The Implications of the Delayed Formation of Iraq's Government

Posted in Iraq | 02-Apr-05 | Author: Adam Wolfe

Iraq 's Interim President Ghazi al-Yawar (L) speaks during the first country's parliament meeting in Baghdad.

Wth the formation of Iraq's government perpetually "a few days away," the state's newly elected parliament gathered for the first time in Baghdad's heavily guarded Green Zone on March 18. The following day the National Assembly broke down along sectarian lines and parliament was adjourned until at least the following weekend. Many prominent members said the August 15 deadline for a draft constitution would have to be pushed back as far as six months.

Negotiations between the United Iraqi Alliance (U.I.A.), a Shi'a party controlling 140 of the National Assembly's 275 seats, and the Kurdish alliance, which is composed of the two main Kurdish parties and controls 75 seats, to form a new government have remained on the edge of completion for nearly a month. Minority party members are chafing at the delay, and the ministries that control the day-to-day functioning of Iraq have been forced to put off any major projects until a government is formed.

The reasons why the main Shi'a and Kurdish parties have been unable to form a new government will not disappear with the announcement of an agreement. Each party is now attempting to create the optimal environment in which the details of the constitution and future of Iraq will be decided. It appears increasingly likely that this too may break down along sectarian lines. Washington has largely stayed out of the negotiations, out of concern that its presence might taint the new government even before it comes into being. However, it is carefully monitoring the situation because its objectives in Iraq now depend on having the semblance of a stable government to accept control of Iraq's security.

The Bumpy Road Toward a Government

From the moment the election returns were in, it was patently obvious that the U.I.A. would need the support of the main Kurdish parties to form a government. Both sides of this alliance also clearly saw the need to carve out a more formative stake for the Sunnis in the new government than the election results dictated. It was argued that continuing violence, threats of repercussions and the dismissal of Sunni religious leaders all worked together to suppress the Sunni turnout, diminishing their representation in the National Assembly. If the National Assembly could demonstrate to the Sunni population that it was working in its interests, they would accept a role in the new government more equal to their representation in the population -- still a marked decrease from the days of Saddam Hussein's rule when Sunni Ba'athists dominated the government.

While all parties were in agreement to the outline to form a new government that would draft Iraq's constitution, nothing has gone to plan. The Kurds' election returns put them in a very favorable position to gain concessions on Kirkuk; the Sunnis willing to work with the government do not have the backing of the Sunni population; and the interim government has been cut off at the knees with no clear successor for nearly two months, leading to slow-downs in the reconstruction and undermining the political process responsible for it.

Where there are fissures now, there potentially could be explosions when the newly formed government sets to the task of writing a permanent constitution. There is little evidence that any of these problems can be dusted under the rug of a new government. Until these issues are resolved, Iraq's central government will be weak, leaving the sectarian populations to embrace regional and local leaders. This, potentially, could push Iraq toward civil war even after the new government begins to function. A closer examination of the problems maligning the formation of Iraq's government demonstrates that any one issue could potentially derail the reconstruction of Iraq.

The Kurdish Position

For the Kurdish alliance, controlling Kirkuk is the main objective, and they are in an excellent position to do just that. Kirkuk sits in the Tamin province, which is home to one of Iraq's richest oilfields. The Kurds argue that Kirkuk historically was part of the Kurdish region of northern Iraq; that is, until Saddam Hussein's 1987 campaign to "Arabize" northern Iraq after he deduced that the Kurds were supporting Iran in its war with Iraq. Since the U.S. invasion two years ago, Kurds have been moving back into Kirkuk and the neighboring villages. This has made Shi'a leaders nervous that the Kurds would use their increased presence to pull Kirkuk, and the Tamin oilfields, under control of the Kurdish federal government of northern Iraq. It appears that the elections, and subsequent negotiations, will create an opportunity for the Kurdish alliance to achieve these aims.

Neither the U.I.A. nor the Kurdish alliance is strong enough to take control of the Tamin province at this juncture. However, there have been serious negotiations over what shape the legal process for determining the status of Kirkuk should take. The Kurds point to the Transitional Administrative Law (T.A.L.) for guidance; the U.I.A. would like to allow the newly elected parliament to have more of a voice in the determination. The longer the negotiations have taken, the stronger the hand of the Kurds has become.

Under Article 58 of the T.A.L., the final status of the Tamin province will be determined only after the holding of a census and the ratification of a permanent constitution. The Kurds moved to rig this process in their favor before any votes were cast on January 30. Under pressure from Kurdish leaders, the Iraqi electoral commission granted 100,000 Kurdish refugees permission to vote in the Tamin province -- effectively locking in Kurdish control of the province's 40-seat provincial council. With control of Tamin at the provincial level, the Kurdish leaders have pushed an aggressive agenda to guarantee certain levels of federalism in the new constitution.

