Post-Baathist Iraq is undergoing a perilous phase in its short history. The Nuri al-Maliki government, which was formed in May 2006 as the first “unity government” after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, is now facing a major breakdown in its multi-sectarian coalition. In late June, Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi, a senior Shiite politician, resigned from his post. As a major figure in one of the most powerful Shiite parties, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), Abdul Mahdi made his resignation in response to the second bombing of the shrine of Samarra and what he called the government’s inability to protect Iraqi citizens from insurgent attacks. The move by the former vice president followed another major drawback for the al-Maliki government: the withdrawal of the largest Sunni bloc, the Iraqi Accord Front (IAF), from the unity government (al-Jazeera, June 29). These two major events appear in a period when accusations against the alleged centralization of control by al-Maliki and his Da’wa party are rapidly spreading in the country. Baghdad is unstable politically, and the outcome of this meltdown is bound to harm the future of democracy in Iraq.
For the most part, dissatisfaction over the government has forced a number of major political parties, especially in the Shiite bloc, to break away from the leading political coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA). On March 7, a month after the U.S. troop surge in Baghdad and Anbar province to bolster the unity government, the Fadhila Party (Virtue Party), a small but significant Shiite party based in Basra, with 15 seats in the parliament, withdrew from the UIA, mostly because of what the party claimed as the “sectarian” make-up of the government and its incompetence to provide security for its citizens (Voices of Iraq, March 8). The Fadhila move followed the withdrawal of six ministers loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr from the government on April 15—a major blow to al-Maliki’s authority. Al-Sadr has criticized the government for its lack of efforts to provide security and create national reconciliation in the country. In a significant sense, al-Maliki and his Da’wa party have largely relied on al-Sadr to maintain power in the UIA (mostly against the SIIC) with the aim of leading the unity government for national reconciliation. Al-Sadr’s disapproval of the government and his recent pressure on al-Maliki to quit his post, however, is indicative of a significant shake-up of the Shiite bloc (Gulf News, June 29). With the help of the Sunni factions, al-Sadr aims to outmaneuver his arch-rival, the SIIC’s Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, and gain greater influence in the post-unity government. His strategy could certainly lead to the gradual break-up of the Shiite alliance, as the Sadrists force their way to the center of the political game.
With the absence of al-Hakim from the political scene and the loss of Sadrist support, al-Maliki is now forced to rely more on his major Kurdish allies, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), as his main backers in the government. The Maliki-Kurdish alliance, however, will certainly add more tension to the unity government as Sunni parties begin to feel that they are being sidelined from the political process because of an increase in Kurdish influence in the state apparatus. The Maliki-Kurdish alliance could also enhance the influence of the followers of al-Sadr, who seek to create partnership with anti-SIIC Sunni and secular Arab parties that aim to curtail Iranian influence in central and especially southern regions. In sum, the above scenarios could pave the way toward a radical transformation of the Iraqi political landscape, which would likely bring more uncertainty to the country’s political structure.
Thus far, al-Maliki’s reaction to the recent political development has been imprudent. Largely as a reaction to the Iyad Allawi-led meeting in early June in Cairo, with the objective of forming a secular front against the government with the support of the Kurdish Islamic Party and the Iraqi Islamic Party, al-Maliki has called on the Iraqi military to protect his government from a possible coup by the opposition (Azzaman, June 8). Nevertheless, this move only builds up a milieu of mistrust for a government that is already fractured. In many ways, al-Maliki’s reaction could endanger Iraq’s fledging democracy by inviting back the army to the political sphere, a major problem in pre-2003 Iraq. Al-Maliki should refrain from resurrecting the ghost of the Baathist era and recognize the possible formation of an opposition secular coalition as a necessary feature of this crucial transitional process.
The government is at risk of collapse at a pivotal time in its transitional period. Crucial amendments to the constitution are still in the negotiating process, and, despite tentative accord on oil revenues, major disagreements on articles among political factions remain (Gulf News, July 9). The source of trouble, however, is not the sectarian nature of Iraqi politics, but the increase of political factionalism and competing visions of a future Iraq. Federalism lies at the heart of the problem, and each political party, regardless of its sectarian identity, aims to solidify its political and economic interests in the evolving government.
Yet, this could also portend a positive development. This is arguably the first time in the post-Baathist era when Iraqi factions are competing not in terms of sectarian associations but political interests. Despite such unstable developments, the al-Maliki government could be experiencing a major feature of a democratic process, which is coalition-building in the complex game of party politics, grounded in periodical governmental instabilities in the course of coalition formation.
Nevertheless, a weak state structure can better serve a consolidated rather than a transitional democracy, especially in its parliamentarian form. What Iraq needs now is stability, and such political factionalism, at least at this stage, can only move the country in the opposite direction. While the United States continues forward with the troop surge, which can only help stabilize the country in the short-term, the al-Maliki government will have to recognize the long-term significance of national reconciliation in the face of an ongoing onslaught of insurgency. Although reordering the structure of the government may be a possibility, the total meltdown of the state must not be an option.