April 8, 2010 10:26 pm

Iraq needs help to avoid a sectarian resurgence

The US needs to adopt a more hands-on approach, says Zalmay Khalilzad

Iraq’s third general election was a major test for whether Iraqis were to consolidate or abandon sectarianism. The results indicate that the Iraqis moved away from sectarianism and toward ideological and issue-oriented politics. While this is very positive, the key question is whether Iraqis can sustain and build upon this trend, and that depends on the formation of a less sectarian government in the coming weeks and months.

The declining influence of sectarian identity on voter choices is proved by the fact that political blocs that identify themselves as secular, non-sectarian and nationalist increased their share from fewer than 30 seats in the outgoing 275-seat parliament to 180 in the new 325-seat legislature.

Although Shias mostly voted for two Shia political lists, the coalition led by Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki had clearly positioned itself as a non-sectarian nationalist choice and got the bulk of those votes. Mr Maliki refused to rejoin the Shia coalition that won in 2005 and instead put together a cross-sectarian coalition and competed against his more sectarian former allies. However, he did not receive significant Sunni votes.

Ayad Allawi’s Iraqia coalition got the bulk of the Sunni Arab votes but also attracted a significant number of Shia Arab votes. Iraqia had won only 25 seats in the December 2005 election, when most Sunni Arab votes went to the Tawafoq sectarian coalition. It is clear, then, that the general trend is toward less sectarian politics.

The election results show an evolution from identity-constrained politics to issue-based democracy. In 2005, Iraqis voted their sects because they felt threatened and sought security through identity politics. This time they voted more in the pursuit of a better life.

The results also dealt a blow to Iran, which has sought to consolidate a sectarian order in Baghdad and foment hostility between Shia and Sunni Arabs to keep Iraq from hindering Iranian ambitions for regional hegemony. The results are also a blow to authoritarian Arab states that are wary of a democratic Iraq.

Still, Iraq is not out of danger, and the US must not abandon the country to face the inevitable turbulence and malicious regional interference. Sectarian parties, although weakened, have significant presence and will push to reassert themselves. Most importantly, it is not clear whether the elected Iraqi politicians – particularly Mr Allawi and Mr Maliki – will move quickly to form a government that is less sectarian and capable of delivering more security, reconciliation and economic development.

The process of government formation, if mishandled, could re-energise sectarian forces.

What are the risks? First, protracted negotiations could create a state of drift if no one can put together a coalition with a majority in parliament. Speed is important to prevent a political vacuum that produces uncertainty and anxiety on the streets. The fact that government officials are distracted by political bargaining and senior officials are struggling to protect their careers could amplify the impact of acts of violence. This violence could come not only from terrorists but from political factions seeking leverage in negotiations.

Second, Iraqi leaders could fall prey to the temptation to rule through narrow and unstable coalitions with smaller sectarian parties. With either an Allawi-led Sunni/Kurdish alliance or a Maliki-led Shia/Kurdish alliance the government would be at the mercy of smaller and more sectarian parties. Iran is pushing energetically for Mr Maliki, Jalal Talabani, Adil Abdul Mahdi and other Iraqis to form such a government. Iranian success will undermine prospects for the long-term success of Iraqi democracy.

The Obama administration should not sit back and allow Iran and sectarian parties to decide Iraq’s political future. President Barack Obama needs to send a message that Iraq is for the Iraqis, not for the mullahs in Tehran and their Iraqi surrogates.

To this end the US needs to adopt a more hands-on approach and encourage the Maliki coalition, the Allawi coalition and the Kurdish alliance to form a grand coalition and avoid steps that would drive Mr Maliki into accepting Iran’s proposals. Iran’s desire to avoid either Mr Maliki or Mr Allawi being prime minister should be used to urge an agreement between them – perhaps with each becoming prime minister for two years, with the other as deputy. There are, after all, significant similarities between the Allawi and Maliki programmes. Facilitating the emergence of such a coalition will be difficult, given the personalities involved. But it is very important for Iraq’s success. The outcome of the current struggle in Iraq could tip the balance of power in the region.

The writer, a former US ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the UN, is a counsellor at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies and president and CEO of Khalilzad Associates

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