When Iraqi politicians finally formed a new government in December 2010, nine months after the parliamentary elections, many voices in the international community were congratulatory. Observers emphasized that the Iraqis had managed to create an “inclusive government” in which all the different ethno-sectarian groups in the country were represented. Critics of the deal that led to the formation of the second government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki pointed out that it simply papered over persisting conflicts among Iraqi politicians. It also produced an oversized, ineffective, and unstable government with lots of unnecessary, bogus ministries (including such portfolios as civil society and the southern marshlands), whereas ministries that were truly needed, especially relating to national security, remained unfilled.

Eight months on, it seems the critics got it right: the government remains incomplete and lacks key ministers for the interior and defense, whereas the strategic policy council (celebrated by the United States as a key power-sharing instrument of the government-formation deal) has yet to even be formed. Much of 2011 has been spent agreeing on three unnecessary deputies for the ceremonial presidential office (one of whom has already resigned), while progress on the debate between the Kurdistan Regional Government and Baghdad over oil exports has been limited to a pragmatic agreement to export from two fields—and the pending parliamentary agreement on oil and gas laws still seems a long way off. 

Meanwhile, Iraqis do not seem to share the international community’s enthusiasm for an oversized government in which each and every ethno-sectarian interest is represented. In their own limited articulation of the Arab Spring movement over the past five months, Iraqis have criticized the unnecessary positions that render the government less effective–namely, the multiplication of vice-presidents (who have extremely little power and are essentially a waste of government money). More recently, criticism has focused on unnecessary ministries of state created as part of the December 2010 government-formation deal – positions which were basically allocated as rewards for joining the Maliki government, with clear expression of their responsibilities a secondary concern at best.

The response from political leaders has been limited and detached from reality—and typical. The secular Iraqiyya Movement oscillates between calls for either implementation of a strategic policy council with executive powers or for new elections altogether. Both are unrealistic options: not being in the constitution, the policy council is likely to remain powerless; on the other hand, Iraqiyya simply does not have the absolute majority in parliament required to call general elections. For his part, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of the Shiite Islamist State of Law alliance keeps talking about the alternative of a “political-majority” government as well as the reduction of his current cabinet. The former option (under discussion ever since the difficult budget negotiations in February) seems distinctly far-fetched as it would involve Maliki’s resignation as prime minister as a first step. The second idea holds greater promise for success but is bandied about without accounting for the considerable constitutional immunities enjoyed by incumbent ministers—who need to be dismissed by individual votes of no-confidence before cutbacks could be made.

On the coalitional level, there have been two interesting tendencies. First, the secular Iraqiyya has not broken apart in the way many Western analysts had forecasted. Certainly, a small faction known as White Iraqiyya has defected, but the main coalition has remained intact and has even grown —indeed, they were recently joined by the Unity of Iraq bloc (which shares its secular orientation). Significantly, just like Iraqiyya, Unity of Iraq is headed by a Shiite (Jawad al-Bulani), so the crude designation of Iraqiyya as a “Sunni party” will become doubly implausible going forward. 

Secondly, Maliki’s State of Law alliance remains intact, and its selection of a parliamentary bloc leader has only served to underline the fiction of a greater, all-Shiite “National Alliance” that delivered the premiership to Maliki in autumn 2010. But Maliki has failed spectacularly at the parliamentary level in terms of reaching out beyond his traditional Shiite Islamist constituency—meaning his lofty talk of Iraqi nationalism still has a hollow ring to it.

In an interesting new development, some individual Kurdish politicians and Iraqiyya have lately found a common interest in secularism and anti-Iranian rhetoric. This has involved parliamentary discussions about the role of Islamic law as well as criticism of Iranian shelling of Kurdish areas, clearly undermining the Kurdish-Shiite Islamist alliance that laid the foundation for the formation of the second Maliki government. It also creates tension among Kurdish politicians who differ on relations with Iran. 

None of these developments, however, has sufficient momentum to bring about an immediate change in government. In the near future, the focus is likely to revert to the more mundane issues of filling ministers’ positions for defense and the interior, although so far the discussion about these portfolios has stalled due to disagreements among political leaders. Yet, it is a hopeful sign that most of the disagreements have been of an intra-party and intra-sectarian character: Sadrists have rejected Maliki’s choice for the interior minister; contingents of Iraqiyya have dismissed a candidate for defense backed by other parts of their alliance but perceived by detractors as leaning too much toward the Maliki camp. 

Exactly like the broader discussion about the future of the US forces in Iraq after 2011, the question of the security ministries has the potential to crack the alliances that emerged after the 2010 parliamentary elections and subsequent political stalemate. Perhaps it is these kinds of cracks – and not a quest for strategic policy councils or the addition of more ministers to bring everyone “inside the tent” – that will eventually give Iraq the more effective government it so desperately needs.

Reidar Visser is an historian of Iraq who blogs at http://gulfanalysis.wordpress.com.