Disarray and dissent are clouding the formation of Iraq’s new provincial councils, which only now are taking shape more than two months after regional elections.
Political bickering, as well as Iraq’s laborious electoral procedures, has delayed the seating of new councils and their subsequent selection of governors. Many Iraqis had hoped the process would herald a new era of representative government and kick-start the delivery of urgently needed services and economic development.
Instead, the steps have been marked so far by walkouts, boycotts and street protests, highlighting continued sectarian divisions and the frictions that prevail even between those factions that are reconciled to the political process.
On Tuesday, all factions in Shiite Muslim-majority Wasit province boycotted the latest meeting called to choose a governor after street protests were held the previous day against the leading contender.
In Diyala province, U.S. forces were called in Sunday to escort council members to safety after Iraqi police attempted to storm the building, saying they had arrest warrants for some of those inside. The council elected a governor the following day, but many members boycotted.
In the case of Basra, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki reportedly is poised to fly down and intervene in disputes within his own Enforcement of Law coalition that have prevented the selection of a governor there.
Most alarmingly, in Nineveh province, home to the volatile city of Mosul, Kurds have announced an indefinite boycott of the provincial council. The move came after the Sunni Arab nationalist party Hadba, which won a majority of seats, formed an administration without giving any positions to the Kurdish alliance that won about 25% of the popular vote.
The Kurds say that violates the spirit of the new Iraq, which has seen many of its institutions built upon power-sharing coalitions among rival factions.
“We hope Hadba changes its mind. If not, it’s going to be very difficult for this government to succeed,” warned Khasro Goran, the outgoing Kurdish deputy governor of the province.
The dispute threatens to escalate tensions between Arabs and Kurds over territories around Mosul that both claim. Kurds living in areas they dominate are unlikely to cooperate with the new provincial administration, Goran said.
Amid the confusion, some patterns are emerging that illustrate the shifting political landscape ahead of crucial national elections scheduled for the end of the year.
Maliki, building on the electoral success of his Enforcement of Law group in the provinces that are mostly Shiite, also has eschewed coalition governments where possible. Enforcement of Law took full control of the council in Baghdad province, to the dismay of smaller parties, and is expected to do the same in the oil-rich southern province of Basra once the disputes within the coalition are ironed out.
Maliki seems likely to succeed in appointing governors in most of the southern Shiite-majority provinces where his coalition received a plurality but not majority of votes, displacing the formerly dominant Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, or SIIC, by reviving his old alliance with groups loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr.
But hopes that January’s election heralded a change from sectarianism toward a more unified vision of the country have proved exaggerated, said Reidar Visser, editor of the southern Iraq-oriented website historiae.org and a research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs.
Rather, the horse-trading demonstrates that Iraqi politics “is still immature, murkier and more subjected to raw party interests and influences of regional players -- particularly Iran -- than admitted by those who created the ‘success story’ about the January elections,” he said in an e-mail.
“There are some changes,” said Saleh Mutlak, a Sunni secularist whose party has found itself in opposition in almost every province where it won seats. “But they are actually not that big because the religious parties are still there.”
Special correspondents in Mosul, Baqubah, Najaf, Basra and Amarah contributed to this report.