Still struggling to form government, Iraq breaks a world record

By Leila Fadel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 1, 2010

BAGHDAD - Iraq on Friday will surpass the record for the country that has gone the longest between holding parliamentary elections and forming a government, experts say.

The Netherlands had held that unfortunate honor after a series of failed attempts left the country without an elected government for 207 days in 1977, according to Christopher J. Anderson, director of the Institute for European Studies at Cornell University.

On Friday, Iraqis will have spent 208 days with no new government and, while the Dutch weathered their storm, Iraq's weak institutions may not hold up against mounting pressure and a steady level of violence.

As politicians jockey for positions and broker deals in backroom meetings, many Iraqis now say they wonder why they risked their lives to vote on March 7. U.S. officials are increasingly concerned that the lack of an elected government has limited Iraq's ability to make national decisions and could eventually eat away at hard-earned security gains. The most optimistic of Iraqi politicians expect the process to take at least another month, if not much longer.

"There is no difference with the Iraqi case, except that the Netherlands had strong, functioning institutions and a caretaker government that continued to govern," said Joost Hiltermann, a Dutch national and an expert on Iraq at the International Crisis Group. "Iraq has very weak institutions and a caretaker government that can do very little. This makes for a potentially highly unstable and precarious situation."

Government formation in Iraq is complicated by both the country's multiparty system and violence in the streets. Lawmakers are elected and in turn vote for the president, who gives the largest coalition in the parliament the first opportunity to choose the prime minister and form the government. That government needs a simple majority of the 325 lawmakers to back it.

Election day was followed by a slow trickle of results and weeks in which politicians accused one another of fraud. The extremely close tallies for the top two parties - former prime minister Ayad Allawi's Iraqiya bloc, which won 91 seats, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's State of Law bloc, which won 89 - has led to months of tense start-and-stop negotiations as both men fight for Iraq's top government job.

Maliki's bloc and another Shiite slate agreed to form the largest coalition in parliament based on one interpretation of Iraq's constitution. Maliki was the assumed front-runner as their pick for the premiership, but disputes within the coalition seem to have splintered Shiite politics and could deepen the deadlock.

Secular Shiite Allawi's Iraqiya bloc, largely backed by Sunni Arabs, promised to boycott the government if Maliki is nominated by the Shiite coalition. Allawi also still claims the right to form Iraq's government based on another interpretation of the constitution.

A U.S.-proposed power-sharing plan between the two men, which would have limited Maliki's power as prime minister and created a new federal position for Allawi, is all but dead.

In the meantime, Iraq is unable to take major steps such as ratifying legislation, constitutional amendments and international agreements. Iraq's parliament members met once for less than 18 minutes in June but have been collecting their paychecks - about $10,000 a month - for more than three months. Iraq's ministers are afraid to make difficult - and, in some cases, even simple - decisions when it is unclear who holds the key to their political future, and much government hiring is on hold.

"We have no authority now," said Ali Baban, the minister of planning. "The current government can't ratify legislation and can make no new decisions."

Over the summer Baban, a member of Maliki's State of Law political bloc, announced a five-year National Development Plan with a target of 9.4 percent annual economic growth and reduced unemployment.

The plan includes more than 2,700 projects valued at about $186 billion. But Baban said it's nearly impossible to implement without legislative action, and business investment is largely stalled while people wait to see what will happen.

"Everything is suspended," Baban said. "The conflict between the political blocs is impeding us from doing our job."

The Foreign Ministry is unable to implement international treaties or agreements without a new government. Foreign countries are hesitant to deal with a caretaker government whose decisions could be reversed by the elected government.

"For us it's unacceptable. This delay has taken everybody too long and the country needs a government," said Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari.

He said the United States must do more to break the deadlock. Zebari is a member of the Kurdish alliance, a large political bloc being wooed by both Maliki and Allawi to bolster their support in the parliament.

"I've been very outspoken about this," Zebari said. He has been in meetings all week during the United Nations General Assembly. The United States "can and needs to do more," he added. "We've been encouraging them."

Other major issues with potential violent or economic implications are also unresolved. Iraq has yet to pass an oil revenue sharing law and cannot implement Article 140 of the constitution to resolve disputed territories that Kurds and Arabs lay claim too, often referred to as the trigger line because of its propensity for violence. The government cannot hammer out the relationship between Baghdad and the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region in the north. Meaningful national reconciliation is also on hold.

Iraqis said that, while U.S. officials have urged them to form an inclusive government quickly, many of the parties are unwilling to compromise as much as U.S. officials would like.

Khalid al-Asadi, a legislator from Maliki's State of Law bloc, used an Arabic proverb to describe the U.S. proposals for power-sharing. "If you try to satisfy everyone," he said, "you'll lose everyone."

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report from Washington.

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