Middle East

Iraq's great balancing act

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki
Image caption Mr Maliki has relentlessly gathered support to remain prime minister

It has taken a record amount of time and it is not quite there yet, but Iraq is at last within sight of producing a government after elections on 7 March.

Under the constitution, Prime Minister re-designate Nouri Maliki has 30 days to form a new administration.

If he cannot do it within that deadline, President Jalal Talabani then must ask someone else to try.

In parliament on Thursday, the president pledged to nominate Mr Maliki, but he has up to 15 days do that in official form and will wait until after the Eid al-Adha holiday next week.

So, Iraq should have a new government by 26 December at the very latest.

In theory, because the basics of a power-sharing deal have been agreed, it should be fairly plain sailing.

But it has been a bitter struggle every inch of the way since the elections.

So, further haggling and hitches over the details of cabinet formation can be expected, and it would not be surprising if the process continued right down to the last minute, as has happened so often here.

The process got off to a rocky start on Thursday, when Iyad Allawi and many of the 91 members of his secular but largely Sunni al-Iraqiyya bloc marched out, casting in doubt the "national partnership" label being attached to the proposed government.

It seemed likely that the rift would be patched up. At the first meeting of the previous chamber, a number of angry hard-line Sunni MPs also walked out, without lasting effect.

Balancing act

But the incident underlined the touchiness of Mr Allawi and his bloc, fighting to establish some kind of equal clout within the new power structure, despite the fact that Mr Maliki gradually and relentlessly accumulated support until his claim to retain his position became irresistible.

Al-Iraqiyya came out two seats ahead of Mr Maliki's State of Law coalition in the polls, encouraging Mr Allawi to assert that it was his right to lead the new government.

Image caption Moqtada Sadr's decision to support Mr Maliki was vital to his coalition

At first, there seemed a good chance that Mr Allawi could put together a coalition bringing together Shia factions opposed to Mr Maliki - Ammar al-Hakim's Supreme Council and Fadhila - and a Centre Bloc, which controls 10 seats.

Along with the Kurds - who hold the balance - that would have formed a majority.

After months of deadlock when it seemed that it could swing either way, the balance slowly began to tilt towards Mr Maliki in early October.

That is when the militant young Shia cleric, Moqtada Sadr, whose website only two months earlier had been openly attacking Mr Maliki, announced his support for the incumbent - adding another 40 seats to his coalition portfolio.

Mr Sadr has been resident in the Iranian holy city of Qom for several years, and it was widely assumed in Baghdad that he had succumbed to Iranian pressures.

In the intervening weeks, there were further straws in the wind. The Fadhila party announced that it was backing Mr Maliki. Then the Centre Bloc did the same.

Numerically, it still did not add up to the necessary 163-seat majority - for that, either side would need the support of the Kurdistan alliance, with its 57 seats.

But the Kurds, while refraining from openly endorsing Mr Maliki, showed signs of leaning in his direction, not least because he went further than Mr Allawi in accepting the 19-point list of demands laid out by Kurdish leaders.

So Mr Allawi found his position slowly eroded as support ebbed towards the incumbent.

Having lost hope of winning the prime ministerial post, he apparently turned his sights on the presidency - but the Kurds, king-maker in the current configuration, have their grip firmly on that post, in the shape of the incumbent Jalal Talabani.

So Mr Allawi faced the dilemma of settling for less or pulling out of the structure altogether - which would almost certainly have meant the disintegration of his alliance, made up of numerous mainly Sunni political, tribal and regional factions, some of which would almost certainly have been wooed by Mr Maliki to join his administration and provide it with Sunni cover.

Mr Allawi was cornered when the Supreme Court set a deadline for parliament to convene a session at which it was constitutionally bound to elect its own speaker, a step that would imply prior agreement on all the other top posts, including that of prime minister.

Al-Iraqiyya circles grumbled suspiciously that Mr Maliki might have had a hand in producing the Supreme Court decision.

Then, out of the blue, Saudi Arabia threw Mr Allawi a potential lifeline, offering to host a gathering of the Iraqi factions in late November.

Mr Allawi is extremely well in with the Saudis, while Mr Maliki emphatically is not.

Now it was the turn of Mr Maliki's camp to hint darkly that Mr Allawi may have had a hand in prompting the ill-timed Saudi initiative.

It failed to get off the ground, because by that time there was already a home-grown initiative spearheaded by the President of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Masoud Barzani, which led to a series of meetings for factions to work out their disputes.

By the time the parliamentary session was imminent, Mr Allawi had been comprehensively outmanoeuvred.

