Nearly seven weeks after the March 7 election in Iraq, there's no movement at all toward creating a new government. As the August deadline for drawing down U.S forces to 50,000 troops gets closer -- and even those troops are scheduled to leave by the end of 2011 -- the influence of the United States is declining sharply, and the overt and covert influence of Iran is getting stronger.
In Washington, hawks are beginning to demand that President Obama delay the drawdown. But Obama really has no choice but to seek a deal with Iran to stabilize Iraq. Saudi Arabia and Turkey, who supported anti-Iranian politicians in the March 7 vote, would be happy to support such a deal, too, but it all depends on the United States backing off from its confrontation with Iran and trying to work out a Washington-Teheran accord.
The latest evidence of Iran's maneuvering in Iraq: the pro-Iranian Iraqi National Alliance and its ally, the so-called Justice and Accountability Commission (JAC), have struck again, this time disqualifying several winning candidates in the March 7 election and threatening to disqualify many others. (In January, you'll recall, the Commission barred more than 500 candidates from the ballot on spurious charges that they were members or supporters of the Baath Party, the former Arab nationalist party that was a powerful force in pre-2003 Iraq, going back to the 1950s.)
In all, the JAC ousted 52 candidates, including victorious candidates. As Ned Parker of the Los Angeles Times reports:
"The 52 had been last-minute substitutes for other candidates, who also had been barred from running in the March 7 elections due to their alleged connections to the former ruling Baath Party.
"Just days before the vote, the country's Accountability and Justice Commission, which screens candidates for ties to the Baath Party, announced the names of the 52 substitute candidates who it said should be banned. But Iraq's electoral commission ruled that their cases would be decided after the balloting.
"A three-judge panel on Monday threw out their candidacies, a move that could further polarize the political process."
In Iraq, when you "polarize the political process," people load their guns. Already, last week, the recently quiescent Sadrist militia, the Mahdi Army, threatened to mobilize its forces after a series of bombings struck the Sadrists' Friday prayer gatherings in Baghdad.
One of the candidates barred was Saleh al-Mutlaq, the leader of an independent-minded Iraqi nationalist bloc, who formed a coalition with Iyad Allawi, a former prime minister. When Mutlaq failed to get the ban lifted last February, he asked his brother, Ibrahim al-Mutlaq, to run in his place. Now, the Commission, led by Ali al-Lami and Ahmed Chalabi and strongly supported by Iran, has barred Ibrahim al-Mutlaq as well.
The bans and threatened bans mostly target Iraqiya, the bloc led by Allawi, which won 91 seats in the election, most of any party. Prime Minister Maliki, whose mostly Shiite religious party (comprised of the old, underground Shiite Islamist party, Dawa), won 89 seats. So now Maliki seems to be throwing in his lot with the Iran-backed Iraqi National Alliance and the JAC. The Maliki bloc hasn't challenged the JAC ruling at all, and his partisans seem gleeful that the JAC and the election court, which Maliki controls, can rewrite the election results now. As one of his supporters told the New York Times:
"Whether Allawi is going to have 90 seats or 85, or we have 89 or 95, is not important. Whoever is going to be able to form coalitions will form the government."
But, of course, who has the most seats is important, because it gives that party the first claim to form a coalition.
It's ironic, indeed, that Ali al-Lami, an Iraqi who was arrested by the United States two years ago for his involvement in a bombing that killed U.S. soldiers, and who has been directly accused by General Odierno, the U.S. commander in Iraq, of being an Iranian agent, can now pull the strings of Iraqi politics, behind the scenes, and with the support of Maliki.
The U.S ambassador in Iraq, Christopher Hill, is flailing. In his first comments since March 7 about the election, Hill told journalists in Baghdad yesterday:
"We have an election that took place on March 7. We are now approaching the two-month period [of waiting for final results] and we are concerned that the process is lagging. We have not gone on to government formation as of yet and we share the concern of those who believe that its time that the politicians got down to business and started forming a government."
But like Richard Nixon's "pitiful, helpless giant," the United States can't do much as Iran runs its traps in Iraq.
"We are going to call on the United Nations to bear its responsibility, because Iraq is still under the mandate of Chapter 7 of the Security Council. We need the United Nations to intervene to salvage the political process, because it has been politicized and the counting and recounting has been politicized."
Neither the United States nor the UN, however, have enough political clout in Iraq to reverse the Iranian-backed power play. And stopping the emerging coalition between Maliki and the Shiite INA, which is expected to get the Kurds to join in, too, would require getting Allawi to bring the Kurdish bloc into his camp, and then to secure the support of some major faction of the Shiite alliance. Both of those options are unlikely.