Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Happy half-anniversary

Updated Updated again Today is September 7. Today, that is, marks six months since the elections in Iraq and there is still no government. And no real expectation that there will be one soon. As if often true, the map tells the tale.

The March 7 elections were inconclusive except in demonstrating the clear and strong ethnic divisions that still exist in Iraq. Iraqiya, a largely secular coalition headed by Iyad Allawi, a Shiite and a former former prime minister, but which draws its main support from the predominantly Sunni areas of Iraq, won 91 seats. That group was closely trailed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-led State of Law grouping, which got 89. The Iraqi National Alliance, or INA, which is also Shiite, won 70 seats and Kurdish parties obtained 57, with most of those, 43, going to the Kurdistan Alliance. If the very fact that you can identify major political groupings in terms of ethnicity and religion doesn't make the point, the map clearly shows just how marked those divisions are, just how ethnically segregated Iraq is.

Note that as a result of the scattered outcome, there is only a single combination of two groupings that would hold a majority of 163 seats in the 325-seat parliament: Allawi's plus Maliki's. Now consider first that the two men are bitter rivals. Then consider that Allawi insists that, having gotten the most seats, he should be allowed to form a government (with himself as prime minister) but Maliki has refused to step aside and appears determined to remain PM. Consider next that each has not only a domestic but also a foreign power base: Maliki is backed by Iran and Allawi by most Arab states. And consider finally that while the two sides have engaged in supposed negotiations about forming a coalition government, that appears to be largely for show and that relations are so hostile that in the last week of August Iraqiya broke off negotiations for a few days, demanding an apology from Maliki for calling it a "Sunnite" bloc in a TV interview.

Add to that bath of testosterone reports of fractures within the other Shiite grouping, the INA, and fractures within those fractures, and you have a six-month impasse
[t]hat has held up the appointment of other key officials [besides prime minister] and the seating of the government. Parliament has only met once, in June, since the election.
You also have a population that increasingly wonders why it bothered voting as conditions deteriorate. Unemployment is estimated at anywhere from 15 to 30 percent. There have been riots and even bloodshed over severe shortages of electricity as people complain they are getting one hour of electricity every five hours, or maybe two hours out of six.

US and Iraqi officials insist production of electricity has improved and blame the shortages on people snapping up power-hungry consumer goods, in effect arguing the problem exists only because things are so much better in other ways. The claims about electricity generation, however, are bogus because they are making a false comparison, comparing today with right after the 2003 invasion - that is, right after Iraq had experienced a decade of crippling economic sanctions following a war in which its infrastructure had been a primary target. It's true that generating capacity in now nearly double what it was in 2003 - but it is still one-third below where it was in 1990, even as demand has increased.

An additional consideration that people often forget is that when the electricity goes down, so do water treatment plants, increasing the risk of spreading disease. That is a real challenge to a health care system which the ICRC described in July as "still struggling to cope." There are only half as many doctors in Iraq now as there were in the 1990s and the shortage of nurses is even worse.
While health-care facilities have been rebuilt in most urban centres, facilities in rural and remote areas remain in dire condition. Facilities already coping with a poor supply of electricity or water frequently also have to deal with unreliable sewage or air-cooling systems and with inadequate solid-waste disposal. Equipment is often old and poorly maintained, and sometimes is not operated correctly. ...

Frequently, minimum standards of nursing, sterilization and waste management are not respected owing to a lack of resources. ... The number of beds in specialized services such as intensive care and dialysis units is insufficient, and shortages of trained nurses and paramedical staff oblige hospitals to rely on relatives to provide the patients with care.
So while it can be said that things have improved since 2003, that is scant comfort. Writing in the Christian Science Monitor, human rights consultant Michael Otterman said that
there are currently 4.5 million displaced Iraqis languishing on the outskirts of Iraqi cities and scattered throughout nearby Jordan and Syria. This represents the largest urban refugee crisis in the world.
Thousands more are fleeing to Syria every week, many with scant hope of ever returning home. (Link via Juan Cole.) One of those refugees, a pharmacist named Dr. Entisar Al-Arabi, told Medea Benjamin that
I am not a political person, but I know that under Saddam Hussein, we had electricity, clean drinking water, a healthcare system that was the envy of the Arab world and free education through college.... I have five children and every time I had a baby, I was entitled to a year of paid maternity leave. I owned a pharmacy and I could close up shop as late as I chose because the streets were safe. Today there is no security and Iraqis have terrible shortages of everything - electricity, food, water, medicines, even gasoline. Most of the educated people have fled the country, and those who remain look back longingly to the days of Saddam Hussein.
Meanwhile, Otterman writes, in Iraq itself
basic services are still in disarray. According to the Pentagon, only 20 percent of the population of Iraq has access to sanitation, 30 percent to health services, 45 percent to potable water, and only 50 percent to more than 12 hours of electricity per day.
And yes, violence is increasing. Assassinations are on the rise, and despite the best PR efforts by the US military, the agency which earlier famously said "we don't do body counts" and openly admitted to making no attempt to track civilian casualties, to minimize the deaths by dismissing the "unofficial" figures coming from Iraqi government agencies in favor of its own "trusted" but unspecified sources, everyone knows it. In fact,
rarely a day goes by without some loss of life, and spectacular attacks such as a nationwide onslaught of bombings and shootings [in late August] that killed 56 people still happen with disturbing regularity.
And while Veep Joe Biteme brags that it's "much safer" in Iraq now, Nuri Hadi, an Iraqi political analyst, properly reminds us that
[t]he recent violence in Iraq, to some extent, looks less devastating mainly because the bloodshed peak during 2006 to 2007 was so hellish and notorious.
Even the New York Times was moved to note that security has "improved"
to levels that many of those who proclaim this war over would consider murderously dangerous in their own countries.
To make it worse, Hadi noted that
we have to admit that a large part of the insurgent groups in Iraq are directly or indirectly linked to political parties participating in the political process,
bringing us right back to the same political impasse, continuing in large part because whether out of desire to advance its own interests or fear of the consequences of another grouping advancing theirs (or both), no faction can see a real advantage in any available compromise.

