A Government for Baghdad

Kenneth M Pollack
Kenneth M Pollack Former Brookings Expert, Resident Scholar - AEI

July 27, 2010

It’s been over four months since Iraq’s national elections on March 7 and still there is no sign that the various parties are enough in agreement to form a new government. Given the fragility of Iraq’s nascent democracy, and the importance of this particular transition—which will set precedents for decades to come—the United States and the Iraqis have good reason to be patient. If we want a government bad, we can get one bad, but that won’t serve anyone’s interests.

Unfortunately, there are also dangers in allowing this process to drag on. The Iraqi people have suffered for too long and they desperately need a government able to administer the country, rebuild its infrastructure and economy, and forge political compromises among the different factions to put the threat of a renewed civil war permanently to rest. Moreover, the longer that the politicking over government formation drags on, the greater the risk that the various militias and other thugs associated with many of the political parties will try to take matters into their own hands—breaking the deadlock by assassination, intimidation or even massacre. Nothing could propel Iraq back into civil war faster.

So far, the United States has chosen to try to nudge the Iraqis along, urging them to address the matter, suggesting potential solutions, but refusing to push them for any particular solution. Washington’s approach has been driven by a reasonable concern that a heavy-handed U.S. effort would likely cause a backlash against both whichever candidate we chose and the United States itself.

The patience of the American approach has been admirable so far, but the danger is that there is simply no forcing event out there on the calendar that could bring the current impasse to an end. And if there is not something that can do so, it may be the case that there needs to be someone to do so instead. As the former occupying power and the nation that has shouldered the responsibility for creating a stable new Iraqi government by dint of our having been the country that toppled the old one, that someone could only be the United States.

It isn’t yet time to put this approach into action, but it is time to start thinking about how we would do so. The Muslim holy month of Ramadan will begin in a few weeks. It seems unlikely that the Iraqis will have a government formed either before or during Ramadan. The Iraqi politicians will continue to negotiate during Ramadan, and it is possible that we will have a new government soon after. Moreover, the administration and the U.S. Embassy plan to redouble their current efforts during this period of time, so it would be reasonable to wait at least until mid-September, after the Eid al-Fitr, the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan.

Some Options for Walking on Eggshells

If the Eid passes without an Iraqi government, the United States will have to think about changing its current course of action, to take a more active role in helping them out of their conundrum.1 However, if we are going to do so, we cannot throw the baby out with the bath water. The administration’s concern that the United States not be seen as anointing the next Iraqi government remains valid. So too is it crucial that any greater American involvement be seen as bolstering Iraq’s democratic processes and institutions, not subverting them. Consequently, the best American options lie in stressing what would be best for the Iraqi political system and what would be most consistent with democratic principles.

One last general point needs to be made about all such options: They are best implemented in close conjunction with the United Nations. The UN Assistance Mission to Iraq (UNAMI) has emerged as a very effective partner for the U.S. government in the country and is well respected by Iraqis as a neutral but constructive entity. As such, it can help draw the sting from a more active American role by bolstering the argument that this involvement is driven by a desire to see Iraq strengthened in a way that will benefit all Iraqis, and not merely that the United States is trying to pick a new Iraqi government that will serve venal American interests. The more that can be done in partnership with UNAMI, the better.

The Winner Goes First
. The first and most obvious course of action that the United States and UNAMI could follow would be to declare that the winner of the March 7 election—i.e., the party that won the most seats in the Iraqi parliament—should be given the first opportunity to form a government. On this and a variety of other points, the Iraqi constitution is ambiguous, and the chief justice of the Iraqi supreme court has issued an opinion that either the electoral coalition that won the most seats or the post-election coalition that secures the most seats could be tapped by the president to try first to form a new government. If this opinion is allowed to become precedent, it means that the election says nothing about which party gets the first shot at forming a government—all that matters is the politicking that follows—creating the potential for endless negotiations after every election. The United States and UN could publicly weigh in against this interpretation, observing that it is a recipe for regular political chaos in Iraq after every election. We could then argue that it would be far preferable for Iraqi democracy if the electoral coalition that won the most votes were to get the first chance to form a government.

Of course, the problem is that, in this case, taking a principled position could mean picking the winner. Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiyya party won the most seats in the election, beating out Prime Minister Maliki’s State of Law (SoL) party 91 to 89. Thus, he would get that first try. Since he there is a good chance that whoever gets tapped to go first will succeed, the result could be that Allawi ends up forming the government.2 Maliki and his partisans would doubtless see this as an American ploy to put Allawi in power cloaked in the garb of trying to protect Iraqi democracy. If the United States decides to pursue this course—which actually would be best in terms of setting the right precedent for Iraqi democracy in the future—it would have to make the case to Maliki and his party that since they insist that Allawi can’t form a government, it would be best for them if he were allowed to try and fail, at which point it would then be the Maliki’s turn to do so.

