By Ernesto Londoño
Sunday, August 1, 2010; A01
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.
Iraqi lawmakers began collecting their $10,000 monthly paychecks a month ago. But they have convened only twice since the ratification of the election results in June. Both times they adjourned quickly, having failed to elect a speaker.
"The longer this drags on, the more incumbent it is on all of the individuals to look seriously at necessary compromises," Gary Grappo, the U.S. Embassy's top political officer, said Monday in an interview. "Until recently, there has been a bit of hesitation. It has been difficult for any of the sides to make the first gesture or take the first step."
The U.N. Security Council is scheduled to meet Wednesday to renew the mandate of the organization's Iraq mission. Iraqi leaders have long wanted the Security Council to completely lift the sanctions imposed on Iraq after the 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Iraqis also want more control over Iraqi money seized as part of the sanctions that is now in accounts creditors can't access.
"The slow process might give the U.N. Security Council the chance to pass recommendations unacceptable to the Iraqi people," Sunni lawmaker Ezzedine al-Dawla said recently.
Other Iraqi officials say foreign mediation, while unfortunate, is the best hope for a resolution.
American officials say they would consider taking on a more assertive mediation role if the Iraqis asked.
So far, though, no bloc leaders have asked for greater U.S. intervention, likely fearing that whoever prevails would be seen as an American stooge.
Hanging in the balance is the legacy of the United States' seven-year war in Iraq, which the Obama administration will soon start calling "Operation New Dawn," rather than "Operation Iraqi Freedom."
The longer the process drags on, U.S. officials say, the harder it will be for them to smoothly transfer U.S. initiatives and projects to the Iraqi government. U.S. commanders will also have limited time to forge strong relationships with senior Iraqi security officers if the incoming Iraqi government were to reshuffle the leadership of its security agencies.
Perhaps more significant, Allawi said, are the implications for the U.S. goal of establishing a democracy in the heart of the Middle East.
"Right now, if you ask any Iraqi: What do you think of democracy? They will say it's blood, stagnation, unemployment, refugees, cheating," Allawi said. "If democracy does not succeed in Iraq and tyranny is replaced by another tyranny, there will be no legacy."
Special correspondent K.I. Ibrahim contributed to this report.