April 12, 2011 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 683

Iraqi Government in Crisis – Sectarianism, Corruption and Dissent

April 12, 2011 | By Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli
Iraq | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 683


It took nine months after the Iraqi parliamentary election in March 2010 for a new government to be formed, in a process dotted by bargaining, haggling, threats, compromises and even foreign intervention. It took the political skills of Masoud Barazani, the president of Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), to fashion a compromise of national partnership that finally gave birth, in December, to the new government under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Government Born in Disharmony and Dissent – Survival Increasingly Questioned

The new Iraqi government has suffered since its birth from a number of problems:

· The absence of shared political principles that glue a coalition government together and underpin its performance

· The notion of national partnership and power-sharing anchored in personal preferences rather than in governing principles and quickly placed in deep freeze

· The failure to appoint three key ministers, namely those for the ministries of interior, defense and national security

· A fragile security situation

· Wide-scale corruption and Poor Services

The Absence of Shared Political Principles

The Iraqi government is a coalition government; by their very nature, such governments are not homogeneous political bodies. In the case of Iraq, the coalition government is handicapped by ethnic, sectarian and religious diversity. Influential elements within the government and parliament are closely linked to foreign interests, which often exercise significant influence on the decision-making process. Other elements within the government show animosity towards and distrust each other.

Sectarianism remains a potent force across Iraq, with each minister assigning senior posts in his portfolio to his political or ethnic group. Nepotism is also rampant.

While sectarianism has been present since the establishment of the modern Iraqi state in 1920, after the 2003 invasion it became institutionalized. The appointment of the Iraqi Governing Council in 2003 was the first time in the political history of Iraq that a national governing body selected its members on purely sectarian basis. Subsequently, muhasasa, the distribution of positions at all political and administrative levels along ethnic and sectarian groups, has become an ingrained feature of the Iraqi political culture. Trying to satisfy all of the coalition partners, the new government comprises 41 ministers, although three of them are yet to be appointed.

National Partnership and Power Sharing

From among the many political groups which competed in the March 2010 parliamentary election, two key political blocs emerged, with an almost identical number of seats. Al-Iraqiya, a list headed by a previous Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, attracted Sunni and secular votes and gained 91 seats in the 325-seat parliament. State of Law, the group headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, was second closest bloc, gaining 89 seats. According to the constitution, al-Iraqiya, with the largest number of seats, should have formed the government. However, under pressure from Iran, two additional Shi'a blocks, namely those of the Sadrists and the Supreme Islamic Council, joined the State of Law to form the National Alliance, which controlled the largest number of votes in parliament and the right to form the government.

Although al-Maliki needed the votes of the Kurdish Alliance to form a government, neither the Kurds nor the Sadrists and the Supreme Islamic Council would support al-Maliki as prime minister unless al-Iraqiya was incorporated into the new government. They argued that excluding al-Iraqiya would mean excluding the Sunnis, who accounted for most of its votes. Further, al-Iraqiya insisted that they were entitled to form the new government. The stalemate that persisted for almost nine months and ended only with the intervention of Masoud Barazani, who summoned the feuding parties to Erbil, the capital of KRG, to hammer out a compromise.

Under the compromise hammered out by Barazani, the principle of "national partnership" or "power sharing" was adopted. This principle rested on allocation of a number of ad hoc political benefits of strictly personal nature: Jalal Talabani, an Iraqi Kurd, remains president of Iraq for a second term; Nouri al-Maliki remains prime minister, also for a second term; ministerial portfolios were distributed among the partners; and a new office of Supreme Council for Strategic Policies was created, tailor-made for Ayad Allawi, the head of al-Iraqiya bloc which emerged from the general election with the largest number of seats in parliament. The Council was meant to articulate national and strategic policies and priorities.

Preoccupied with their own personal rewards, the leaders who met in Erbil made no attempt to touch upon the pressing economic problems facing the country, such as a high rate of unemployment, a crumbling infrastructure, the poor provision of public services and widespread corruption. Nor was there any mention made of strategic or foreign policy nature pertaining to Iraq's future relations with the United States, the suffocating influence of Iran in the internal affairs of the country, or how to deal with terrorism and violence.

Once approved by parliament as prime minister, al-Maliki reneged on many elements of the compromise agreement, particularly with regards to establishment of the Supreme Council for Strategic Policies, claiming that no government can operate with two heads. Al-Maliki did all in his power to drain the proposed council of its powers and then sought to pack it with his supporters. Out-maneuvered and out-foxed by Nouri al-Maliki throughout the nine months leading to the formation of the government and four months since then, Allawi decided he no longer wished to preside over an emaciated body.

