The National Interest

Baghdad's Long, Cold Winter

The most disconcerting thing about Baghdad these days is just how happy the politicians are. Although an actual government is still not in place, Iraqi political leaders across the spectrum are positively gleeful, and that should make us worried.

Late last month, while Americans were recovering from Thanksgiving and charging, credit cards first, into the winter shopping season, Iraq’s re-elected President, Jalal Talabani, asked Nuri al-Maliki to take the first crack at forming a government. Maliki now has until Christmas to do so. Maliki secured that honor after over nine months of political deadlock by agreeing to preside over what amounts to a national unity government. He struck deals with the Kurdish parties, the Sadrists, and even the secular-but-Sunni-dominated Iraqiya party to bring them into the government. The only significant party that may be left out is the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), which had once been a powerhouse among Iraq’s Shia, only to have their star wane as the Sadrists’ has waxed. (This only makes the situation worse as ISCI has played an extremely constructive role in recent years, while the Sadrists, with their goal of pursuing a “Hezbollah model,” are political poison for Iraq.)

The problem is that all of Iraq’s best and brightest politicians and political analysts—as well as the keener observers in the U.S. embassy and military—recognize that the government that is likely to take office late next month is going to have a great deal of difficulty doing anything. The Iraqis went for an all-inclusive government because they could not sort out their political divisions. But forming one simply means bringing all of those differences inside the government, where they are likely to prevent it from actually governing. Prolonged gridlock, political bickering and the potential for a worsening spiral as some leaders try to skirt the system to accomplish their own personal agendas—and others see that as efforts to subvert Iraq’s democracy or even establish a new dictatorship—is the most likely condition for Iraq’s future, just as it was for Iraq’s recent past. For the Iraqi people, it means little likelihood that this government will be able to overcome its bureaucratic, political and technical failings to provide basic services, restart Iraq’s economy, stamp out corruption and organized crime, reconcile Iraq’s suspicious factions, or find a permanent solution to the lingering terrorism and militia problems.

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