Marking Time

It's always dangerous making predictions, and nowhere more so than in Iraq. When voters defied terrorist attacks to cast their ballots in the Jan. 30 election, some officials forecast that as soon as the votes were counted the newly elected National Assembly would agree on a new government, which would immediately take over from Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's interim administration. That was the "big bang" theory, and it was almost instantly proved wrong.

It took two weeks to certify the vote, but that milestone passed without a government in place as the victorious Shia and the second-place Kurds negotiated endlessly. Then the parties agreed that the National Assembly would convene March 16, and it was expected that surely they'd have a government by then. No such luck. Even before the event, the man expected to be prime minister, Ibrahim Jafari, warned, "It might be a day or two, more or less." Yet once the assembly met this week, amid high security and perfunctory pomp, it was more, not less. Depending on whom you talked to it would be another two days (Ali al-Dabagh, a United Iraqi Alliance deputy, now proved wrong), next week (Hoshyar Zebari, the acting foreign minister), March 25 or so (Jalal Talabani, the Kurdish leader expected to be chosen as the new president), or two more weeks (a prominent participant in the on-going negotiations).

The truth is the negotiating parties have a long way to go yet, and most recently the Kurds proposed not even meeting again to discuss it all until the end of the month, according to sources close to the negotiations. It's conceivable that it could still take months longer. Meanwhile, the soon to be new rulers of Iraq have let it be known that they're deeply unhappy with the interior and defense ministers, who will almost certainly lose their jobs once there's a new cabinet. Since those are the two ministries most concerned with helping to fight the Iraqi insurgency, that doesn't bode well for the American goal of accelerating the security handover to Iraqis so that foreign troops can leave. In every area of government, the impasse has serious consequences. Allawi has ordered his caretaker government not to enter into any long-term contracts nor to implement policies that would have long-term consequences. In other words, everyone is just marking time.

American officials insist they're not worried. U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte's last official act, before leaving Iraq to take up his new post as the first head of the new uberagency coordinating U.S. intelligence-gathering, was to attend the ceremonial inauguration--and adjournment--of the National Assembly. At a dinner in his honor the night before, hosted by Allawi, Negroponte studiously avoided mentioning the governmental stalemate. "The job is far from done, but there is a principle perhaps each of us has experienced in our own lives: what is begun well, ends well, and the Jan. 30 election was certainly a good beginning," Negroponte told guests. Other U.S. officials insisted it's just the natural consequence of Iraqis learning for the first time to negotiate with one another peacefully. "I don't see them dead in the water yet," one said. "They're meeting, there are tough negotiations, you don't get the sense of no movement. There's frustration that it's not done, but no one says they're totally bogged down."

Why the delays? The protracted negotiations are an outcome of the Transitional Administrative Law that the American occupation authorities drafted before returning sovereignty to the interim government last June. That law set out how Iraqis were to form a new government, which would then draft a constitution under which another set of elections would be held by the end of 2005. The TAL created a series of checks and balances that were intended to preserve minority participation in the Iraqi government and prevent any one group--particularly the majority Shia--from completely dominating the new government and dictating the new constitution. The Shia have 60 percent of the population, but their United Iraqi Alliance list controls 54.5 percent (or 150) of the seats in the National Assembly. The Kurdish List, representing the Kurdish parties, came in second with a strong showing of 27 percent. Prime Minister Allawi was a distant third with less than 15 percent. The TAL specifies that the assembly has to elect a presidency council--the president and two vice presidents--by a two-thirds majority. The presidency council then chooses the powerful position of prime minister. Once the candidate is in place, the assembly approves a government by majority vote and the various ministers work with the prime minister. (The presidency is largely a ceremonial post).

