March 1, 2006 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 269

The Difficulties of Forming the New Government in Iraq

March 1, 2006 | By Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli
Iraq | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 269


In the second parliamentary elections in Iraq, conducted on December 15 of last year, four political groups emerged with an overwhelming control of the seats in parliament. These groups, together controlling 252 of the total 275 seats, are the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) associated with Shi'ite political parties (130 seats) [1] ; the Kurdish Alliance (53 seats); the Iraqi Accord Front representing the Sunnis (44 seats); and the Iraqi National List of former prime minister Ayad Allawi primarily comprising secular candidates (25 seats). The remaining 23 seats are divided among various parties and individuals, the most significant being the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, another Sunni party, whose 11 seats complement the 44 seats of the Iraqi Accord Front.

The results of the elections were contested on grounds of fraud and irregularities, which delayed the final allocation of seats by almost two months. The investigation by a team of U.N. and Arab League experts found few irregularities: The ultimate results announced by the Independent Electoral Committee on February 10, 2006 were nearly identical to the preliminary results. The international team also identified "the pressing need at this juncture of Iraq's history for a veritable national unity representing all the segments of the Iraqi people." [2]

The Leading Political Figures

The four leading winning groups in the elections are made up of various components which, in a crunch, may follow their own religious, sectarian, tribal, regional, or even personal interests. Indeed, the tensions and disagreements within and among them could undermine the prospects of forming a stable and effectively operating government in the next four years.

The UIA itself is a confederation of four political parties and independent candidates - the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) under Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim; al-Da'wa Party, under the current Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari; the Fadhila Party [Virtue Party] under Dr. Nadeem al-Jabiri; and the Sadrists, the supporters of the young Islamic radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The Kurdish Alliance is made up of the two leading Kurdish parties - the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) under Jalal Talabani, the current president of Iraq, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party under Mas'oud Barzani, the President of Kurdistan.

There are four leading figures and groupings in the Sunni parties. The Iraqi Accord Front, including the Conference of the People of Iraq, under 'Adnan al-Duleimi; the Islamic Party, under Tariq al-Hashemi; the National Dialogue Front, under Sheikh Khalaf al-'Alyan; and the Council for National Dialogue, under Saleh al-Mutlak.

The Selection of a Prime Minister

Under the Iraqi constitution, the party with the largest number of seats designates the prime minister, although it is the President's Council (the President of the Republic and his two Vice Presidents) which asks a member of parliament to form a new government.

While the election results were being contested, the UIA, the group with the largest number of parliamentary seats, was engaged in an intense internal contest for the selection of its candidate for the post of prime minister. Initially, four candidates competed, but eventually the real competition was reduced to that between the current Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari from al-Da'wa Party and 'Adil Abd Al-Mahdi, the vice president from SCIRI. The new prime minister will serve for four years under the constitution approved in a referendum in October 2005.

The Method for Selecting the Prime Minister

The two key candidates and their supporters advocated two opposing methods of selection: Abd al-Mahdi supporters favored selection based on consensus; al-Ja'fari supporters favored selection by a vote among the 130 UIA members of parliament. The second method emerged with the upper hand, thanks greatly to the weight of the 30 Sadrists who all voted for al-Ja'fari. The London daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat has reported that, on the eve of the voting, Muqtada al-Sadr called some of the Shi'ite leaders and threatened a civil war if al-Ja'fari was not selected. [3] Given al-Sadr's record of erratic behavior, the story cannot be readily discounted. It was also suggested that as a quid pro quo for the Sadrists' votes for him, al-Ja'fari will drop all legal cases against them, most of them arising from the rebellion in Najaf and Karbala in 2004 and, more significantly, the arrest warrant pending against al-Sadr for the murder of a major Shi'ite figure, Abd al-Majid al-Khoei, shortly after the occupation of Iraq. [4]

When the votes were counted, al-Ja'fari received 65 votes and Abd Al-Mahdi, 64. Al-Ja'fari was declared the winner, but his margin of victory represented neither a great vote of confidence for someone who had already been serving as a prime minister for almost a year, nor a propitious start for the challenges ahead.

Al-Sadr emerged from this exercise as a person with political clout, which he quickly used in a series of well-publicized visits to neighboring countries where he was treated as a significant political figure. In the course of less than four weeks, he was received by the heads of state of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Jordan. One way or another, al-Sadr has become part of the Iraqi political landscape - a force to be reckoned with. Al-Sadr has two potent opponents - the Kurds and Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of SCIRI. If these two political groups should join forces with Allawi and the Sunnis, an entirely new political situation could emerge.

