Fully seven months after the March 7 parliamentary election in Iraq, there’s the first glimmer of a chance that an Iraqi government coalition might be within reach. Whether or not it happens, and what it looks like, has a lot to do with future American influence in Iraq. And it will be the result of an ugly, behind-the-scenes power struggle between the United States and Iran over which country will be the dominant power in Iraq.
It’s complicated. Try to follow along.
The March 7 election resulted in a sharp division of Iraqi politics along ethnic and sectarian lines. A mostly secular party called Iraqiya, led by secular Shiite Iyad Allawi and supported by nearly all of Iraq’s Arab Sunni voters, won ninety-one seats in the 325-member parliament. Prime Minister Maliki’s State of Law coalition, which drew votes almost entirely from Shiites, won eighty-nine seats. A coalition of religious Shiites, cobbled together from fractious Shiite parties with Iran’s support, won seventy seats, most of which came from the party led by Muqtada al-Sadr, an anti-American cleric who lives in Iran. And the separatist Kurds, who are themselves fragmented, won fifty-seven seats. Because the next prime minister would need 163 seats to succeed—and, in practice, quite a few more than that to maintain a stable government—some sort of grand bargain is necessary.
Last week, Muqtada al-Sadr agreed to support Maliki’s return as prime minister. That set off alarm bells in Washington, because Sadr is unalterably opposed to the US occupation of Iraq and he’d likely oppose any extension of the American presence beyond 2011, when the last of the remaining 50,000 American troops are scheduled to leave. Though Sadr has nationalist tendencies, in recent years he’s drawn increasingly closer to Tehran, and a big role for Sadr in the next Iraqi government drew a strong reaction in Washignton because it would mean that Iran, not the United States, was emerging as the most powerful player in Iraq. Ken Pollack, a former CIA officer and Middle East analyst at the Brookings Institution, told the Washington Post:
"The Sadrists having a key role in the next government of Iraq [is] one of the few redlines that the Obama administration had. This is something that Iran has been trying to do for months. Clearly this is a big win for Iran and really bad for us."
And Dan Serwer of the US Institute of Peace told the New York Times:
"An Iraqi government that owes its existence to the Sadrists and lacks the strong support of Allawi would necessarily be one that leans in Tehran’s direction."