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Friday, Oct. 8, 2010


Iraqi breakthrough or breakdown?

October 7 marked seven months since Iraq held parliamentary elections. During this time, the country's politicians proved unable to forge a ruling coalition, giving Iraq the dubious honor of surpassing the Netherlands for going the longest time without an effective government following a parliamentary election.

That period may be approaching an end, however, with the Oct. 1 decision by Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to back incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's bid to remain in office. That move could break the deadlock, but it does not mean that a deal is imminent. Considerable horse-trading is still required to form a government. Ultimately, however, there needs to be power-sharing with Mr. Maliki's chief rival, former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. Failure to do so could result in another outbreak of sectarian violence.

On March 7, Iraqi voters cast ballots in the country's second parliamentary election since a U.S.-led invasion overthrew Saddam Hussein. The results revealed a deeply divided country. Mr. Allawi's Iraqiya coalition, a broad-based group that claims support from the country's Sunni minority, was the biggest winner, with 91 seats in the 325-seat Parliament.

Mr. Maliki's State of Law bloc, which is predominately Shiite, won 89 seats. Unfortunately for Mr. Maliki, his fellow co-religionists, in particular Mr. Sadr, preferred one of the country's vice presidents to the prime minister because of Mr. Maliki's close ties to the United States. Mr. Sadr, a powerful cleric who opposed the U.S. presence in Iraq, wanted the prime minister replaced.

Last week, Mr. Sadr reversed course, giving Mr. Maliki another 39 seats and opening the door to the Iraqi National Alliance, which holds another 31 seats, to forge a coalition with the prime minister. If that happens, then Mr. Maliki will be just four seats short of a majority. To get over that hurdle, Mr. Maliki will open talks with Kurdish leaders who hold another 57 seats. Their support is likely to cost the government yet more control of Kurdish-dominated parts of the country.

It is not clear what prompted Mr. Sadr's change of heart. He has been in self-imposed exile in Iran since 2007. The only statement that his group has made suggests that it was an inevitable compromise. Most likely he believes the move will give him more influence over the new government.

That is likely to trigger heartburn in the United States and in neighboring countries other than Iran. As a Shiite, Mr. Sadr's views reflect that of Iran. While the U.S. has said it favors no particular candidate, it has made clear its unease with Mr. Sadr, whose militia it considers responsible for targeted killings of Sunnis and has been one of the main sources of violence and instability in Iraq.

Any government in Baghdad that does not make room for Sunnis will not only provoke that minority but will also alienate Sunni-majority countries in the region, such as Saudi Arabia. They too fear the spread of Iranian influence over Iraq, seeing the contest between Sunni and Shiite in zero-sum terms.

Mr. Sadr's reversal does not end all of Mr. Maliki's problems. Cobbling together a working majority is only the first step. That must be followed by doling out power and dividing up the spoils of government. Finally, the parties have to agree on a program. That too will be a challenge. Two issues in particular will bedevil the next government.

The first is the future of the U.S. presence in Iraq. Mr. Sadr and his supporters want the remaining U.S. forces — which it considers an occupying force — out. Many Iraqi politicians, including Shiites, see the 50,000 U.S. troops as providing stability and security. They worry that the planned U.S. withdrawal by December 2011 will lead to chaos and violence as the Iraqi forces are unable to guarantee security.

The second question is the role that will be played by Sunnis in the new government. Failure to reach out to them could plunge the country into another round of sectarian violence and deepen the suspicions that already dominate Iraq.

Neither Mr. Maliki nor Mr. Allawi has shown much inclination to make common cause, but the prospect of the prime minister retaining power might tempt some members of Iraqiya to cut their own deals with Mr. Maliki. The prime minister might be pushed to compromise as well if the Iraqi National Alliance itself splits and does not follow Mr. Sadr.

The broader the coalition in Baghdad, the more successful it is likely to be. Democracy is new to Iraq, and groups that feel alienated or excluded have tended to resort to extra- parliamentary — usually violent — means to express themselves. Instability hurts Iraq's attempts to lure the investments that are desperately needed to jump-start the economy. Without those funds, the country will remain poor, breeding more violence.

Breaking this vicious spiral is the Iraqi government's most important task. It can only do that by forming a government that includes all of its citizens.

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