Foreseen Delays in Forming a Government

The formation of the first Iraqi government following the elections of January 30, 2005 took approximately four months. At that time, there were only two major groups negotiating a deal, and one of the two, the UIA, had an absolute, though not a two-thirds, majority in the National Assembly. This time, there are four major groups in the newly-elected parliament, and none with an absolute majority. To form a new government, and with it the right to govern, a candidate needs the support of all of the UIA and at least one more group from among the four. Given that al-Ja'fari is not popular outside his own Da'wa party and the Sadrists, who jointly control fewer than half of UIA's 130 seats, it is hardly surprising that various groups are already maneuvering to identify alternative candidates.

The process of forming a coalition is likely to be neither easy nor quick. Already many of the potential partners have declared their conditions, or red lines - a euphemism for a veto - about potential candidates and about critical issues. Notwithstanding his admonition that whoever draws these lines "will find himself [entangled] inside them," [5] Talabani reminded the UIA that nomination does not necessarily mean appointment, and that while al-Ja'fari can be approved in parliament by a simple majority of 138 members, he would in fact need 184 votes, or two-thirds of the members of parliament, to be able to govern effectively, and to effect certain changes that would require two-thirds of the votes in parliament. [6] The Kurds have their own conditions about the federalism of Kurdistan and about the future of Kirkuk, as will be explained below.

Contentions About Political Figures

The political figure who raises the highest level of contention is al-Ja'fari himself. He has been criticized for performing poorly as prime minister. The country remains in a severe state of turmoil and is subject to daily terrorist attacks. Frightened by random violence, many Iraqis rarely venture out of their homes. The supply of electricity and gasoline remains irregular, and the high rate of unemployment shows no sign of abating. Above all, al-Ja'fari is now seen as beholden to the erratic Islamist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose supporters' votes were crucial to putting al-Ja'fari ahead of his closest competitor. There is a genuine concern that al-Ja'fari's government might, under pressure from al-Sadr, pull Iraq further into an Iranian-style theocracy.

The other political figure who raises a great deal of contention is Ayad Allawi, the former prime minister, who is a secular Shi'ite. Al-Ja'fari, and, even more, the Sadrists who supported him, have declared their opposition to Allawi's joining the new government. Al-Ja'fari's objection may have to do with Allawi's past Ba'thist association, and the Sadrists cannot forgive him for crushing, with considerable force, their rebellion against the Shi'ite marja'iyah in Najaf and Karbala and against the multinational forces in 2004. Moreover, Allawi's secularism is anathema to a group which firmly believes that the only good government is a government based on shari'a (Islamic law). [7]

Political Maneuvering

There is a broad consensus among the various political groupings, including elements of the UIA, that the new government should be a government of "national salvation," that brings under its umbrella all the political forces in Iraq. The United States stands firmly behind this proposition, for it is indeed unlikely that the Sunni-guided insurgency can be brought under control unless the Sunni representatives in Parliament are fully represented in the new government.

The two Sunni groups in Parliament, which together control 55 seats, have entered into a broader coalition with Allawi's National List, thereby creating the second largest faction in Parliament with 80 seats. The new group is called the Council for National Action (majlis al-'amal al-watani), which will act as an integrated parliamentary faction in negotiations with the designated prime minister on the formation of a new government. They expect to increase their number to 88 by attracting individuals or representatives from small groups. In the words of one of its members - Izzat al-Shahbandar - all the faction's components are nationalist groups which reject ethnic politics. Its mission "is national unity, without which Iraq will descend into the abyss." [8]

Another problem for al-Ja'fari is posed by the head of the UIA, Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, who heads SCIRI and who believes that the post of prime minister belongs to his party because it has a much larger political base than al-Ja'fari's Da'wa Party, and is negotiating with prospective coalition partners behind al-Ja'fari's back. While he is on record in support of the democratic choice of al-Ja'fari, his actions are not consistent with his words. He is known to have been holding talks, jointly with Adil Abd Al-Mahdi who was defeated by al-Ja'fari by one vote, with the Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani and with the Sunni leader 'Adnan al-Duleimi. Al-Hakim has also met separately with the other Kurdish leader Mas'oud Barzani, the president of Kurdistan. [9] Given Al-Hakim's disappointment at the selection of al-Ja'fari over SCIRI's candidate Abd al-Mahdi, it is a safe assumption that he is not exactly conducting meetings to mobilize support for the candidacy of al-Ja'fari.

While SCIRI and its leader al-Hakim have maintained a strategic alliance with the Kurds, al-Ja'fari, as prime minister, has had less than warm relations with Jalal Talabani, the president of Iraq. Their conflicts and disagreements made front page news for a long time in the free Iraqi press. The Kurds have been particularly disappointed with al-Ja'fari's refusal to place the Kirkuk issue on the agenda. Talabani and al-Ja'fari have even feuded over one of Saddam's palaces, an issue finally resolved with the help of the Kurdish militia, the Peshmerga.

