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The Iraqi Rubik's Cube | The Nation

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Robert Dreyfuss

Bob Dreyfuss

News of America’s misadventures in foreign policy and defense.

The Iraqi Rubik's Cube

Final results of the Iraqi elections may, or may not, be released Friday. Of course, that will be the beginning, not the end, of the post-election crisis in Iraq.

Despite the trumpeting of democracy by US defenders of the war, sadly nearly all Iraqis voted along communal lines. Kurds voted for Kurds; Shiites either for Prime Minister Maliki or, worse, for the radical-right, Iran-backed Shiite alliance; and Sunnis (and a handful of secular Shiites, especially in Baghdad) voted for the cross-sectarian Iraqi Nationalist Movement of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. Maliki had tried to appeal to Sunnis, but his hysterical, pre-election, anti-Baathist posturing -- in the wake of the purge of hundreds of alleged Baathists, secularists, and anti-Iran candidates by Ahmed Chalabi's commission -- resulted in Maliki getting virtually zero Sunni support. Allawi, a secular Shiite, tried to appeal across the sectarian divide, but it seems that few Shiites voted for his bloc, especially in the southern provinces.

Though final results aren't in yet, it appears that Allawi may have pulled off a stunning upset, winning the popular vote by a tiny margin and, possibly, winning more seats than Maliki. Both Allawi and Maliki are expected to gain about 90 seats in the 325-member national assembly, while the Kurds will have something like 50 and the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), the Shiite religious bloc will get perhaps 70. (In that latter bloc are Muqtada al-Sadr, the wily, radical cleric who's lately fallen under Iranian influence; the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which is an Iranian front; Chalabi; and a bunch of other Shiite-sectarian parties, including ISCI's Badr Brigade, a paramilitary group. The INA was literally assembled in Iran, with Iranian support, during 2009.)

Maliki and President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd -- both of whom fared less well than they'd hoped -- are calling for a recount. According to Iraqi sources, Maliki is charging that the United States rigged the election software to favor Allawi during the counting, which is a ridiculous and inflammatory charge. He wants a hand recount. His authoritarian instincts and paranoid political style are becoming clearer: In a chilling message to Iraq's election overseers, Maliki all but threatened to use the armed forces to maintain his continued rule. Reportedly, US military forces in Iraq discreetly watched ballot storage centers in case Maliki ordered the army to seize them. Jawad Bolani, Iraq's interior minister, expressed fears that the prime minister might declare a state of emergency to preempt the political process. And, speaking of Maliki's opponents, Saad al-Muttalibi, a leader of Maliki's party, told Al Jazeera: "If these people do not understand politics, they should go home. I am afraid Iraq will go down in a very violent way."

So what now? Anything can happen. Iraqi politics is like a Rubik's Cube in which any twist or turn makes progress in one way but causes more problems on the other side of the cube. The best outcome for Iraq would be if Allawi were to gain a plurality and try to form a coalition. But there are many, many combinations.

The most likely coalition would involve a recombination of the existing ruling alliance, led by Shiites and Kurds, that would include Maliki's State of Law/Dawa party, the INA, and the Kurdish bloc. Achieving even that would require Maliki to resolve a very bitter rivalry with the Sadrists, who have emerged as the faction with the upper hand inside the INA. In 2007, Maliki launched a military crackdown against Sadr's militia in Baghdad and in Basra, Iraq's third most populous city and its southern port. And, in an effort to burnish his Arab credentials, Maliki has also used the army against the Kurds along the so-called "trigger line," where the Kurds are pushing to expand their territory, especially in oil-rich Kirkuk. So, like Sadr, the Kurds don't like Maliki much. But, this is the coalition that would most strongly be backed by Iran, and no doubt Iran would put a lot of pressure on Sadr and the Kurds to join with Maliki, rather than see Allawi -- a fierce nationalist -- emerge as prime minister.

But a reconstitution of the Shiite-Kurdish alliance would alienate and enrage supporters of Allawi's Iraqiyya coalition. Allawi's strong showing makes him a credible candidate to take the lead in assembling a ruling coalition, and he's already engaged in high-profile talks with Masoud Barzani, the Kurdish leader. However, Allawi's bloc harbors nationalists who despise the separatist Kurds, and even an Iraqiyya-Kurdish alliance would require Allawi to bolster his government with a contingent of Shiites, possibly the Sadrists. With bad blood all around there, too, it would be tough going. And Iran, which has deep ties to many Iraqi factions, especially among the Shiites, would likely support armed resistance to an Allawi-led government in Baghdad.

A remote possibility would be for Allawi and Maliki to band together. That, too, would earn Iran's enmity, and it would alarm the Kurds if an Arab nationalist government set up shop in Baghdad. An Allawi-Maliki alliance would have the virtue of keeping the most militant religious parties out of power. But it's hard to imagine either Maliki or Allawi agreeing to the other's primacy, so both might have to accept another politician, such as Interior Minister Bolani, an independent, as prime minister.

The problem is obvious: if a Maliki-INA partnership emerges to rule, the Sunnis would feel excluded, cheated, and angry. There is no doubt that over time a new Sunni insurgency would emerge, ranging from stepped-up Al Qaeda-style bombings to a far more organized, underground movement that, over time, could present a strategic threat to the government in Baghdad. On the other hand, if Allawi becomes prime minister, or even a major force in the new government, expect Iran to promote a violent counter-movement, reviving the death squads, assassination teams, and Special Groups -- such as the League of the Righteous -- that would carry out an unrelenting series of attacks.

Oh, yes: all of this as President Obama draws down US forces.

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