Iraq has just recently broken the world record for the longest time taken to form a government, having outdone the Dutch attempt in 1977. Many in Iraq will be relieved that their elected officials have finally made substantial progress in forming the new government but the result, pragmatic as it may be, is not a healthy sign for Iraq’s democracy.
Months of horse-trading and working out who has the right to form which government has led to negotiations going round in circles and every time a step to move forward was taken it was quickly reversed by opposition from rival parties each trying to take their fair share of the pie.
Prime Minister Noori al-Maliki, who is likely to remain in office if the proposed deal goes through, gained popularity and credibility in Iraq only because he took the fight to the Shia militias in Baghdad and the south and proved to the world that he was just as passionate about tackling the Shia outlaws as he was the Sunnis.
Now, however, the very same people who he fought in March 2008 will be propping up his new government. The Sadrists have a substantial powerbase in Iraq and are naturally expected to be part of any future government that is formed, but the hypocritical nature of their coalition with Maliki is dangerous for Iraq’s democracy because it means years of progress may be erased and take the country back to the days when sectarianism affected every aspect of Iraqi life.
The Sadrists understand, because of their violent history, that they cannot be trusted with any security posts in the new administration and that is why they are now pushing for several service ministries as well as other high-profile posts. The problem is that even with service ministries they will be allowed ample room to manipulate instruments of the state for their own agendas. No party in Iraq is innocent of this crime but they differ in extremes.
The Ministry of Health, for example, was involved heavily in the sectarian conflict that plagued Baghdad only a few years ago. Ambulances were used to transport militiamen across the city and many Sunnis were lured to their deaths. Fellow rival Shia were also targeted. Ammar al-Saffar, a high-ranking member of Maliki’s Dawa Party, and then Deputy Health Minister, was kidnapped by armed men in November 2006 and has not been seen since. Hakim al-Zamili, another Deputy Health Minister and member of the Sadr Movement which controlled the Ministry, was arrested for Saffar’s kidnapping and also for funnelling money and resources to the Mehdi Army. The charges were promptly dropped in a kangaroo court and Zamili has since been elected into parliament and will likely play a key role in the next government.
Maliki will almost certainly be willing to turn a blind eye to the kidnapping of his own colleague, and a string of other criminal activities, if it means he can stay in his seat for another term. This precedent cannot bode well for the future of Iraq.
The breaking-news of a Maliki-Sadr coalition has also shed light on a possible split within another Shia party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, led by Ammar al-Hakim. Hadi al-Amari, the head of ISCI’s former military wing the Badr Organisation, attended the negotiations and yet Hakim and his colleagues are still opposed to a second term for Maliki and even refused to attend the meeting. The embarrassment led other Badr officials to quickly point out that Ameri attended in a personal capacity and that Badr will always stand by Hakim. ISCI has been demoted to the sidelines of Iraqi politics in the four years since Maliki has reigned and they fear another four years of their rivals in power will lead to a further relegation for their party.
The Sunnis in Iraq will be most upset by this news, as they decided not to boycott the elections and join the political process despite fears their attempts would be futile. The Iraqiya bloc they voted for won the elections by a margin but now they will not be forming the government only because of a sectarian Shia alliance.
The good news is Iraq will finally have a government that will be accountable to the people who risked life and limb to vote for them, but it could come with a heavy price that Iraq may not be able to afford at such a crucial moment in its turbulent history.