Al-Ja'fari must also not ignore the fourth component of the UIA, the Fadhila Party [the Virtue Party] which has its own agenda and its own demands which, if not satisfied, might cause it to bolt into the arms of a different political configuration. The Al-Fadhila party seems not to have taken part in the negotiations for the next government.

Another criticism of al-Ja'fari, voiced by the Najaf News Network, is that by insisting on his reelection, Al-Ja'fari has galvanized all the forces, national and international, that are opposed to the Shi'a rise to power in Iraq, thus forcing him to make concessions to the detriment of the Shi'a and to their fundamental interests. [10]

Critical Issues Facing the Formation of Government

When the maneuvering subsides, and the actual bargaining goes into high gear, there will be a number of issues, some extremely thorny, placed on the negotiating table. Among them are the following:

The Coalition Government

Since no political party commands an absolute majority in the new parliament, a coalition government is inevitable. The questions are what kind of coalition will be formed, who will be in it and at what a price.

The starting issue is whether the new government will be another coalition between the Shi'a and the Kurds, or a national unity government that will include, in addition to these two groups, the Sunnis and the secular members of Allawi's party. Hamid Majid Mousa, the Secretary General of the Communist Party and a member of Allawi's group, has asserted that the attempts to keep Allawi out have foiled attempts to form a new government. [11]

In the aftermath of the terrorist attack on the Shi'a shrines on February 23, the likelihood of a national government has increased. There is, however, a growing assumption that the heads of most of the political parties, with the open support of the U.S. Ambassador in Iraq, will demand that the UIA come up with a candidate other than al-Ja'fari. In this context, the convening of the parliament, required by the constitution to take place on February 25, was postponed for two weeks in order to give the various factions more time to negotiate. [12]

The Issue of Federalism

There is a broad consensus in Iraq that the Kurdish region should remain federated - in other words, autonomous - under a unified Iraq. Al-Hakim, the head of SCIRI, has repeatedly announced his intention to create a similar federated region in southern Iraq. The Sunnis, supported by the Sadrists, strongly oppose this idea because it will deny the Sunnis the benefits of oil revenues, as these revenues will accrue solely to the Kurds and the Shi'a. The opponents of federalism demand a constitutional revision that would render such a federal structure unconstitutional. The UIA is opposed to major revisions in the constitution which would deny them the option of federating the southern governorates on the pattern of the Kurdish north.

The Issue of Kirkuk

The Kurds argue that al-Ja'fari has reneged on a commitment that the government would discuss the issue of Kirkuk's future - an issue that they rank second in importance only to federation of the three autonomous Kurdish provinces. They want the issue resolved through a referendum which they believe they have the votes to win. The Kurds are unlikely to support any prime minister who does not offer to deal with this issue in a manner favorable to their aspirations.

As a condition of supporting al-Ja'fari, the Kurds demand a commitment by the prospective prime minister to conduct a census of Kirkuk, to be followed by a plebiscite that would determine whether the city will be incorporated into Kurdistan. They also demand a major role for the Kurdish ministers in the new government. [13]

The Kurds realize, as they have said through one of their negotiators Fuad Ma'ssoum, that they can tip the scales between the UIA's candidate and the newly established Allawi-Sunni Coalition's candidate. [14] In practice, the Kurds would prefer a UIA candidate, provided that candidate is not al-Ja'fari.

The Issue of Deba'thification

There are two extremes on this issue. On one side are the Sadrists, who demand that the deba'thification of Iraq must go ahead at full speed with the summary execution of Saddam Hussein; on the other side are the Sunnis, who feel that they have been sufficiently victimized by the policy of deba'thification, and that it is time to move on and unify the country. Holding a middle ground is the Allawi group, which has taken a pragmatic view about deba'thification, namely that the policy should be applied only to the most senior elements of the former ruling Ba'th Party. This view is also shared by the Kurds, whose leader, Talabani, has vowed that, as president, he will never sign execution orders for Saddam Hussein.

The Issue of a Timetable for Withdrawal

The Sunnis and the Sadrists find themselves in agreement regarding the demand to set a timetable for the withdrawal of multinational forces from Iraq. They share the view that insurgency, terrorism and economic dislocation are caused by the occupation forces, and that the sooner they leave, the better Iraq is likely to be. For them, setting a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign forces is second only to preventing the federalization of Iraq. The Kurds want the multinational forces to stay until the resistance has been brought under control and the Shi'a, with the blessings of their spiritual leader Ayatollah al-Sistani, have taken a pragmatic view.

The Issue of the Militias

There are three significant militias - the Kurdish Peshmerga, SCIRI's Iran-supported Badr Brigade, and al-Sadr's Jeish al-Mahdi, which may also be getting support from Iran.

