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Slow Progress in Baghdad: No PM in Place Yet

Earlier this week, the new Iraqi parliament convened for its first post-election session, which ended up being simply a pro-forma swearing in of the members. At this point, no coalition or alliance controls enough seats to form a government, though the election was held three months ago, and the results certified by the Supreme Court earlier this month.

Since we last checked in on the landmark 2010 parliamentary elections for Iraq, which took place in March of this year, there have been steady, heated negotiations between party leaders. At the core of the deal-making and -breaking is the question of which party leads the new government, who takes the Prime Minister’s seat, and what concessions it will cost them to pull in enough collaborating partners.

Initially, it looked like former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, the secular Shi’ite leader of the al-Iraqiya party, was in a strong position to form a government, with strong support from much of Sunni leadership in Iraq and regional Sunni governments, and cautious support the West for their non-sectarian approach.

Though Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shi’ite State of Law coalition had earned fewer seats than al-Iraqiya, the ideological alignment between State of Law and their former Shi’a allies in the Iraqi National Alliance — itself a coalition of many interests — meant that first negotiations were held there. What quickly became clear, however, was that the INA was by no means a solid bloc. Almost immediately after negotiations began, Ammar al-Hakim, the leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), a constituent party of the INA, came out to declare that “talks to form a coalition between the State of Law coalition and the National Iraqi Alliance…[had] ended in failure.”

While the ISCI, established as an anti-Saddam Shi’ite organization during the heat of the Iran-Iraq war, and subseqently supported by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, has long been a force in Iraqi politics, their influence has waned somewhat in recent years. Within the INA, it is instead the young “rogue” cleric Moqtada al-Sadr who holds the sway of power, much to the chagrin of the older, more established clerics of the ISCI.

As shown above, the Sadr movement earned nearly twice the seats of the ISCI and their associated ‘Badr’ (former paramilitary) movement*, rendering the ISCI’s stated preference for an Allawi-led coalition rather tenuous. Though by no means would Sadr support an agreement that allows al-Maliki to remain Prime Minister, working with State of Law was preferable to the Sunni-backed al-Iraqiya.

Therefore, it was not a surprise when it was announced in early May that the INA and State of Law would be merging to form one large Shi’ite bloc, with a compromise Prime Minister candidate to be agreed upon in the weeks and months to follow.

Even with the combined strength of the State of Law and all five INA sub-groups, however, the coalition’s 159 members is four short of the 163 needed for a majority. So, in addition to finding a consensus Prime Minister nominee, another coalition partner will have to join.

The northern Kurds, who have played a prominent role in each governing coalition since 2003, and currently hold the Presidency (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party leader Jalal Talibani has been President of Iraq since 2005, and previously led the interim Governing Council in 2003), had four main parties competing in the election.

The two “main” Kurdish parties, the above-mentioned Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, ran in a combined Kurdistan List with 9 other minor parties, earning 17 and 26 seats, respectively. Three other smaller, but still prominent Kurdish parties ran on their own, earning a combined 14 seats. The Rewti Gorran (“movement for change”) ran as a challenge to the long-standing leadership of the PUK and KDR, earning a respectable 8 seats, while the more leftist Kurdish Islamic Union picked up 4 and the Islamic Group of Kurdistan won 2 seats. In April, the parties came together to form a combined parliamentary group called the Kurdistan Fractions (sic) Alliance, with a total of 57 Members of Parliament.

Based on political interests and history, the Kurdish group would prefer to work with main Shi’ite parties, rather than Allawi’s Iraqiya coalition, in exchange for additional concessions from Baghdad on hot-button issues of the political status of the oil-rich northern province of Kirkuk and further political devolution from the central government to the Kurdish “autonomous region.”

All these developments have been much to the chagrin of al-Iraqiya’s Ayad Allawi, the Sunni leadership in Iraq and the Sunni population at large. Though they emerged from the election as the biggest parliamentary bloc, Shi’ite (and Kurdish) fears of a return to Sunni Arab minority domination of Baghdad have scuttled many efforts for an agree where Iraqiya leads. At the same time, there is a general sense among both the Shi’ite political leadership and the ulama (led by the highly influential Ali al-Sistani) that after many years, it is time, regardless, for a Shi’ite-led Iraq.

But fears of a disintegration in sectarian violence if the Sunni political class is exluded from the government are rife. As put by a spokeperson for al-Iraqiya when the INA-State of Law agreement was announced, the many in the party “believe that such a coalition will return the country to sectarianism,” rather than reconciliation.

While the US remain on schedule to end its “combat” role in August, and a phased withdrawal from 130,000 troops to around 50,000 to take place over the next year, resolving these political dillemmas is a high priority for the US administration. But even if the crisis is resolved by having a national unity government that includes nearly all the competing parties (bringing in al-Iraqiya in addition to the Kurdish group in to the Shi’ite party led government), there will be an odd man out.

It will be a matter of whether the Iraqi political system can effectively address the needs of those who do not gain the levers of power in a way that does not provoke a reversion to violence as the method of political resolution.

Renard Sexton is FiveThirtyEight’s international affairs columnist and is based in Geneva, Switzerland. He can be contacted at

*This is assuming that both the Sadr-ists and ISCI get one compensatory each, which is not clear at this point.