Iraq's two largest Shia blocs join to try to form government


TWO months after Iraqis voted in parliamentary elections, the two largest Shia blocs have united with the aim of forming a government.

Iran’s ambassador in Baghdad Hassan Kazemi Qomi reportedly told the Shias to stop squabbling since Tehran considers a Shia-led coalition to be a “matter of [Iran’s] national security”.

The union forged between Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law bloc and the Iraqi National Alliance (INA) has 159 seats in the 325 member assembly, four short of the majority required to form a government. But the Kurdish bloc, which partnered the Shias in the outgoing government, is expected to contribute its 43 seats to achieve a solid majority.

The proclamation of the sectarian merger has sidelined the secular Iraqiya bloc headed by Iyad Allawi which won 91 seats, the largest number, and should have been given the first chance to form a government.

Since Mr Maliki’s bloc came in second with 89 seats, he has taken measures to deprive Mr Allawi of this right, including disqualifying and detaining candidates, engineering recounts, and getting a court ruling to give power to the first coalition formed rather than the bloc with most seats. Yet Mr Maliki has been cast aside because his bloc and INA could not agree on his premiership.

Further interfactional disputes are to be submitted for adjudication to the Shia ayatollahs in Najaf.

Former vice-president Ibrahim al-Jaafari, leader of a rival Shia fundamentalist faction, is the likely choice for the top job. Former US favourite, now Iranian protege, Ahmad Chalabi was one of the 11 signatories of the accord and could be rewarded with a key position in the new government.

A revival of the Shia-Kurdish partnership is certain to alienate Sunnis, secularists, Christians and members of Iraq’s small minorities who have been marginalised since Iraq’s 2005 election.

Mr Allawi could pull out of the political process, denying legitimacy to the government. But parties and independents belonging to his bloc do not have militias to defend adherents of secularism from paramilitary formations fielded by sectarian Shias and separatist Kurds. Although civil war is unlikely, disaffected Sunnis could form new insurgent groups or join al-Qaeda with the aim of challenging the regime with violence.

Iranian involvement in the formation of the Shia alliance could deepen concern in the US and among Iraq’s Sunni neighbours over the intimate connection of the country’s Shia rulers with Tehran’s theocratic regime. While Iraq’s Shia religious establishment has been asked to resolve disputes only between the two Shia factions, the clerics could have a strong influence on policy if the new government is dominated by the Shia alliance.

Iraq’s foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari castigated the US and Britain for failing to resolve the political impasse created by the election and warned of dangers posed by a vacuum. Their inaction has enabled Iran to fill empty political space ahead of the staged draw-down of US troops, he said.