Dispute Over Key Jobs Stalls Iraq's Government

Jul 11, 2011

Even though it's been nearly eight months since political rivals in Iraq came together to form a coalition government, key positions in that government have yet to be filled, and political infighting continues.

At issue is the fact that Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, who's backed by the country's Shiites, and his main rival, Ayad Allawi, who's backed by the Sunnis, simply cannot agree on who should run the ministries of defense and interior.

Over the weekend, Maliki, Allawi, and other key politicians finally sat down to try to hash it all out. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, held a press conference after the meeting. His expression was not optimistic.

"We have agreed to reactivate a committee," Talabani said. "This committee will prepare a list of proposals that can be discussed in two weeks' time."

In other words, it was a discussion about a discussion. Those who attended said it was very low on substance.

The trouble started in March of last year, when the parties of Maliki and Allawi nearly tied in parliamentary elections. Then came months of fighting over who had the right to form a government. Once it was clear that Maliki had a large enough coalition in Parliament, and that he would become prime minister, the question was what would happen to Allawi.

The United States pushed Allawi to stay in government, rather than form a traditional opposition, like in most parliamentary systems. Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of Parliament, says that was a mistake.

"They say, 'Well, let's all make the government together — a partnership government, power-sharing government. And then they enter the government without agreeing on the program, without agreeing on the details," Othman says.

The problems are not just who will run the defense and interior ministries, but the role of a national strategic council that's supposed to be headed by Allawi. The council was proposed by the Americans as a way to have some checks on Maliki's power. But the council has yet to convene.

Now, Othman says, most Iraqis — and many American policymakers — regret pushing for a power-sharing government. But, Othman says, it's too late to turn back now.

The other problem, Othman says, is that Americans are so focused on the question of whether some U.S. troops will remain in Iraq next year that for them, the political stalemate has been moved to the backburner. In the end, he says, it's the Iraqi people who lose out.

"The poor citizen is losing very much," he says. "He doesn't have enough services. He doesn't have electricity; he doesn't have security. And the leaders just go on meeting and meeting and talk and so on, and so we are in a bad shape, really."

Away from the political meetings, protesters gather every week in Baghdad's Tahrir Square. Protest organizer Haidar Saeed says if there can't be a real opposition in Parliament, then the people should be the opposition.

For every hundred protesters, though, there seem to be a hundred different problems: corruption, electricity shortages, the search for those who went missing during the war, unemployment and even the harassment of protesters.

Two protesters can't even agree on who to blame for all their problems — America or Iran. A third says, "We don't need to bring down our government. All we want is what our government promised to give us."

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