The coalition that underpins Iraq’s national unity government is showing increasing signs of strain. The possibility that the governing alliance, formed in December 2010, will disintegrate comes at a particularly difficult time in relations between the United States and Iraq—the United States, despite believing it would be a mistake, must withdraw all U.S. forces from Iraq unless the terms of the current Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) are renegotiated. The United States is pressuring Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to renegotiate. Meanwhile, Maliki, who would like a continued U.S. presence, does not dare revisit the agreement for fear it would break the coalition—Moqtada Sadr has already organized demonstrations against a continued U.S. presence and has threatened to leave the government if U.S. troops stay past the end of the year. 

It does not appear at this point that any party or faction has actually reached a firm decision that it wants the government to fail—thus reopening a painful negotiation process that took nine months to complete, or even leading to early elections. But it is abundantly clear that all are playing a game of brinkmanship, trying to push their advantage to the utmost and testing the limits of what they can achieve. A misjudgment by one of the major players could easily create a crisis with unforeseeable consequences.

There are three major levels of tensions threatening the survival of the government and the stability of Iraq more broadly: rising divisions among the governing coalition’s parties, tension between the parliament and the executive branch, and competition between the central and regional governments. 

The Unraveling of the Erbil Agreement

Tensions are growing among parties that joined the national unity government under terms finalized in November 2010 at a meeting in Erbil brokered by Kurdistan regional President Masoud Barzani—the so-called Erbil agreement. Particularly important are tensions between Maliki’s State of Law coalition and Iyad Allawi’s Iraqiya, and tensions between Maliki and Sadr.

The Erbil agreement was a compromise among the parties that had won seats in the Council of Representatives in the March 2010 elections. Allawi’s Iraqiya coalition had won 91 seats in the election and Maliki’s State of Law coalition won 89 seats. Neither could form a government without entering into a coalition with other parties, and political reality dictated that any coalition needed to include representatives of the Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish parties to be viable. This meant that Maliki and Allawi had to compete for the allegiance of the same parties, and compete they did, in a nine-month-long round robin in which every party tried at one point or another to form an alliance with every other party.

When it became clear that neither side could prevail, all parties accepted the compromise mediated by Barzani. Maliki would be the prime minister, but, in exchange, the speaker of the parliament would come from the ranks of Iraqiya, and thus would be a Sunni, while Allawi would head a new National Council on Strategic Policies (NCSP). The Kurds would continue to control the presidency—and, of course, to run the Kurdistan region autonomously. Ministries would be shared among political parties proportionate to the number of seats each controlled. Several issues, however, were left unresolved, including the number of vice-presidents and the nature of the NCSP.

The government of national unity was certainly not a marriage based on love or even convenience. It was a marriage of despair—there was no other acceptable solution. It thus took a month to form the government—the maximum time permissible under the constitution before the president would have to declare that Maliki had failed. Even when the government was announced, it was not complete. Many ministers were only nominated in an “acting” capacity, though it had already been decided which party would control which ministry. Most notably, none of the security ministries—defense, interior, or national security—had a permanent head yet, and Maliki was the acting minister in all three cases. He remained in control of the three ministries at the time of this writing five months later. 

Iraqiya and the Governing Coalition

From the outset, Allawi was the most marginal member of the alliance and Iraqiya itself was looked upon with suspicion by Maliki. Allawi had lost the power struggle with Maliki and was in danger of becoming an irrelevant figure even within the Iraqiya alliance. Several within the bloc even saw their leader as a liability, although most of the time they maintained a public façade of unity.

The consolation prize he was given—directing the NCSP—was essentially worthless. No clear agreement had been reached in Erbil about its powers and role: Allawi insisted that the council had the power to make binding decisions. Maliki, who tended to disregard both the letter and the spirit of the constitution when convenient, was a stickler for legality on this matter, arguing that the council could only be an advisory body unless a constitutional amendment was enacted. As a result, the legislation to form the council was never passed and Allawi finally declared that he was no longer interested and withdrew his candidacy at the beginning of March. While the withdrawal did not mean that Allawi had exited the political scene, it confirmed that he had become a second-tier player.

Iraqiya’s and Allawi’s decreasing influence were also reflected in Maliki’s refusal to accept any of the Iraqiya candidates for the position of minister of defense. Maliki remains his own defense minister and Iraqiya has so far been unable to name the new minister. Maliki also continued to control the ministry of interior, which in theory had been allocated to the National Coalition—the bloc of predominantly Shia parties that allowed him to claim the position of prime minister—and required the approval of his partners in the Iraqi National Alliance.

