Challenges facing Iraq


THERE WILL be considerable relief and welcome internationally and in Iraq itself at the late-night agreement on Wednesday which seems to have brokered an agreement on a new powersharing government. The devil will be in the detail, however, and there is still the prospect of weeks of bargaining to settle the allocation of portfolios and final shape of the deal that has broken an eight-month political deadlock following the general election in March.

The moment will also be somewhat bittersweet for the US which has been pushing for a powersharing cross-community agreement for some time but remains deeply concerned at the powerful, not-so-hidden influence that Iran will undoubtedly wield in the new mix. The agreement allows Tehran’s friend, Shia prime minister Nouri al-Maliki to return to office for a second time at the head of a government now to include five ministers from the secular, but Sunni-dominated, Iraqiya party. It had beaten him in the election but failed to achieve a majority, and Iraqiya’s involvement, which appears to have generated some internal dissent, should give the government a degree of legitimacy in the alienated Sunni community, helping to counter a dangerous drift back to outright sectarian conflict.

Agreement became possible because the party’s leader, former prime minister Ayad Allawi, relinquished his claim to the PM’s job, agreeing instead to chair a new national council for strategic priorities which will oversee economic, security and diplomatic matters. But the council is still theoretical, its powers yet to be delineated, and it appears likely to be an unwieldy check on ministers with great potential for in-fighting between the governing parties.

Iraqiya also gets the job of speaker of the parliament – Sunni Osama al-Nujaifi was elected last night as it convened for only the second time since March. Legislators must now also ratify the new government after Mr Maliki is nominated following next week’s religious holiday, and are expected to play an active part in holding it to account. The Kurds, their 57 seats in the 325-member parliament allowing them to play an important power broking role, will retain the presidency in the form of President Jalal Talabani. It is unclear yet what role there will be for the bloc led by fractious Shia cleric Moktada al-Sadr whose support has been key to Mr Maliki’s survival.

The agreement came on the heels of three days of violence – co-ordinated attacks on Christian homes in the capital 10 days after a siege on a church that left 58 people dead – bringing back echoes of the country’s worst years. A Sunni group, the Islamic State of Iraq, claimed responsibility and promised more.

It will be no picnic. The government, which will take office as the US prepares to pull out its 50,000 remaining “advisory” troops next year, must address massive reconstruction issues and the building of a professional army and police. It also faces deep long-standing disagreements over issues including Iraq’s internal boundaries and rights to its oil and gas.