Respect the Election
. A somewhat similar approach the United States could take would be to declare in conjunction with UNAMI that the government should reflect the outcome of the election. Again, this would be a useful precedent to set for Iraqi democracy moving forward, albeit perhaps not so important as clarifying who gets first crack at forming a government. In addition, it probably would not rankle either Allawi’s Iraqiyya or Maliki’s SoL since the thrust of this statement would be that they should form the government jointly given their comparable election results. It would also mean that other parties should not be more prominent than either of them. Indeed, the group that would likely be most unhappy would be the Sadrists, whose prospects for dominating the government would be eliminated. The Sadrists are the most anti-American and pro-Iranian of the various Iraqi parties, so we shouldn’t shed too many tears for them.

The difficulty with this approach is that it would help narrow the problems, but it would not solve them. Declaring that the government should reflect the outcome of the elections means that Allawi’s Iraqiyya and Maliki’s State of Law should form a majoritarian coalition to run the country—one which could be very effective at governing, at least in theory. However, it would not sort out who gets what position, and that is really the nub of the problem with these two men. They deeply dislike each other, and while both are willing to form a government together, both want to be prime minister—the strongest position in the government, by far. So this might be a helpful position for the United States and UN to take, but it probably will require something else to actually resolve the deadlock.

Reform the Constitution
. A big reason for the current impasse is the inadequacies of the Iraqi constitution. That document has its good points, but it also has a lot of bad ones, including dangerous ambiguity on a variety of issues related to the election and a dangerous concentration of power in the hands of the prime minister. Neither was intentional, but both have helped to paralyze the Iraqi political system. Consequently, another track the United States and UN could pursue would be to push for constitutional amendments that would address these problems—both to preclude problems for future elections and make it easier to form a government this time around.

Such a constitutional amendment would have to address both ways in which the gaps in the constitution have contributed to the current deadlock. First, they would have to rectify the flaws in the procedures related to the elections and the formation of a government by mandating that the preceding parliament and presidency step down at a certain point. They would have to clearly define who can form a government and when, establish time limits on how long a party can try to form a government, and provide for a new round of elections if a government has not been successfully seated after a set period of time.

The second matter that such an approach would have to address is the concentration of power within the Iraqi executive branch. The Obama administration is already pursuing this, but its current tactic—encouraging the Iraqis to deal with the problem without laying out a U.S./UN vision and doing so via legislation, rather than a constitutional amendment—may not produce the kind of far-reaching changes necessary to address the actual issues. Here the most useful and most important thing that could be changed in the constitution would be to restore veto powers to the Iraqi president and make him (not the prime minister) the commander in chief of the armed forces. This would also mean that the president, rather than the prime minister, would be responsible for naming and relieving senior military officers and the ministers of defense and interior.

Doing so would create a real division of power between the president and the prime minister. The president would then have responsibility for security affairs, and the prime minister would have responsibility for the economy, domestic politics, energy and foreign policy. It would prevent the prime minister from creating military commands and formations outside the formal chain of command, a current practice that has raised considerable fears over the political use of the armed forces by the prime minister. Indeed, such a change would go a long way toward ensuring that the Iraqi security forces remained professional and apolitical—that they stayed “outside” of Iraqi politics and therefore able to play the role of disinterested guardian of Iraqi democracy originally envisioned for them. The prime ministership is an inherently political position, conjuring a constant temptation to politicize the military, whereas the Iraqi presidency was always meant to be a figure “above politics,” the head of state who represented the entire Iraqi people and could help the system weather any political crisis. It is thus with the presidency that the Iraqi security services belong. Shifting the security services to the presidency and restoring the president’s legislative veto would create a powerful president who could balance the prime minister. It would also create a second position of great power and prestige that should be attractive to both Maliki and Allawi, thereby potentially easing their ability to form a government—jointly or separately.

As noted above, the U.S. government is already encouraging the Iraqis to reimagine their executive branch to address both of these problems. However, Washington has so far shied away from pushing for constitutional amendment in the belief that less is more. Again, for now, it is reasonable to try this approach, but the Iraqis have not yet responded as hoped and there is reason to fear that it may not be enough to work. In the past, Iraqi prime ministers have been able to stymie efforts to limit their power, and have undermined other powerful figures and entities created as checks and balances because the constitution grants them so many powers, and leaves too many gaps that a determined prime minister can exploit.

Because of the importance of this moment and these elections—Iraq’s second major round, traditionally the key to democratic success or failure, and the first after the end of the civil war—Iraq will never have a better moment to address the many residual problems in its constitution. If the Iraqis cannot form a government by the end of Ramadan, it will create an obvious political opportunity to make far-reaching changes in a way that will be far harder or more unlikely in future. At that point, the United States and our UN partners would do well to seize that moment to give Iraq one last, best chance to develop into a stable democracy.

1 For a description of the problems that have produced the deadlock see Kenneth M. Pollack, “The Political Battle in Iraq,” The Brookings Institution, June 30, 2010, available at

2 Because of the fragmentation of the current Iraqi parliament and the absence of strong ideological divisions among the different Iraqi political parties—who are far more interested in power, patronage and personalities than specific political programs—it is likely that whenever a candidate is granted first right to form a government, a great many of the smaller parties will sign on if only to ensure that they get the best cabinet positions and that they are not excluded from power in the event that the candidate is able to put together a government. This makes it reasonably likely that whoever gets to go first will be able to form a government simply by being able to reward a great many small parties, all of whom are determined to get a seat at the government table to ensure patronage for their constituents.