Iraqiya’s loss of influence has encouraged some defections from the alliance. Like other political coalitions in Iraq, Iraqiya was always a strange grouping of organizations that did not have much in common except for the need to find allies to win votes. In fact, when the alliance was first launched, most analysts assumed it would disintegrate quickly after the elections. It did not because as long as the hope remained that Iraqiya would be able to form a majority coalition in the parliament and Allawi would become prime minister, nobody had an incentive to quit the organization.

Recently, defections have started with the formation of the White Iraqiya bloc, formed by eight parliamentarians and headed by Hassan Aloui. The bloc has become very critical of Allawi personally and Iraqiya in general—even gathering signatures in parliament to question Finance Minister Rafei el-Eissawi, a member of Iraqiya who served as its chief negotiator in the post-election period. The loss of eight parliamentary seats deprives Iraqiya of the slim advantage it enjoyed over State of Law, making it impossible for Iraqiya to aspire to form a new government should the present one collapse.

Moqtada Sadr and the Iraqi National Alliance

While Iraqiya’s major problem has been that of maintaining influence in the government of national unity, Maliki is struggling to maintain the cohesion of the National Coalition. In addition to State of Law coalition, the most important component of the National Coalition was, and still is, the Sadrist Trend. With 40 seats in the Council of Representatives, the Sadrists are crucial to Maliki’s parliamentary majority. Their defection from the coalition would not only undermine the government of national unity, but also make possible the formation of a viable opposition bloc. 

The Sadrists continue to pursue policies markedly different from those of Maliki. While the prime minister has demonstrated at least some openness to renegotiating the Status of Forces Agreement with the United States to allow some U.S. troops to remain in Iraq beyond the end of the year, Sadr has threatened to revive the Mahdi Army if U.S. troops remain. Most recently, Sadr called on the provincial councils to pass legislation that would bar U.S. troops from remaining in their provinces. 

Differences have emerged on domestic issues as well. When Maliki, responding to growing public protests, gave his ministers 100 days to show progress in implementing their programs or face possible dismissal, Sadr argued that six months—almost double the 100-day period—was a more reasonable deadline. Furthermore, Sadrist members of parliament argued that the Sadrist Trend, rather than Maliki, would judge the performance of the ministries it had been allocated, and Sadrist parliamentarians have continued to criticize Maliki on an array of issues. As the 100 days came to an end on June 7, Maliki has stood on the defensive, prepared for a lengthy political battle after his government achieved―as expected by most―little progress. He has called on the Iraqi people to judge him fairly and, in a move signaling a sense of transparency, announced that government meetings would be broadcast on live television.

The Sadrist opposition to Maliki is manifested in other ways as well, importantly in the fight against corruption. The Sadrist Trend has been vehement in denouncing corruption, and has aligned itself with Council of Representative Speaker Osama Nujeifi on that matter. For example, in April the Sadrist bloc in parliament backed a speedy vote on five laws strengthening institutions with a role in fighting corruption, while Maliki wanted the vote postponed. Baha’a Aaraji, a Sadrist and the head of the integrity committee in parliament, has become the most visible arm of the fight against corruption. 

The Prime Minister and the Parliament

There is escalating tension between an increasingly presidential prime minister, who is casting himself in the tradition of authoritarian Arab rulers with almost unchallenged powers, and a parliament that appears determined to play a real role. Parallel to the institutional tension between the prime minister and parliament is the personal tension between Maliki and Nujeifi, two ambitious individuals with their own political agendas. Institutional and personal tensions are difficult to separate, but together they make the situation worse.

The political tensions undermining the Erbil agreement represent a continuation of the old political battles of the pre-and post-election period. The growing tensions between the prime minister and the speaker of parliament add a new institutional dimension to the struggle for power.

On the day the parliament elected him speaker, Nujeifi declared that he was no longer a representative of Iraqiya—the bloc on whose electoral list he had won his seat—but was instead a representative of the Iraqi parliament. In the months since, Nujeifi has tried to stake out positions of his own that have brought him into conflict with Maliki. 

When he was elected, Nujeifi was known as an Arab nationalist who favored a centralized, unified state, opposed the autonomy of Kurdistan, and was highly critical of the federalist features of the constitutions. His outspoken position on Kurdistan’s autonomy was a clear impediment to an alliance between Iraqiya and the Kurdish Alliance during the negotiations on the formation of the government. 

