Iraqis don't expect political impasse to be resolved by fall

By Ernesto Londoño
Sunday, August 1, 2010

BAGHDAD -- Nearly five months after disputed parliamentary elections, leading Iraqi politicians say they have all but abandoned hope of resolving an impasse over forming a new government before fall.

The protracted stalemate is a scenario U.S. officials have long dreaded. By the end of August, the United States will declare the end of its combat mission in Iraq -- and reduce troop strength to 50,000 -- amid a deepening political crisis.

In the coming weeks, Washington will install a new ambassador and a new top general in Baghdad. American officials had hoped the next Iraqi administration would have been in place well before their change of guard to help ensure a smooth transition at a delicate time. U.S. officials have long feared that Iraq's first transfer of power as a sovereign nation could be marred by unrest and violence.

Former prime minister Ayad Allawi, one of the contenders for his former post, said in an interview Saturday that months of negotiations among blocs have not led to a resolution on who is entitled to the country's premiership or how other powerful jobs will be allocated. He said a breakthrough is unlikely before September or October because little official business is conducted during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which begins in mid-August.

The looming withdrawal of U.S. troops and rising anger among Iraqis over continuing attacks, joblessness and deteriorating government services have made power-sharing negotiations increasingly contentious. "The process so far is inadequate, it is not balanced and it is rigged with problems," Allawi said. "A weakened process could easily collapse at the end of the day."

Scores of Iraqis were killed in July in near-daily attacks across the country.

The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, has insisted that political troubles and continuing violence will not keep American troops from leaving the country on schedule, although he said he would be concerned if the issue is not resolved by October.

Allawi's Sunni-backed coalition, Iraqiya, won 91 seats in the new parliament. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's bloc came in a close second, winning 89. Appointing a new prime minister requires at least 163 votes.

Political leaders agree in principle that the new government should be inclusive. But the two leading blocs have quarreled over whether the constitution gives the top vote-getter the right to form the incoming government, or whether a larger coalition assembled after the vote could earn that right.

Smaller political factions that could break the deadlock remain undecided. Neighboring countries, meanwhile, have weighed in forcefully. Iran backs the creation of a government led by religious Shiites, while Syria, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are reportedly supporting Allawi, a secular Shiite whose coalition received strong support from Sunni voters.

This summer, Iraqis took to the streets to protest the government's inability to deliver more than a few hours of electricity per day. Iraqis increasingly speak disparagingly about their leaders, and imams around the country have spoken out against poor governance at Friday prayers.

"Now, everything is stopped," said Nadjha Khadum, the editor of the Ur News agency Web site. "There's no work, no jobs. People are waiting. People are just buying food and saving money because they are afraid the situation will get worse in the future -- worse than in 2006 and 2007," years marked by a brutal insurgency.

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