Key factions submitted their nominees for posts only 24 hours after Maliki announced his lineup, indicating that choices were made hastily and on political basis rather than according to whether the figures chosen could actually do their jobs. Furthermore, by going into coalition with Maliki, both politicians and factions eschewed whatever principles they may have had and dropped their own agendas.
The single factor that holds this Cabinet together is self-interest. National interest is not a serious consideration.
The fact that it took more than nine and a half months to put together a government undermined the credibility of the Cabinet-formation process that followed the March 7 election in which 65 per cent of voters participated and which was regarded as a “credible” popular consultation by the UN and local and international monitors.
During this period, Maliki, whose State of Law bloc came in second, undermined his own standing by refusing to cede to Iyad Allawi, head of Iraqiya, which, having won most seats, would have had the right to a first crack at forming a government. Maliki’s stubborn stance - which prolonged the formation of a Cabinet by many months - demonstrated that he does not understand or respect the premier principle of democracy: that losers recognise and respect winners.
Although Allawi may not have been able to put together a government, he should have been given a chance. If he had failed, Maliki could have stepped in as a rightful candidate. However, he not only denied Allawi that opportunity but also did everything in his power to make certain his rival could not build a majority coalition.
Maliki’s Cabinet has 42 ministries, but he could make firm appointments to only 29 posts because of factional squabbling. Ten portfolios have been allocated on a temporary basis while Maliki retains the major ministries: defence, interior and national security. He says he will hold these portfolios until agreement can be reached on permanent candidates. This means jockeying for the three “security ministries” will continue while car and vest bombers continue to carry on their bloody missions.
In this task, Maliki was ably assisted by Tehran, which, ultimately, pressured the Ahrar faction loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr to back Maliki. This convinced the Kurds to give him their support. However, this is not a stable arrangement. Sadr and the Sadrists hate Maliki who ordered the 2008 campaign by US and Iraqi forces to crush the movement’s Mehdi Army militia, which controlled the streets of the Sadr City district of the capital and of many cities in the south. Furthermore, the Kurds mistrust Maliki who may or may not have agreed to a list of 19 demands put forward by the Kurdish leadership.
Maliki made a gesture to meet at least one of these demands this week by prompting the new oil minister to announce that Baghdad would recognise agreements reached between the Kurdish autonomous region and foreign oil companies for the exploitation and export of oil from that region. However, among the other 18 demands is the Kurdish call for the annexation of Kirkuk by the Kurdish region. This is regarded as a casus belli by the majority of Iraqi Arabs and the small Turkman minority which enjoys the protection of Turkey. Ankara has warned it would intervene if the Kurds attempt to unilaterally annex Kirkuk.
It is all too clear that the State of Law-Sadrist-Kurdish foundation of the coalition is instable. This instability is compounded by Maliki’s deal with Iraqiya’s Allawi. In exchange for joining the coalition, he was promised the chairmanship of a national security council which would have the authority to curb the powers of the prime minister. However, this council has not yet been established and it is likely that Maliki will resist any reduction in his powers.
Anticipating problems with Allawi, Maliki has attempted to split Iraqiya and commit influential members to his Cabinet by granting key appointments to Sunnis from this bloc.
Usama Al Nujayfi, a Sunni politician from the north, was elevated to the assembly speakership; Rafi Al Essawi, a former deputy premier, was given the finance ministry; and Saleh Al Mutlaq was elevated to the post of deputy premier. Mutlaq is a Sunni and former Baathist who was barred last year from participating in political life. Ahead of the presentation of the government, the parliament lifted the banning order, a demand set by Iraqiya for joining the coalition.
But by entering Maliki’s government, where posts are allocated on the basis of ethnicity (Kurdish or Arab) and sect (Shiite, Sunni and Christian), Iraqiya sacrificed its own identity as a secular nationalist party opposed to the communal system imposed on Iraq in 2003 by the Bush administration.
Maliki’s own faction has taken the oil ministry and raised Hussein Al Shahristani, the former incumbent, to deputy premier in charge of energy. The Kurds have secured only one major ministry, foreign, for the former incumbent Hoshiyar Zebari. The Sadrists received two middle-ranking ministries and expect to secure high offices in the southern provinces. The three other main Shiite factions, Fadila, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC) led by Amman Al Hakim, and the associated Badr organisation have been marginalised. They, like the Sadrists, have armed men at their disposal and could express their dissatisfaction through violence.
It is clear that Maliki used factional divisions to master Iraq’s post-election blocs and factions with the object of concentrating power in his own hands. There are no “power-sharing” arrangements and no checks and balances. What happens to the proposed national security council and the “security ministries” will determine whether he emerges as a man ready to share power or an authoritarian strongman.
He has prepared the way for the second option. During his first term - 2006-2010 - as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, he put officers loyal to him in key positions, took control of provincial military headquarters and dominated the intelligence services. He has used the army’s Baghdad Brigade against opponents and has operated clandestine prisons where Sunnis accused of aiding the insurgency have been held illegally and tortured. He also put his own people into the commissions formed to investigate corruption - which is rampant - and settle property disputes from the Baathist era, a potential source of corrupt funds.
The Obama administration claims to be satisfied with the new government, simply because Washington wants nothing to delay the withdrawal of the remaining 48,000 US troops beyond the end of next year.
Tehran is delighted with Maliki’s return and with his appointments. Iran’s man holds the top job in Iraq. He heads a Shiite religious party allied to and, to a certain extent, dependent on Tehran which can expect its influence to climb as soon as the last US soldier departs.
This does not mean Maliki or Tehran will have an easy time ruling Iraq. Iraq’s Sunni Arab neighhbours are not prepared to allow Iraq to move into Iran’s political orbit. They can be expected to finance and arm nationalist insurgents, Sunni salafis and even Al Qaeda elements entering Iraq and attacking its Shiite-led government.