Iraq has reached a political plateau. The U.S. troop surge has stopped the downward spiral in sectarian violence, allowing politics potentially to move in a different direction. The new Sunni Awakening movements emerging in many provinces have introduced fluidity into the situation, but also uncertainty as they challenge the parties in power. In general, the political process is on hold. The cabinet remains truncated, although the Iraq National Accord ministers have returned, and parliament has recessed without passing the provincial election law and other key legislation. Where can we expect political life, and political institutions, to go from here?
To assess this complex situation, there are least three processes to watch: the on-going struggle for power among various parties and groups, recent state building efforts, and the cohesion of the four-party (two Shi’i and two Kurdish) coalition currently in power.
The Struggle for Power
The main players in Iraqi politics are now clear. They are the political parties that won the 2005 elections by drawing heavily on ethnic and sectarian identity for constituent support. They still do, but the ethnic and sectarian coalitions in which they were embedded are breaking up and the key parties have now taken on lives of their own. This has reduced but not eliminated the importance of communal identity, as parties stake out more narrow claims and constituencies and engage in parliamentary and other political negotiations to achieve their aims.
The Iraqi government now consists of an uneasy coalition of four parties: two Shi’i religio-political parties—Da’wa and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) —and the two main Kurdish parties—the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). A fifth party, the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP), which has just rejoined the cabinet, is more marginal but still important as it is the only party representing Sunnis in the cabinet. These parties and their leaders, through their hold on key ministries and other offices, have control of central government institutions and resources, which they can, and are using, to stay in power.
A second group of players—far less important—includes the losers of the 2005 elections, mainly Iraqi nationalists and secularists (Iraqiyya), ex-Ba’thists (Iraqi National Dialogue) and some independents, together with members of the Shi’i movement led by Muqtada al-Sadr (Sadrists) and one of its more moderate offshoots (Fadhilah). This fractured group has seats in parliament but no control over government resources. They, and a few other factions, have developed a kind of floating parliamentary bloc, which can get enough votes on occasion to check the dominant four parties—as they did on the recent vote on provincial elections—but not enough to move ahead on their own or to displace the governing coalition. Lacking government resources or much political organization, they are not likely to do better at the polls in the next elections.
Two players—Sadrists and the various groups in the Awakening movements—do not rise to the definition of parties but are important. While currently out of power, they are mobilizing to get in. They have grass root constituencies and armed forces at their disposal; Sadrists also have delegates in parliament. These groups can win seats in the provincial elections, either directly or indirectly. Sadr, for example, has said his supporters will not run as a party but will support independents, technocrats, and others. The Awakening movements in Anbar, Baghdad, and elsewhere has created groupings, but these tend to be fractured, mainly along tribal lines. Given a more open list electoral law, as well as widespread dissatisfaction with the lack of services and the government’s performance, some of these new players could make it into provincial councils. But their ability to make inroads into the hold of the four or five parties in power will run into the reality of the state building process.
Iraq is also engaged in a broader process that may be called state building, if not yet nation building, which aims at strengthening the power of the central government at the provincial and local levels. This process centers on the army, the police (especially the National Police), and the intelligence services, as well as control over finances and the budget (mainly under the Ministry of Finance). The four main parties—and mainly the two Shi’a parties—increasingly control these forces and sources of revenue. Indeed, some would say that it is Nuri al-Maliki, Prime Minister and Commander-in-chief, who is concentrating what little power lies in the central government in his own hands, by creating an inner circle of advisors on whom he relies and appointing key military and intelligence figures loyal to him. Whatever view one takes of the process, a key element in this centralization has been bringing independent militias under government control, as can be seen in the recent military campaigns in Basra, Amarah, and Sadr City. In all of these areas, the militias under attack were Sadrists of one kind or another, who constitute the main political threat to the two Shi’i parties in power. More recently, in Diyala, Iraqi Security Forces have gone after some Awakening forces, another threat to their power.
This military effort has been coupled with the unexpected revenue bonanza from rising oil prices, which has put an extra $70 billion into the central government’s 2008 budget, a huge sum the government can use to employ its supporters in the military and the bureaucracy as well as to buy support in the provinces. While a strengthening of government capacity in the military and the bureaucracy—both at the center and in the provinces—is essential to Iraq’s stability and its democracy, the process raises several questions. Will it produce—as some hope—a more professional army and civil service? Or will it merely benefit the parties in power and prevent further expansion of the political process? The former will hold only if appointments at the national level, especially in the military and the police, are made on the basis of merit, not partisanship, and if the provincial elections, when they are held, are both secure and fair. And political forces outside the current coalition, such as the tribally-based Awakening groups, will have to organize politically to get their share.
The Kurdish Factor
A third process to watch is the cohesion of the four-party coalition in power. The key groups here are the Kurdish components. While the original Shi’i coalition that won the 2005 election (the United Iraqi Alliance) has collapsed, leaving ISCI and Da’wa alone, the two Kurdish parties have put up a fairly united front on their issues. This is especially true regarding a referendum that would put Kirkuk under the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and extend their control over other Kurdish majority areas in disputed territories. The two Kurdish groups have also successfully guarded and even expanded the extensive government prerogatives they gained in the constitution of 2005 and now exercise in the KRG, including the right to conclude foreign oil contracts.
The Kurdish parties are now facing political opposition over these issues, however, from a wide array of parties and groups inside and outside parliament, including ethnic minorities in Kirkuk (Turkmen and Arabs), most of the “floating” coalition in parliament, and parts of the Shi’i coalition that form the backbone of the governing coalition (Da’wa and reportedly even some in ISCI). The Kurds walked out of the parliament on a recent vote over the Kirkuk issue; the result was a postponement of the provincial elections, as well as the referendum on Kirkuk. And the coalition is also divided over who (the central government or regions) will ultimately control oil contracts. A settlement of the Kirkuk issue that keeps the Kurdish parties committed to Iraq and to the democratic process is essential not only for the governing coalition but for the political process as well. Thus the Kirkuk issue will shape not only the structure of the Iraqi state, but how it is governed.
Phebe Marr is an analyst of Iraqi affairs and author of The Modern History of Iraq (2004), which will come out in an updated edition in 2010.