Analysis: Four lessons from Iraq’s new government

Nouri al-Maliki 's return to power offers important lessons about Iraq and the wider region. Here are four of them.

More than eight months after national elections, Iraq finally has a new government — and it looks a lot like the old one. A parliamentary session Thursday night gave the job of speaker to Osama al-Nujaifi, a Sunni Arab member of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s Iraqiya list. That was the first step of a political deal that saw the legislature re-elect as President Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, who then tapped incumbent Nouri al-Maliki for a second term as Prime Minister. Al-Maliki has 30 days to assemble a Cabinet, a herculean task given the multiple political horse trades and ongoing tensions involved in securing his re-election.

Al-Maliki was re-elected despite a walkout by opposition leader and U.S. favorite Allawi and members of his Sunni-backed bloc in protest of the failure of the parliament to reinstate four of their MPs barred because of alleged ties to Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party. The gesture underscores the challenge al-Maliki will face in placating the Sunni community’s potentially dangerous sense of alienation.

Although Allawi won the most votes in last March’s election, al-Maliki wasn’t far behind, and once Iran had persuaded rival Shi’ite parties to pool their parliamentary votes, the incumbent was clearly the front runner. Allawi was reportedly pressed by the U.S. to accept the speakership and possibly the Foreign Ministry for his bloc, and for himself a lesser role at the head of a National Strategy Council that has yet to be formed or have its powers defined.

But the fact that al-Maliki — unloved not only by his foes but among many of his allies too — has managed to secure a second term is a reminder that Iraq’s political game is won by those best able to manage a complex matrix of competing ethnic, sectarian, political and regional interests. He won re-election not because he was the most popular option, but because he was the most viable. And he’ll have to sustain that balancing act for the foreseeable future. Still, al-Maliki’s return to power offers important lessons about Iraq and the wider region. Here are four of them:

The U.S. Has Little Influence over Iraqi Politics

Ever since the U.S. turned political control of Iraq over to democratically elected Iraqis in 2005, it has struggled to exert influence despite its massive investment of blood and treasure. Washington may be hailing Allawi’s inclusion in a subordinate role as a victory, but in reality it was a salvage operation. Iran’s intervention to consolidate the Shi’ite vote ensured that Allawi was not a realistic option for Prime Minister. The U.S. had continued to press in vain for a power-sharing deal between Allawi and al-Maliki. By last week, Washington was urging the Kurdish bloc to relinquish the presidency to give that post to Allawi, but was rebuffed. That left the U.S. having to nudge Allawi to accept consolation prizes.

Over three elections now, Iraqi democracy has returned governments dominated by Shi’ite parties closer to Iran than they are to the U.S. — although still independent of Tehran and dependent on U.S. security help. Still, the regional implications became clear when exasperated U.S. Senators tried in vain in the summer of 2006 to get al-Maliki, during a visit to Washington, to condemn Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hizballah militia, then involved in a massive shooting war with Israel. Today, no one in government is so naive as to imagine that Iraq’s government would support economic pressure, let alone any military attack on Iran.

Iran Has Influence in — but Not Control over — Iraq’s Government

Allawi, a former Baathist and fierce enemy of Iran, was always unacceptable to Tehran as Iraqi Prime Minister. And the Iranians were able to muster sufficient leverage within Iraq’s democratic system to shut him out. Al-Maliki, first and foremost an Iraqi nationalist, is unlikely to have been Tehran’s first choice, of course, but under the circumstances, he was the best available option. Tehran, by virtue of its historical relationships with the Shi’ite parties and the Kurdish leadership, may wield greater influence than Washington in Baghdad, but it does not pull the strings. It can effectively veto an undesirable outcome, but can’t impose its own best-case scenario.

Al-Maliki Rules by Balancing Competing Interests

Prime Minister al-Maliki’s own political base is relatively narrow — like Allawi, he received less than a third of the vote, and his own authoritarian inclinations have resulted in him being viewed with varying degrees of suspicion and hostility across the Iraqi political spectrum. But he has the advantage of incumbency, and the perception that he is the best guarantor of stability. Al-Maliki has also proven adept at negotiating the delicate balance of forces within his country — unleashing his Shi’ite-dominated security forces first against the Sunni insurgency, and then also against Muqtada al-Sadr’s sectarian militia. He has cooperated both with the U.S. and with Iran, working his regional connections to come out on top of the domestic political contest by getting Iranian help in taking al-Sadr on board, and also breaking the Sunni front behind Allawi by persuading Syria to switch its support to himself. Al-Maliki’s alliances are necessarily based on convenience and politically expedient, however: al-Sadr’s support may have been decisive in helping him win the Prime Minister’s job in 2006, but that didn’t stop al-Maliki from going to war against al-Sadr’s militia two years later.

As Iraq Goes, so Goes the Middle East?

Administration officials hailing the creation of an Iraqi government whose stakeholders range from radical anti-American Islamists to U.S.-backed moderates might raise a few eyebrows given Washington’s policy elsewhere in the region. After all, the U.S. refuses to engage with the likes of Hamas in the Palestinian territories or Hizballah in Lebanon, in line with a view of the region as locked in a zero-sum conflict between U.S.-backed moderates and Iran-backed radicals. But Iraq’s new government spans those divisions. Many foes of Iranian influence in the region have long viewed as naive the U.S. belief that such influence can simply be wished or blown away. Just like Iran’s allies in Iraq, Hamas and Hizballah have demonstrated their support via the ballot box. But in the interests of stability in Iraq, the U.S. has accepted the electorate’s verdict and adopted a policy of integration of all stakeholders. In the years ahead, Washington will find itself pressed to extend the pragmatism it has demonstrated in Iraq to other conflicts in the region. Time