Iraq’s parliament finally ended a nine-month political vacuum Tuesday, confirming Prime Minister Nouri Maliki for a second term at the head of a sharply divided government whose workings will largely determine how democratic the country can become.
The last of the U.S. force that led an invasion more than seven years ago to oust Saddam Hussein and end his Baath Party’s 35-year dictatorship is scheduled to leave by the end of next year. But the post-Hussein period has been defined by a political battle for primacy between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, and a civil war that nearly destroyed the nation.
The experience of the government over the next four years will show whether Maliki and his Islamic Dawa Party are interested in forging a consensus among Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish parties, or whether they and their Shiite Islamist allies will attempt to dominate the state at the expense of others.
Since 2008, the prime minister has appointed loyalists to posts in the army, police and intelligence services. He controls at least three security and intelligence units, according to Iraqi politicians, security officers and foreign diplomats.
“Maliki is putting in place a sort of structure which reports to him, is loyal to him over anybody else,” said a diplomatic source. “That gives him a lot of power. There are other elements in the country that will try to resist that.”
Maliki’s rivals demanded that he give up part of his hold on the security forces as a condition of joining the government. The prime minister’s supporters, however, say he is exercising powers guaranteed by the constitution.
Even if Maliki and his party seek to build a partnership with their rivals, it will be an immense challenge. All still are scarred by the Hussein years and the sectarian war that followed. The groups also harbor deep suspicions that their rivals wish to elbow them aside. Most view their ministries as a means to further their own agenda.
The unwieldy Cabinet consists of 42 members from all major parties.
“Efficacy and integrity and experience will come second after political considerations,” said lawmaker Mahmoud Othman, a Kurd. “So I don’t think it will be a strong government. The bigger the number [of ministries], the larger their budgets, and the more people in there, the more corruption you will have.”
Maliki’s government faces the challenges of resurrecting the economy, improving sputtering services and bringing security to a country where bombs still explode and assassinations occur on a daily basis.
The stakes are high, including the risk of falling back into civil war or an eventual coup by a clique within the government or military. The best-case scenario may well be that the country muddles through long enough for increased oil revenue and improved services to take hold. Given Iraq’s deficits and poor infrastructure, that could take five or six years if things go relatively well.
The often dour-faced prime minister was far from upbeat in an address to the parliament. He complained that parties had failed to nominate female candidates and chastised blocs for not sending him their candidates’ resumes. He described himself as being in a thankless position.
“I am sure I am not satisfying anyone. All are angry with me,” he said. “I would say that this government doesn’t meet the aspirations of the citizens, mine, and political blocs because it was put together in exceptional circumstances.”
Maliki and former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite who is popular with Sunnis, finished in a near tie in March elections. Maliki managed to cobble together a coalition in the fall that included his onetime Shiite rival, anti-American cleric Muqtada Sadr. Soon after, he secured the backing of the Kurds. Allawi’s coalition, Iraqiya, agreed in November to form a national unity government.
But even as the government was approved, 10 posts were left open, including crucial ones: the ministers of interior and defense and the minister of state for national security.
Maliki’s alliance is responsible for choosing an independent figure to run the Interior Ministry, and Allawi’s Iraqiya is supposed to nominate an independent candidate for defense. The mistrust between the two sides was still too high for them to reach agreement on the names before parliament approved the government. Instead, Maliki will be responsible for overseeing the security ministries during the interim period, which could last anywhere from a few weeks to two months.
Other crucial ministries still to be filled include electricity, planning, and municipalities and public works. All of them have acting ministers from the bloc that is expected to run them. Maliki has three deputy prime ministers: his political ally and former Oil Minister Hussein Shahristani; Roj Nuri Shawis, a Kurd; and Saleh Mutlak, a secular Sunni politician.
This Cabinet resembles the national unity government unveiled after the last national elections in 2006, which was made up of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurdish ministers. That lineup unraveled under the pressure of Iraq’s civil war.
However, Maliki begins his second term with his country in far better shape. He is credited with helping stabilize Iraq. Although it remains violent, it is no longer embroiled in an all-out civil war. No longer does Maliki have to consult with the Americans about his governmental decisions.
His ability to come out on top this time is a tribute to his savvy and tenacity. By August, Maliki had created the perception that he was the favored candidate of both Iran and the United States, making it harder for others to push him aside.
Although the United States said it had no preferred candidate, pronouncements in private by U.S. officials that only a Shiite Islamist could be prime minister of this Shiite-majority country were taken by others as implicit support.
Now the undisputed master of Iraqi politics, Maliki will be judged on whether he can keep rivals and allies alike on board. Kurds are demanding a settlement of the status of disputed areas in northern Iraq and want Baghdad to recognize their right to develop oil fields with foreign companies. The Sadr movement, which Maliki once fought, harbors ambitions of leading the country. Iraqiya will try to hold the prime minister to a promise to end a ban on former members of the Baath Party.
Allawi, who has been promised the top post on a council to review government policies, reminded Maliki that breaking promises would be costly. “The Iraqiya slate will show its absolute and full support for the new government,” he told the parliament, “but on the other hand, all the agreements should be implemented.”
Not all of the signs are good. The diplomatic source predicted that Maliki would do everything in his power to marginalize his rivals, including trying to weaken the parliament with a push against its speaker, Usama Nujaifi, a Sunni who is expected to contest Maliki’s will.
“It’s in Maliki’s interest to have a parliament that doesn’t function that well, at least in the short term,” said the diplomatic source. He predicted Maliki would try to buy lawmakers’ compliance through patronage or by threatening them with dossiers he has compiled on them.
“So he can offer them things or bring out his files. It’s sort of Nixonian,” the source said.
“It’s going to be quite rocky.”
Times staff writers Raheem Salman and Salar Jaff contributed to this report.