After becoming speaker, however, Nujeifi has largely abandoned the Arab nationalist rhetoric, focusing instead on maximizing the parliament’s power and, not incidentally, his own. Nujeifi has styled himself as a protector of the parliament’s legislative and oversight powers, has challenged the centralization of power in the hands of the government, and has cast himself as a guardian of public morality against the wave of corruption engulfing the country. As a result, he has clashed with Maliki, who seems to be redefining the role of the prime minister in presidential terms and thus chafes at the restrictions the parliament seeks to impose on him. 

Iraq, according to its constitution, has a parliamentary political system, in which the prime minister and cabinet need the confidence of the parliament to govern. The adoption of a parliamentary system goes against the Arab tradition of monarchies or presidential systems, all of which have strong executives and weak parliaments. Nujeifi seems determined to make sure the parliament will exercise the powers granted to it by the constitution—and possibly a bit more. While he has been careful not to become embroiled in the political battles among the parties, Nujeifi has worked to weaken Maliki’s power by enhancing that of the parliament and, perhaps more surprisingly, advocating for a bigger role for the provinces and even for central state institutions. Nujeifi has taken it upon himself to not only mobilize the parliament to work effectively, but also to push other actors to reject political or central government intervention in their affairs. 

The protests that broke out in Iraq in early February provided Nujeifi with an unprecedented opportunity to affirm the parliament’s oversight role. One of Maliki’s responses to the unrest—directed largely against the government’s poor service delivery—was to announce that ministers should present a plan on how to improve performance; they would then be given 100 days to make changes and show progress in addressing people’s needs. Nujeifi quickly pointed out that the government was responsible to the parliament—thus, the parliament, rather than the prime minister, would judge whether ministers had made sufficient progress. He announced that the parliament would hold accountable any minister who did not complete 75 percent of his program by the deadline, threatening the possibility of a vote of no-confidence.

He also asked Maliki to present a comprehensive program to the parliament, one on which he personally could be judged. On one level, it was simply political theater, since evaluating the success of difficult reforms is a complex undertaking—a 75 percent completion rate, therefore, was nearly meaningless. Politically, however, the statement could not have been clearer.

So was Maliki’s reply: he emphasized that he would be the one to judge the ministers’ performance, forcing those who did not measure up, or even the entire cabinet, to resign. He also added that at the end of the 100-day period he would judge the performance of the parliament and call for early elections if necessary—although the constitution does not give him the power to do so.

The most serious confrontation to date concerning the respective prerogatives of the parliament and prime minister was triggered by an April 18 parliament vote to annul a clause in the criminal code that gave ministers the power to block corruption investigations against employees of their respective ministries. The vote was seen as a major victory by anti-corruption activists, but was opposed by Maliki, who sent a letter to President Jalal Talabani requesting that he take the necessary “constitutional measures” to veto the parliament’s decision. 

The purported reason was a technicality, but the intent to block a parliamentary decision was all too clear. Nujeifi denounced the attempt to bypass the parliamentary decision and pointed out, correctly, that the president no longer had veto power. In a last-ditch attempt to stop the decision, Maliki then argued that the constitution gave the parliament the right to vote only on bills submitted by the council of ministers or the president. Bills proposed by parliament had to go first to the cabinet for its approval—at best, an extremely idiosyncratic interpretation of the constitution that Nujeifi promptly rejected. 

A decision by the Federal Supreme Court, dated November 23, 2010, but never publicized until the April spat between Nujeifi and Maliki, actually appears to support Maliki’s position. The decision, it should be noted, was issued in response to an appeal by Maliki just before he became prime minister. This raised concern, not for the first time, that the Federal Supreme Court tends to finds in favor of Maliki. 

In seeking to impose congressional oversight on the prime minister and the cabinet and to defend the right of parliament to vote on its own bills, Nujeifi has by and large maintained the spirit of the constitution, although he has pushed the envelope in some cases. But he moved in constitutionally uncharted waters when he cast himself as the defender of the rights of provincial authorities against the central government. This newfound role was particularly surprising given his past as an opponent of federalism and decentralization. On March 30, for example, Nujeifi hosted a conference for governors and provincial council leaders in the parliament. He called on them not to submit to the hegemony of the central government; to work toward clarifying the divisions of power among the local, provincial, and central governments; and to create mechanisms—using the constitution—aimed at strengthening provincial and local powers. He stressed that the governor is, as per the constitution, the executive and the policymaker of the province. 

In a similar vein of fighting for a weaker central government, Nujeifi also met with the heads of the various independent commissions on April 27. At a press conference following the meeting, he took it upon himself to voice their concerns and their determination to reject political pressure and interferences in their work—a thinly veiled accusation against Maliki, who was trying to impose his office oversight on the independent commissions.