Failure to Appoint Security Ministers

Nothing more vividly demonstrates the dissent within, and the sectarian nature of, the Iraqi government than the failure of the coalition partners to agree on the nominees for the three of the most significant cabinet posts, namely those of defense, interior, and national security. Almost four months after this government was voted into office on December 21, 2010, these three cabinet posts remain vacant because the prime minister and the leaders of the other blocs – indeed, even al-Maliki's bloc, the National Alliance, itself – could not agree on candidates that would get the parliament's vote of confidence. Al-Maliki was reported to have said that he was prepared to wait a year until he was ready to submit to parliament names of candidates to his liking.[1] As a result, al-Maliki has since been the acting minister for all three ministries.

Unstable Security Situation

While there has been improvement in the security situation, daily acts of violence and terrorism continue to bedevil the security agencies of the government. The Islamic State of Iraq, the local branch of al-Qaeda, has not been defeated. The principal agencies of government, including the offices of the prime minister and most ministries, operate from the confines of the well-protected Green Zone. Senior officials travel in convoys on streets often blocked in advance to insure safe passage. A government operating from behind high walls remains disengaged from the daily concerns of the people and unable to take their pulse.

Iraqi observers maintain that al-Qaeda has recently changed its strategy. Rather than holding territory, the organization is bent on carrying out showcase acts of terrorism that will inflict death and injury in numbers too great to go unnoticed. Two such acts in 2011 dramatize the new strategy: the attack on February 1, 2011 on the Assyrian Catholic church in Baghdad, which caused the deaths of dozens of parishioners, followed early April 2011 with a major assault on the government compound of Salahuddin provincial government in Saddam Hussein's city of Tikrit, which resulted in the deaths of 63 people and the wounding of more than 100. Whoever was behind the terrorist act in Tikrit, it is clear that the capacity of the Iraqi security forces is constrained by poor training and poor morale. Not surprisingly, it took a joint U.S.-Iraqi military force to reclaim the provincial government building from the hands of a group of armed men, three of whom blew themselves up to inflict the highest number of casualties and to obstruct evacuation.[2] Critics argue that even after years of training by the U.S., the Iraqi security forces continue to suffer from poor performance and low morale.

The absence of security has meant the absence of investments, domestic and foreign. No foreign investor ventures into a situation that puts his life and the life of those working for him in jeopardy. The exception is the foreign oil companies which entered into contract with the Iraqi government to develop the oil sector. These companies are accustomed to working in politically troubled area and they have the wherewithal to protect their workers and their expensive equipment. The economy would have been in a complete state of paralysis were it not for the flow of oil revenues of $40 billion in 2010 and perhaps a larger amount in 2011.

Wide-Scale Corruption and Poor Services

The Iraqi people are becoming increasingly restless and frustrated by the massive scale of corruption across the board and by the poor supply of public services, particularly electricity and drinking water. Businesses and industry cannot flourish in darkness. The shortage of electric power cannot be blamed on the shortage of funding, however. Billions of dollars have been stolen or squandered on fictitious contracts or non-existing projects, particularly in the ministry of electricity.

At the end of March 2011, the International Monetary Fund issued a report on Iraq which is highly critical of the slow progress in the implementation of the five-year plan, 2010-2014. There has been little progress in the building of the crumbling infrastructure and utilities. Few, if any, major development projects have been implemented. Both the industrial and agricultural sectors remain constrained by lack of funds and clear economic strategy.[3] The country was shocked to learn that $40 billion had been withdrawn from the country's Development Fund with no visible trace.[4]

Despite government efforts to contain the public rage intensified by the political turmoil in the region, a wave of mass demonstrations spread across Iraq during most of the month of March and continues to date, calling for improvement in public services and an end to corruption. While professing a commitment to the constitutional rights of Iraqis to demonstrate, al-Maliki's government resorted to restrictions and even violence to limit the access of the demonstrators to public squares on February 25, 2011 (the Day of Rage).

Feeling the heat, al-Maliki decided to cancel the purchase of 18 F16 fighter jets to free up money for spending on projects aimed to ease growing tensions arising from inadequate supply of food items under the ration card system. A day after the mass demonstration in Baghdad on February 25, al-Maliki gave his ministers 100 days to take measures to combat corruption and improve performance. He said that after the 100-day deadline he would personally evaluate the performance of each minister to determine who should keep his/her post.[5] However, he set no benchmarks for performance, and critics have characterized the whole procedure as a charade.[6] Recently, a question was raised as to who will rate the performance of al-Maliki as acting minister over the three security ministries. [7]

The corruption in government and its failure to provide adequate public services has been sufficient to alienate the highest Shi'a clerical authority in the country – Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Al-Sistani has refused, in recent weeks, to meet with Iraqi leaders because of what he perceives to be the failure of the government to respond to the legitimate demands of the people.[8]

Signs of Government Breakup

Prime Minister Nouri Kamel al-Maliki finds himself under siege from all directions, no less than from his coalition partners who snipe at him and at the government in which they serve. Taking the lead is the erratic leader of the Sadrist movement, the Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr who keeps threatening to unleash his supporters onto the streets if the government fails to deliver on its promises with regard to the provision of public services and the creation of jobs.[9]

