Iraq’s new parliament held its first session Monday three months after inconclusive national elections. The brief ceremonial gathering convened even as a political deadlock threatened to delay the formation of the next government until August, if not later.
Lawmakers, dressed in Western suits, tribal robes and clerics’ turbans, filed into the hall for a 19-minute session in which they took their formal oath.
Two men, both seated in the parliament’s first row, loomed over the session: Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and Iyad Allawi, the former prime minister whose coalition won a narrow plurality in the new assembly. Neither man has budged in insisting that he should be the one to head the next government.
Allawi’s slim surprise victory of 91 seats to Maliki’s 89 in the March 7 election scrambled Iraq’s political landscape. The win polarized a country that months ago seemed poised to transcend its recent history of sectarian tensions.
Instead of a clear win for Maliki or Allawi, each of whom had hoped to rally the country’s ethnic and religious groups behind his leadership, the competition for power has turned into a struggle along religious lines. Allawi’s list portrays itself as secular but also representative of Iraq’s Sunni minority; Maliki’s coalition has cast itself as the defender of the country’s Shiite majority.
The closed-door deal-making and identity politics have raised fears that the country’s fragile security gains could unravel as armed groups take advantage of the head-to-head political combat. On Sunday, gunmen attacked the Central Bank in Baghdad, triggering an hours-long battle that left more than 30 people dead. It wasn’t immediately clear whether they were criminals or insurgents.
Last week, Maliki formalized his list’s postelection merger with the other main Shiite-led bloc, the Iraqi National Alliance, giving the two groups 159 seats in the 325-seat parliament, only four short of a simple majority. Such numbers would appear to give an edge to Maliki or another candidate from his newly expanded bloc to become prime minister.
However, Allawi’s supporters are wagering that Maliki’s coalition will still fall apart because of the competing interests of its different Shiite parties. Allawi has warned that a government formed without him could unleash a new round of sectarian fighting. Maliki has issued similar warnings.
Some lawmakers from Maliki’s list suggested that a deal on who will be prime minister could be hammered out within a few weeks, but most lawmakers believe it will take at least until August before a government is seated. Internal U.S. military projections, viewed by The Times, say the government is likely to be seated in October, or in a best-case scenario September, if negotiations gain speed.
“It’s such a complicated case,” said lawmaker Saadoun Dulaimi, a former defense minister. “It’s a semi-conflict among several parties. It’s not easy to see a national direction [or will] to solve this problem.”
Others described the competition as another stage for the festering disputes between the United States and Iran — believed to wield influence over several of Iraq’s Shiite parties — for influence in the Middle East. All sides are mindful of the August deadline for the drawdown of U.S. forces to 50,000 soldiers, who will be restricted to an advisory role to the Iraqi military and police.
“America wants the government quick. Iran is not in such a hurry. They want it done after the American withdrawal,” Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Othman said. “If it’s done in August, it’s good [for the Americans]. After August, Iran will have more influence.”