Reports indicate that the Kurdish negotiators have asked for guarantees that the Kurdish peshmerga militia separate from the Iraqi national army and remain under the control of the Kurdistan Regional Government. Already in an excellent position to control Kirkuk through the defined legal process, the Kurds also are looking for an armed guarantee that Kirkuk will remain under Kurdish control. According to this scenario, if violence were to break out in Kirkuk, the peshmerga militia would be charged with regional security. This would require Baghdad asking permission of the Kurds to send national army troops to the city. Potentially, this could spark a civil war if permission was denied and Baghdad decided to fight for control of Kirkuk.

Kirkuk is at the center of the Kurdish negotiating position, and everything else revolves around this axis. If the Kurdish alliance gains the guarantee to maintain the separation between the peshmerga militia and the national army, it would appear that the Kurds would gain control of the Tamin province. However, the U.I.A. is hoping to grant the National Assembly greater influence over the determination of Kirkuk's final status. Their position is weaker than that of the Kurds, but the two-month delay in forming a government appears to indicate that they are not willing to roll over and allow Kirkuk to be returned to Kurdish control. The closed nature of the negotiations makes it difficult to determine where these issues lie. However, the issues surrounding Kirkuk appear to be closer to resolution than the more visible problem of Sunni participation in the drafting of the constitution.

Sunni Participation

The U.I.A. and the Kurdish alliance are keen on allowing Sunnis to hold positions of power that outweigh their representation in the National Assembly, but they have yet to find a workable solution. For one, the Sunnis elected to the parliament do not seem to have the standing in the Sunni community necessary to force acceptance of the government on the people. Those parties that do have the backing of the people remain untapped by the new government. There was hope that following the elections prominent Sunni leaders would align themselves with the newly formed government, alienating the Sunni militants attacking the Iraqi security forces.

However, the U.I.A. and Kurdish alliance have only moved to bring in Sunni leaders who were already aligned with the goals of the national government. Those Sunnis saw their weak standing in the community fall further after they were seen as apologists for the Shi'a and Kurdish parties. This is the reason that there has been so much difficulty in finding a Sunni leader of sufficient standing willing to accept the position of parliamentarian speaker. Ghazi al-Yawer, currently serving as president in the interim government, turned down the job saying, "this post won't put us [the Sunni parties] in a position to strike a balance." U.I.A. members spoke of nominating Fawaz al-Jarba, a Sunni who ran on the U.I.A. ticket, for the position. However, his nomination would seem to guarantee the perception that Shi'a and Kurdish domination will continue.

The U.I.A. has the most to lose should the Sunni population reject the legitimacy of the constitution after it is drafted. The Kurds would simply withdraw to the northern province and protect Kirkuk as their own. The Shi'a would lose the opportunity to control the entirety of Iraq through the national government. For this reason, the U.I.A. has begun a campaign to isolate the militants fighting the U.S. and Iraqi security forces. Ibrahim Jaafari, Iraq's likely next prime minister, is careful to highlight the non-Iraqi elements backing the insurgency and swelling its ranks. This puts Sunni leaders in the position of aligning themselves either with the Iraqi government or foreign forces attempting to block its efforts, regardless of how miniscule the actual numbers of foreign militants may be.

Like any religious or ethnic group, the Sunni population does not function as a monolithic bloc. However, there are centers of power within the Sunni community who dictate much of Sunni political aspirations. If these power centers, such as the Association of Muslim Scholars who have backed the anti-U.S. insurgency but have also denounced the killing of attacks on Iraqis, could be brought in to cooperation with the government, perhaps the new government could ideologically undermine the insurgency. This may make Washington uncomfortable, and might make the U.S. military's role more difficult and dangerous, but it may also be the only opportunity that Iraq's government will have to gain influence over the Sunni population.


The longer the negotiations between the U.I.A. and the Kurdish alliance are prolonged, the weaker the national government's influence becomes. Already ministries have put off large construction projects during the transition. Without such projects, the national government is without its most powerful symbol of the benefits of a unified Iraq. The population will look to regional and ethnic leaders for help if the national government cannot function, increasing the likelihood of sectarian violence. This threat will not disappear if a government is formed in the promised "next few days." There is still a constitution to write; the process will surely touch on issues that have the potential to ignite sectarian animosities. Preventing such explosions will require better cooperation amongst the parties than they have displayed in the formative negotiations. How this plays out will determine the success of Washington's goals in Iraq.

Washington has largely stayed out of the negotiations, knowing that its presence could taint the appearance of independence that the new government will need in order to function. The U.S. is hoping that some semblance of a stable government will eventually emerge from the negotiations, the sooner the better, but it is also aware of the larger picture and will not lean too hard on either party. It is a near given that the new government, dominated by the Shi'a and Kurds, will align itself closer with Iran than the government of Saddam Hussein ever did. Currently, Washington's goals in Iraq remain simply to prevent the formation of an Iraqi-Iranian alliance, guarantee the use of military bases for staging future operations in the Middle East, and construct an exit strategy that will not undermine these goals. What shape the government takes matters little at this point to Washington, as long as a shape of some kind is formed.

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