In rather blunt language, the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, said the United States will not agree to the existence of militias connected with sectarian elements in the new government. He said the American taxpayers wish to see their tax money spent properly and they do not wish to see it spent on [military] forces run by sectarian ministers. [15] The ambassador's admonition may have been directed primarily at the Badr Brigade, which is suspected of committing murders and acts of terrorism against the Sunnis. (See next paragraph.)

Key Security Ministries

There are four key security posts - the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of the Interior, the National Security Adviser, and the head of the intelligence service. The U.S. Ambassador, who is directly involved in many of the negotiations between party leaders about the formation of the new government, has expressed the view that all the four positions should be held by individuals not connected with sectarian parties. [16] The most controversial figure is the Minister of Interior, Banyan Jabber Solagh, whose ministry was found to be running illegal prisons and torture chambers, most of whose victims are Sunnis. The Sunnis also claim that the police and security forces under the Ministry of the Interior are responsible for the assassination of numerous Sunni clerics, and they want Solagh out. However, he is a member of SCIRI, which is supported by the Badr Militia. Should al-Ja'fari succeed in forming a government, it will be difficult for him to replace Solagh, as doing so would offend the other branch of the UIA, whose support for al-Ja'fari is far from solid. [17]

Al-Ja'fari was equally blunt, characterizing the statement by the U.S. Ambassador as "his government's point of view." He asserted that Iraq "makes its own decisions, by Iraqi methods and through Iraqi vision, without the intervention of any [other] country." [18]

When agreement is reached on the issues indicated above - and some will no doubt be swept under the carpet for consideration at a later date - a new round of negotiations will start concerning the allocation of the so-called 16 sovereign posts: the president, the prime minister, and the speaker of the parliament - each with two deputies; the ministers of foreign affairs, finance, interior, defense, and petroleum; the national security adviser; and the chief of intelligence. And, finally, the parties will have to agree on the size of the cabinet and how the posts will be distributed among competing demands and party interests.

Criticism of the U.S. Ambassador

The U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has maintained a high profile in the various meetings regarding the formation of a new government. He also been seen sharing the podium in news conferences involving senior Iraqi leaders, including the president.

It is not surprising that the ambassador is not well-liked by most of the Shi'a, who refer to him as "Ambassador of the Sunnis" and as "Abu Omar" or "Mullah Khlil," after Mullah Omar of the Taliban. [19] Even the daily al-Sabah, a semi-official newspaper, published an article bearing the headline "The American Ambassador carries out the responsibility of the high commissioner." In the opening sentence, the daily said, "The difference between the function of an ambassador and that of a high commissioner designated by his country to govern an occupied land has disappeared." [20]


This paper has sought to highlight some of the complexities and issues involved in the formation of a new Iraq government that is supposed to govern a country in deep crisis for the next four years.

The chances of concluding the arduous process of forming a coalition may have been enhanced by the recent terrorist attack on major Shi'ite shrines in Samaraa, and the subsequent retaliation against Sunni mosques in many parts of Iraq. The danger of a civil war resulting from violence against the holy places of both communities could spur action to reach a compromise faster than would otherwise have been possible. But even a faster process may be slower than what Iraq needs in terms of a strong and stable government that is capable of addressing the burning national issues of security and economic reconstruction. The decision on who will be Iraq's next prime minister will be of decisive import for the question of how the country might be successfully navigated through turbulent waters.

*Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli is Senior Analyst of MEMRI's Middle East Economic Studies Program.

[1] Including two seats from al-Rissaliyyun (associated with Muqtada al-Sadr).

[2] D. Abdul Khaliq Hussein, February 12, 2006.

[3] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 17, 2006.

[4] Al-Zaman (Baghdad), February 16, 2006.

[5] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 17, 2006.

[6] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 19, 2006.

[7] Al-Zaman (Baghdad), February 12, 2006.

[8] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 21, 2006.

[9] (an independent electronic daily), February 21, 2005.

[10] As’ad Rashid, Does al-Ja’fari Wish to Destroy the Iraqi Shi’a? Karbala News Agency, February 19, 2006.

[11] Al-Zaman (Baghdad), February 23, 2006.

[12] Al-Quds Al-'Arabi (London), February 24, 2006.

[13] Al-Mada (Baghdad), February 14, 2006.

[14] Al-Zaman (Baghdad) February 20, 2006.

[15] Al-Mada (Baghdad), February 21, 2006.

[16] Al-Sabah (Baghdad), February 21, 2006.

[17] (February 17, 2006).

[18] Al-Sabah (Baghdad), February 22, 2006.

[19] As’ad Rashid, Najaf News Network, February 20, 2006.

[20] Al-Sabah (Baghdad), February 22, 2006.

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