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DAVID IGNATIUS
Friday, November 12, 2010

DAVID IGNATIUS

The good and bad of Iraq's deal

The news that Iraq has finally formed a new government after eight months of haggling brings to mind an Iraqi proverb that conveys the logic of compromise: "Sometimes you need to sacrifice your beard in order to save your head."

What's good about this deal is that it will produce an inclusive coalition government that will include all the major Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish political parties. Everyone is now in the same tent, for once.

What's bad is that the government will continue to be headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose inadequacies as a leader have been well demonstrated over the past four years. The fact that he was Iran's candidate rightly made many Iraqis nervous. Iraq deserves better.

The fragility of the coalition was dramatically obvious Thursday as members of the Iraqiya party, which represents Sunnis, walked out of Parliament, claiming that they were already being double-crossed by Maliki. Iraqi politics is always an exercise in brinkmanship, and the compromises unfortunately remain of the save-your-neck variety, rather than reflecting a deeper accord.

The American role here was a strange mix of action and inaction: Wary of slipping back into occupying Iraq, Washington never declared its own candidate for prime minister - which basically opened the way for Maliki. That had the weird consequence of putting Washington and Tehran on the same side.

The saving grace in the U.S. strategy was our rope-a-dope approach of delaying approval of Maliki unless he agreed to take into his government his main rival, former prime minister Ayad Allawi, whose party got more votes in the March election. The Iranians flailed away for months, hoping to pummel Allawi into submission, but thanks to U.S. support (backed by our most solid ally in Iraq, Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani), the Iranians had to settle for a coalition that included Allawi.

It was telling that the final meeting Wednesday in Maliki's office to sign off on the deal had four players: Maliki, Allawi, Barzani and U.S. Ambassador Jim Jeffries.

Like most political deals, this one has all sorts of complicated mini-bargains and codicils. Here's the basic trade-off: In exchange for accepting Maliki as prime minister, Allawi's Iraqiya party will get the post of parliament speaker, the chairmanship of a new National Council on Strategic Policy (Allawi will take that post) and probably the foreign ministry.

The Obama administration had considered various ways of bringing Allawi and his Sunni-backed party into the government. Last weekend, Obama called Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and explored whether he might step aside and give the presidency to Allawi, but that didn't fly.

Maliki's many critics will be reassured that the deal includes provisions to reduce the powers of the prime minister and strengthen those of the cabinet. It's an elaborate system of checks and balances - not necessarily what's needed in a country that had so much trouble making decisions under the old, less-complicated system. But we'll see.


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