-term improvement in political stability and security will come at the expense of participation and legitimacy, creating a dangerous scenario where rebuilding state institutions will once again be confused with rebuilding a regime.
In an alternative—and more likely—scenario, a weak power-sharing system could be achieved if Maliki makes several concessions. The Iraqi prime minister will persist in postponing the security assignments as long as he can. Despite disputes from within his coalition- who pushed for Ahmad Chalabi as a candidate- Maliki will surely try to assign the key post of minister of interior to a more loyal candidate. This internal debate is another cause of delay in assigning the ministry of interior, as he is unlikely to give up an opportunity to tightly control the police forces, direct their deployment on the ground, and plant his feet firmly on the Iraqi street.
Having already secured the loyalty of a large part of the army during his last term, he could bestow the position of minister of defense on a non-threatening Iraqiya candidate. He could then leave the national defense position to the Kurdish Alliance and also grant them the position of Director of Intelligence. With the reemergence of the Kirkuk issue following the protests, an Iraqiya-Kurdish alliance as a counter to Maliki is nearly impossible, leaving room for Maliki to strengthen his ties with the Kurds.
The NCSP could become part of a further negotiation process, with its establishment and functions eventually defined by Maliki’s concessions. In this case, the Iraqi political scene will be characterized by a long and exhausting process of bilateral negotiations between Maliki and the different political forces. Security could worsen until the cabinet is formed, and in the long term the situation would fluctuate—as it has in recent years—depending on intervals of conflict and consensus between Maliki and the different political forces.
If stalling for time is Maliki’s strategy, it will undoubtedly help him to consolidate his power within the cabinet. But it will neither improve security nor satisfy the demands of ordinary Iraqis calling for government to provide the most basic services.