Today, AFP is reporting that Maliki has gained the upper hand in his drive to keep his position by having won the support of the US, which wants to avoid further delay in establishing a governing coalition and has convinced almost all the Arab states to withdraw their support of Allawi. If that's true, it would be an ironic development because remember, the main foreign backer of Maliki is Iran - so this would put the US and Iran on the same side. Strange bedfellows, indeed.

An event that could be seen as confirmation of that report is that yesterday, a senior official of the Iraqiya coalition said that
Iraqis face two choices: An Iraqi government on the basis of electoral rights or a pro-Iranian government.
That is, we get to form the government or Iran is in charge. Which could easily be read as a last-ditch attempt to head off a de facto US-Iran united front on behalf of Maliki. (Sidebar: The National Council of Resistance of Iran, from where the above quote comes, is a sort of Iranian equivalent of Ahmed Chalabi's notorious Iraqi National Congress except that it wasn't invented by the Rendon Group. Even so, I have no reason to doubt they quoted the official accurately since it serves their purpose.)

However, the only source the AFP cites is an unnamed "senior State of Law official" who makes assertions about what Joe Biteme and Kurdish regional president Massud Barzani told Maliki in private, all of which assertions work to the advantage of Maliki. And at about the same time as the AFP article, Reuters was reporting that
[a] resolution to the impasse appears as distant as ever
as both inter- and intra-party squabbles and splits complicate any attempts at a solution with sufficiently wide acceptance. The article lays out several different scenarios of how things could develop, involving several different personalities, some of which are clearly more likely than others and several of which involve Maliki being dumped by his own coalition so that it can gain the support necessary to form the government.
In the end, few expect the Shi'ite majority to sacrifice their unity. The power Shi'ites gained after the fall of Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein is simply too precious.
The only question may be just what form that unity will take and just who will be the unifier. But despite that, there is still another hurdle: Remember that even combined, the two Shiite blocs have 159 seats: still four short of a majority. In Iraq's fractured political (and ethnic) landscape, the idea of a minority government is laughable. So someone is going to have to make up that difference. And whoever that is will have real bargaining power in a future government. A State of Law/INA government could try to gain those seats either by getting the Kurds on board or by picking up the necessary support from one of the minor parties holding the 18 seats the four big blocs do not.

But forming a government without Iraqiya, that is, establishing a ruling coalition created with the support of both the US and Iran which effectively excludes the Sunnis and which oversees a still-broken, still-suffering, still-violent nation is a sure recipe for pushing Iraq back over the abyss of civil war. Forming a government without the Kurds would simply promote a fracturing along different lines. And forming a government without the Shiite blocs, while mathematically possible, is unthinkable - especially as Shiites are the majority of the population and control the most seats. It's another
recipe for disaster.

And once again we're back to the same impasse. Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds all must be part of a new government. And there is no clear arrangement that would not involve a hell of a lot of hard swallowing on the part of at least some of them. I have been both right and wrong often enough before to advance predictions with some trepidation, but I can't help but fear that six months may just be the opening act.

Ghassan Attiyah, a commentator and political scientist, lamented "Maybe Iraq is finished." I want to argue that he is clearly too pessimistic, but right now, I can't.

Footnote: What, you ask, would be the US's preferred outcome because even though Iraq is "sovereign" everyone knows damn well it isn't? As the Reuters article suggests, it would be a coalition of Iraqiya, State of Law, and the Kurds, with Maliki as PM and Allawi in some prominent role. Assuming all the Kurdish groupings joined in, the coalition would have 237 seats, a comfortable majority. One reason for this preference is that this arrangement excludes the INA, which includes the supporters of Moqtada al-Sadr, who are regarded as "unpredictgable" and who

are fiercely opposed to the U.S. presence, and might demand either a speedier pullout or guarantees U.S. forces are not allowed to remain beyond their end-2011 withdrawal date.
Oh, and one other thing:
Oil majors investing in Iraq's oilfields may also prefer this solution - the Sadrists are the main critics of contracts the companies signed with the outgoing government.
But that can't be important because the war was never about oil. Was it?

Updated with some more about refugees.

Updated again to include Attiyah's observation and as long as I was doing an update, to properly identify Iyad Allawi as being a former prime minister of Iraq.

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