Federalism Comes of Age? Maliki and the Provinces

Tensions are also rising between the central government and regional/provincial governments—old in the case of Kurdistan, new and increasingly significant in the case of Nineveh, Anbar, Karbala, Salahuddin, and Diwaniya provinces.

Since the formation of the new government, the relationship between the central government and the provinces has undergone considerable change. The old image of Iraq as a country where Kurds insisted on their autonomy, Sunnis were equally committed to a centralized state, and Shias also were committed to a centralized state after dallying briefly with the idea of an autonomous Shia region needs to be revised. The transformation has been underway for a while, but it has become much more obvious recently. 

In 2005 and 2006, one of the main Sunni grievances was that the Kurds, with the connivance of at least some Shia parties including the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), had forced the adoption of a constitution calling for a weak central government. Regions—at the time, only Kurdistan—had far-reaching powers; provinces did not, but they could opt to transform themselves, individually or by joining with others, into regions with the same degree of autonomy as Kurdistan. The suggestion by the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) in 2006 that the nine predominantly Shia provinces might merge into a single region was greeted by Sunnis with dismay. 

Attitudes have changed drastically over time. First, the idea of creating a southern Shia region waned quickly after Shias gained power at the center of government. Second, Sunnis in Iraq became increasingly wary of the central government as Maliki consolidated his power—if the central government is Shia-dominated, as Sunnis see it, then a strong central government is not in their interest. Finally, the passing of the provincial law of 2008—which formally gave more authority to the provinces—caused some provincial governors and members of provincial councils to reconsider the advantages of regionalization. A region would have more autonomy to make decisions and more control over its own revenue, and would depend less on the performance of the central government to solve its problems. 

The latter issue became particularly important when Maliki tried to deflect the anger of protesters from the central government to the provinces, blaming them for the low levels of services. Provincial officials argued that they were not able to deliver services because the central government was not providing the funds and the division of powers between provinces, and the federal government did not give them the authority to tackle the problem on their own. The demand for a clarification on the respective power of central and provincial authorities in fact emerged as a main demand of the participants in a conference for “regions and provinces not organized into regions,” hosted by the Iraqi parliament on March 30. 

Efforts Toward Decentralization

The idea of transforming existing provinces into a region may be gaining more acceptance. In 2009, Wael Abdul Latif, a member of the Basra provincial council, attempted but failed to collect enough signatures to force a referendum on the issue. According to the constitution, either one-third of the members of the provincial council or one-tenth of the electorate must submit a request for a province to become a region; the request is then submitted to a referendum. 

In January 2011, tribal leader Ahmad Abu Risha, head of the Awakening Council of Iraq and a failed parliamentary candidate in 2010 elections, called for a study of the prospects for creating a region comprising the Sunni-majority Anbar province and the Shia-majority Karbala province. Such a region, he argued, would allow the two provinces to enjoy the advantages of regionalization without reinforcing sectarian trends. The idea did not travel far and was criticized by some Sunni and Shia parliamentarians as a recipe for greater political rifts. Others claimed that Abu Risha’s objective was simply to overcome an ongoing territorial dispute between Karbala and Anbar. 

Apparent interest in regionalization increased in 2011 after protests broke out across the country and Maliki tried to shift the blame to the provincial authorities. On April 23, Karbala’s governor, Aamaludin el-Herr, floated the idea of a self-sufficient Karbala region, arguing that it would not be dominated by the central ministries. He stopped short of announcing concrete steps toward regionalization, however, declaring instead that he would pursue “legislation to increase the province’s powers and implement provincial council laws.” 

A few weeks later, Ali Hatem Suleiman, another Anbar tribal leader, called for the formation of an Anbar region. As a prominent Sunni in Maliki’s State of Law coalition and the leader of one of the three main segments into which the Awakening Council had broken, Suleiman was displaying, not for the first time, his independence from Maliki. On May 15, he declared that tribal leaders and elected officials would transform Anbar into a federal region like Kurdistan unless the government took serious steps to fight corruption. 

The obstacles to the successful formation of an Anbar region are numerous, including divisions among Anbar politicians and the inevitable opposition by Maliki to the formation of a Sunni region. Nevertheless, there is enough resentment against Maliki in Anbar—due to his failure to integrate the Sons of Iraq into the military and the arrest of numerous political figures as well as of former military and police officers—that the idea of making the province into a region may garner support. The increased pressure on the central government in Anbar has led Anbar’s provincial council to declare a political victory as the army began pulling out of the province’s cities and handing over security affairs to the police on June 6.