To form a government, the Shia need allies to reach the two-thirds mark, and that gives the Kurds a strong bargaining hand. It has kept Allawi in the running, too, potentially bartering his smaller number of seats with the possibility of bringing independents in. But he is insisting on staying as prime minister, and the Shia leadership won't have it. The Kurds have been holding out on a number of issues: the disposition of Kirkuk, the role of Sunni Arabs in the new government and top positions for Kurds. Kirkuk is the oil-rich city in the north that Kurds claim as their own but which has substantial number of minority Sunni and Turkomen residents. The Kurds want a rapid resolution to their demand that it be incorporated into a semiautonomous Kurdistan. Sunnis and Shias have insisted that explosive issue be dealt with after a census. Kurds are also demanding not only the presidency for Talabani, but also two new positions as deputy prime ministers. The Shias, prodded by their spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, have been trying hard, on the other hand, to draw Sunni Arabs into the political process, even after they largely boycotted the elections. Sunnis, who are the biggest supporters of the anti-U.S. insurgency, make up 20 percent of the population, but have traditionally ruled Iraq.

These are difficult issues, and the stakes are high. They're also a long way short of what normally would be the most difficult issues in forming a consensus: the personalities who get the top positions. Early on, the Shia UIA list, after some internal politicking and negotiations of its own, settled on Ibrahim Jafari as its choice for prime minister. But the Shia initially wanted to see a Sunni given the position of president, in order to persuade them to rejoin the political process. The Kurds insisted on their own man, Talabani. Now they're talking about a Sunni getting the position of speaker of the National Assembly. But beyond that, no names have been decided, or even which ethnic groupings will get which positions. That leaves a lot of haggling to go over jobs as vital as the ministers of interior and of defense (positions the Sunnis would like, but are unlikely to get). "They haven't even gotten around to bartering about names yet," said one U.S. official. "It's like getting the scales to balance, except the scales have a lot more than two baskets."

Some Shia officials say that the insistence on Sunni participation by Sistani--who refuses to intervene in the nitty-gritty of negotiations--has hampered them in negotiating with the Kurds. Jafari, over lunch recently in his Green Zone palace (where he's heavily guarded by American security agents), said the biggest problem is trying to find Sunni representatives with credibility who are willing to negotiate. "With the Sunnis, there's no one single person to talk to," he said. "The Sunnis are paying the price of their boycott. But there are two realities, demographic and participatory, and we'll try to bridge that gap."

American officials see this conundrum as ultimately hopeful. Like the Kurds, the Shia suffered under Sunni domination, but Shiite leaders have been willing to try to persuade their former rulers that they will still have a role in government--and in eventual negotiations over a constitution. "Among Sunnis, it was a lot more doom and gloom before 169 [the UIA list's nickname] reached out to them," said a U.S. official. "They see 169's willingness to engage with them, and since then we're hearing a lot more positive reactions." But that in turn has led to a debate in the Sunni community over not only whether they should join but what they should get and who should get it. "The Sunnis are going to have to accept yes for an answer," said a Western diplomat. So far, though, they haven't. "If they can't work together, it throws into question the whole idea of democracy," he said. But on the other hand, the entire process has so far been peaceful -- no violence used to push parties to agree, no sign of civil war breaking out, just a lot of talk. "That's fundamentally democratic in nature," the diplomat said.

How long can this democratic impasse continue? Quite a long time. The only deadline in the TAL is an implied one, Aug. 1. (The TAL specifies that by Aug. 15, the National Assembly must ratify a constitution, which will then be put to a referendum by Oct. 15. However, that deadline can be extended by six months, if the presidency council votes to do so by Aug. 1. But to do that, the parties would at least have to agree on a government or there'd be no presidency council to make that extension.) "There's no timetable on this," says a U.S. official. "But Iraqis are starting to ask 'OK, where's the government?' Iraqi politicians will respond to these pressures." Joked one participant in the negotiations: "We hope it will all be done before Christmas."

"We are very close to a final deal," insisted Hoshyar Zebari, the Kurd who is interim foreign minister, after the National Assembly's brief session Wednesday. "We'll see the new government much sooner than many people expected. People have to be patient. We have waited 80 years for this." After a series of brief speeches by leading politicians, the assembly adjourned without considering either old or new business. Without a government, there was none of either. Nor did the Iraqi peoples' elected representatives set a date for their next session.

Join the Discussion