Feeling snubbed by Prime Minister al-Malaki, Ayad Allawi, the head of al-Iraqiya, is scheming to bring the government down. Allawi keeps reiterating that there is no genuine "national partnership" unless the agreement brokered by Barazani is carried out fully. He has criticized the prime minister for centralizing so much power in his hand and for avoiding the creation of proper procedures under which the council of ministers would operate.[10] Even politically moderate and temperamentally sound Ammar al-Hakim – the head of the Supreme Islamic Council, which is a member of the National Alliance – is complaining that his group is being marginalized and that he prefers to serve as loyal opposition rather than as marginal partner in government. A spokesman for al-Hakim revealed that political blocs are actively trying to bring al-Maliki's government down. There are indications that al-Hakim, Allawi and al-Sadr are coordinating their activities to do exactly that at the expiration of the 100 days al-Maliki gave his ministers and provincial governors to meet people's aspirations.[11]

Al-Maliki must also contend with the speaker of parliament, Osama al-Nujaifi, a Sunni politician from the northern city of Mosul and a member of al-Iraqiya bloc, who is critical of the prime minister and prone to challenge him.

Al-Nujaifi's most recent challenge to the prime minister was his rejection in early April of the latter's request to postpone the legislative process on five proposed pieces of legislations dealing with the Supreme Legal Council, Federal High Court, Financial Control Boards, Public Inspectors, and the Integrity Board. Al-Nujaifi declared the intension of parliament to pass these legislations as a means of fighting corruption and the corrupt officials in government. [12]

Government of Political Majority

Feeling the pressure from all sides and aware of a potential vote of no confidence that his opponents could muster in parliament, al-Maliki's supporters are floating the idea of a new government with a "political majority" in lieu of national partnership. This concept of a political majority has never been explained because the current coalition government enjoys a majority in parliament and can stay in power as long as its components remain inside the coalition. One possible interpretation of the concept of political majority is to do away with national partnership by forcing members of parliament to choose between being in the majority bloc or in opposition. However, for al-Maliki to keep his job, he will need to split al-Iraqiya and obtain the support of those of its members who are frustrated by Allawi's political incompetence and his frequent travels outside the country. It is also possible that the idea of a political majority is a pre-emptive strike by al-Maliki to ascribe to others the failure of government to deliver.[13]

Shadow Government

In response to statements attributed to a close associate of al-Maliki about creating a political majority, three disgruntled political leaders have begun to consider the forming of a new government – Ahmad Chalabi, the head of the Iraqi National Congress whose candidacy for the position of minister of interior was vetoed by al-Maliki; Ayad Allawi, who emerged from the general elections with the largest number of seats but remains empty-handed; and Adel Abd al-Mahdi of the Supreme Islamic Council, who has withdrawn his candidacy as vice president of Iraq because of the government's decision to create three posts of vice president to a president who lacks serious authority in the first place. The three politicians are talking about "a shadow government," a concept borrowed from the British parliament, meaning an alternative government in waiting. [14]


Measured against the repressive regimes in Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia, Iraq still maintains broad latitude of free and open political debate and a considerable degree of freedom of expression, as evidenced by the existence of freewheeling press and public media. The fact that dissent is broadly tolerated provides a sound indication that democracy in Iraq has so far survived many setbacks.

On the other hand, corruption and sectarianism continue to dominate the political scene, and the performance of government remains below par. While paying lip service to democratic values such as freedom of assembly and of the press, Prime Minister al-Maliki is displaying worrying levels of authoritarianism hardly alien to the Iraqi political tradition. Although he has vowed not to seek a third term as prime minister, the more immediate issue, given the political turmoil in the country, is whether he will be able to survive in power until the next elections due in 2014.

It is perhaps one of the greatest ironies of Iraq's modern political history that after suffering from decades of violence and exclusion, the Kurds now hold the key to al-Maliki's political survival; indeed, no Iraqi government can survive without their support.

* Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli is a senior analyst at MEMRI.


[1], March 22, 2011.

[2] Al-Zaman, Iraq, March 30, 2011; al-Sharq al-Awsat, London, March 31, 2011.

[3] International Monetary Fund, Iraq – Second Review under the Stand-By Arrangement, Country Report No. 11/75 of March 28, 2011.

[4] Al-Zaman, February 22, 2011.

[5], February 26, 2011.

[6] February 26, 2011; al-Zaman, February 26, 2011; al-Mada, February 27, 2011 and al-Sabah, February 28, 2011.

[7] Al-Zaman, April 5, 2011.

[8] Al-Sharq al-Awsat, February 11, 2011.

[9] Al-Mada, March 27, 2011;, March 27, 2011.

[10] Al-Zaman, April 5, 2011.

[11] Al-Sharq-Awsat, March 31, 2011.

[12], April 5, 2011.

[13], April 4, 2011; al-Sharq al-Awsat, April 7, 2011.

[14], April 7, 2011.

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