Salahuddin province has also expressed serious interest in becoming a region, and the fact that it borders on Kurdistan and Tamim province (Kirkuk) introduces a new twist into the quest for regionalization. On May 15, a senior Salahuddin delegation—which included the governor, the chairman, and various members of the provincial council, as well as a member of parliament from Salahuddin—met with Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani to discuss the formation of a Salahuddin region. Barzani expressed his support for the idea and offered Kurdish help and advice, although all sides agreed on the need to proceed slowly. 

The very next day, a majority of the Diwaniya provincial council voted to transform the southern province into a region. The council’s chairman expressed his support for the initiative and transferred the request to the legal committee to study it. It is notable that Diwaniya is a poor province dependent on agriculture with little or no oil wealth. Its officials have often charged the government with unfairly dividing wealth and not giving poor provinces their due.
Nineveh and the Other Nujeifi

In the increasingly contentious relationship between the central government and the regions, Nineveh occupies a special place, not only because it shares a contested border with Kurdistan, but also because the provincial governor, Atheel Nujeifi, is the brother of parliamentary speaker Osama Nujeifi. The tension between the central government and provinces and the tension between Osama Nujeifi and Maliki intersect in Nineveh.

Tensions first erupted during the March protests, when the governor’s offices were set on fire with both Atheel and Osama Nujeifi inside—by protestors, according to Maliki, but by a military unit acting at the behest of Maliki, according to Atheel Nujeifi. As protests continued in Nineveh, Atheel Nujeifi sided with a portion of the protesters. He rejected the curfew imposed on Mosul by the Nineveh Operations Command—linked to the central government—and defied it by personally leading a protest on April 17 and breaking a military cordon. His supporters set up tents in what has been renamed Ahrar Square. The military subsequently tore down the tents and arrested the protestors, allegedly taking some to Baghdad. Atheel Nujeifi declared that this amounted to the imposition of martial law in the city and called for a strike that took place, with some success, on April 26.

Relations between Maliki and Atheel Nujeifi remain difficult. The two have been trading insults—Maliki-aligned media have accused Nujeifi of being a Baathist, for example, while Nujeifi called Maliki ignorant about the problems facing Mosul and Nineveh. Maliki has tried to impose his will on the province, and Nujeifi responded with both legal arguments and displays of political power. Nujeifi successfully—and legally—rejected the appointment by Maliki of a new police chief for the province. More recently, Maliki instigated a meeting of tribal elders and others to call for the resignation of Nujeifi and the entire provincial council, and Nujeifi boasted that Maliki could never force him to resign because he had too much political support in the region, having received more votes than Maliki there. Both sides have tried to rally tribal leaders to their side, and accused the other of being responsible for Nineveh’s many unresolved problems. Interestingly, however, the confrontation between Nujeifi and Maliki has not been accompanied by a major push for or threats of the regionalization of Nineveh.

An Inkling of Democracy or a New Crisis?

The cracks in the government of national unity are all too evident and the possibility that a wrong move by a major protagonist will lead to the collapse of the Erbil agreement is very real. There is undoubtedly more political brinksmanship than problem solving in Iraq now, despite the urgent need highlighted by the protests. While this lack of attention to governance does not make Iraq different from many other countries, it leaves serious problems festering.

There is also a more positive side to the intense political game: so far, it has prevented the emergence of a new authoritarian system, despite the undemocratic tendencies of major politicians. Taken individually, Maliki, Nujeifi, and Moqtada al-Sadr have shown themselves ready to ignore Iraq’s constitution and legal system when it is in their interest to do so, but are quick to capitalize on the democratic system when doing so plays to their advantage. Together, however, they have succeeded in checking each other’s more undemocratic tendencies. 

The same pattern is repeated in the relations between provinces and the central government. Governors and provincial council members who are defending the prerogatives of the provinces and seeking to enhance them are not necessarily democrats, nor do they necessarily believe in federalism as a principle. When they see an advantage for themselves in a more decentralized system—or in the threat of a decentralized system—however, they are ready to grab it. 

The weak commitment to democracy on the part of Iraqi politicians is not surprising. They are all survivors of a brutal political system under Saddam Hussein and of a more recent civil war. They have all carved out their careers under conditions where strict adherence to democratic norms would not have allowed survival. The rules have now changed, and Iraqi politicians are learning to make use of them, at least when it suits them to do so. This at least sporadic adherence to democracy presents a glimmer of hope, yet it remains to be seen whether the reciprocal checks spell the beginning of a democratic system—or the road to a major government crisis.