Protracted drama

His hopes for a real share in power are now pinned on the "National Council for Strategic Policies" which has been offered to him or his assign.

Al-Iraqiyya had tried to establish it as a body with powers equal to those of the prime minister, especially in security issues - a concept resisted by Mr Maliki's camp which argued that it would make for weak government.

In the talks leading up to the parliamentary meeting, it was apparently agreed that unanimous decisions by the council would be binding, though given the balanced composition the body will doubtless have, unanimity may be rare.

Its powers may well be one of the main political battlegrounds in the coming period.

It may provide a tribune from which Mr Allawi will snipe at Mr Maliki, whose patience may wear thin if his rival starts trying to make serious inroads into his powers.

In the run-up to the parliamentary session that kicked the government formation process off, Mr Allawi's aides did not hide their gloom.

"The Iranians have lined everybody up, and the US is just giving way," said one insider.

That summed up the widespread perception that Iran has been quietly working behind the scenes to assemble support for Mr Maliki, while the Americans have been floundering without a coherent policy.

Single goal

In the opening phases of the protracted drama, Washington seemed to be more focused on preparing for the withdrawal of its troops than on trying to influence the outcome of Iraq's political struggle.

But Mr Maliki's sudden alliance with Moqtada Sadr - whose militia battled with US forces several times - and the perception of growing Iranian influence, appeared to spook Washington into action, trying to bolster Mr Allawi as a counterweight and arguing for genuine power-sharing.

But any tack the Americans took did not seem to work.

It has been widely reported in Baghdad that they tried to pressure the Kurds into giving up the presidency to Mr Allawi, but failed.

Were the Americans involved in prodding the Saudis - one of their staunchest regional allies - into launching their embarrassingly doomed initiative?

If so, it betrayed a woeful misreading of the Iraqi situation.

With US troop levels down to 50,000 non-combat personnel, and the remainder due to leave by the end of 2011, American clout and influence are seen as dwindling assets, weakening the position of pro-Western players on the Iraqi scene, such as Mr Allawi.

Was it in the hope of reversing those perceptions that US Defence Secretary Robert Gates suddenly announced earlier this week that Washington was open to keeping troops beyond 2011 if requested by the Iraqis?

Like the Saudi initiative, that too came out of the blue at a time when the security challenges facing Iraq are certainly less daunting than they have been.

Official US statements normally stress the commitment to getting the troops out, and laud the growing proficiency of the Iraqi armed forces.

Mr Allawi's circles seemed to believe they had "international" guarantees for the powers of the new strategic council as well as other demands of Mr Allawi's coalition relating to such issues as de-Baathification.

If those guarantees are purely American, that could be a recipe for a proxy struggle focused on the council, in addition to the personal rivalry between Mr Allawi and Mr Maliki.

But could it be that Iran is also a partner in furnishing those guarantees?

Uniquely placed to mediate a solution, Mr Barzani sent his three top advisers to Tehran where they met senior Iranian leaders immediately before attending the parliament meeting in Baghdad on Thursday.

If Iran is indeed co-operating in that way, it would be a hopeful sign for the stability of the new administration once it is born.

While Iran may have been instrumental in persuading some of the factions to back Mr Maliki, that does not necessarily mean his new government will turn out to be an Iranian puppet - which the last one clearly was not.

Chequered relationship

Even some of Mr Allawi's supporters acknowledged that Mr Maliki had established his nationalist credentials by cracking down on Shia militias - including Moqtada Sadr's Mehdi Army militia - just as hard as on Sunni insurgents.

His relationship with Iran has been historically chequered, as has that of Mr Sadr.

Some optimistic analysts believe that Iran's long-term interest, and that of Iraq's other neighbours, is to prevent Iraq falling to pieces along sectarian and ethnic lines once the Americans withdraw.

In addition to predictable ructions with Mr Allawi and his allies, Mr Maliki may also find difficulties with some of his closer coalition partners, especially the Sadrists.

The history of blood between them makes them odd bedfellows, and Mr Sadr resisted Mr Maliki's nomination until, apparently, he could resist no more.

He had ministers in Mr Maliki's previous government, but angrily withdrew them in 2006.

Mr Maliki's relationship with the Kurds has also been rocky in the past. At one stage during his last term of office, he did not talk with Mr Barzani for more than a year.

There are many other challenges that could make the planned Government of National Partnership explode, or become one of national paralysis because of its internal contradictions, or fall prey to the unresolved power struggle between the US, Iran and other regional powers.

Its survival will be a test of the Iraqiness of Iraqi politics, and the ability of the politicians to rise above sectional interests for the national good.