Iraq headed for wide coalition government

By Jim Muir
BBC News, Baghdad

image captionIt took nearly three months for Iraq's election result to be declared

In theory, the Iraqi Supreme Court's decision to ratify the results from elections held nearly three months ago should speed up the extremely sluggish pace at which the country's political process is moving.

But with key issues still unresolved, it could still be several months before a new coalition government is formed.

In the meantime, with US combat troops preparing to complete their withdrawal by the end of August, the tempo of violence has risen, while still very far short of the carnage that prevailed three years ago.

After weeks of appeals, complaints and recounts, the Supreme Court confirmed the basic shape of the uncertified results as originally announced more than two months ago.

That left the secular Sunni Iraqiyya alliance headed by former premier Iyad Allawi with 91 seats, just two ahead of the mainly Shia coalition led by the outgoing Prime Minister, Nouri Maliki.

Both are well short of the 163 seats needed to form a government, meaning that some sort of wider coalition will be needed.

Government delay

The ruling meant that all Mr Maliki's relentless efforts to whittle away at Mr Allawi's narrow lead by lodging complaints and demanding a manual recount in Baghdad were in vain.

The court referred the cases of two of the elected MPs for further examination, but only one belonged to the Iraqiyya bloc, and both could be replaced from within their own lists, so this would not make any difference.

So the phase of challenging the results has finally ended, a line has been drawn and a constitutional process with built-in timetables should now move on - though there are several points at which it may, and probably will, be held up.

Even if it adheres to various built-in timings, it would still be at least two months before a new government appears.

And nobody has lost money betting that things would take longer than they should in Iraq in recent times.

Now that the results have been ratified, the incumbent President Jalal Talabani must call the first session of the new parliament within 15 days.

That session should see the election of a new speaker and his deputies. But those jobs are part of the mix in a broader power-sharing package, and cannot be decided in isolation.

So unless a huge amount of ground is covered and problems overcome in the coming days, parliament will leave its first session technically open indefinitely until things fall into place.

That includes, crucially, agreement on who should be the next prime minister and lead the government formation, an issue that has gone round and round since the election and still seems no closer to resolution.

Bloc politics

Mr Allawi continues to insist on his "constitutional right" to have first attempt at forming a governing coalition, since his bloc came out narrowly ahead in the polls.

But the constitution is ambiguous on that point, leaving open the possibility that the nomination could go to the biggest bloc formed after parliament actually sits.

image captionUS combat troops are to pull out of Iraq by the end of August

The two Shia coalitions - Mr Maliki's State of Law and the third-placed United Iraqi Alliance which has 70 seats - have declared their intention to merge into one big bloc.

If they complete that step and agree on a nominee for prime minister, that would be hard to resist.

But intensive talks between the two groups have so far failed to produce such an agreement.

The problem is that Mr Maliki's coalition insists that he must have the job again, while the groups making up the United Iraqi Alliance are either hostile or less than enthusiastic at that prospect, and want at the very least to clip his powers severely.

The 15-day deadline for Parliament to meet could focus the minds of the Shia groups and prod them into reaching agreement among themselves.

If they cannot, they could risk seeing leadership pass to Mr Allawi, a secular Shia who won the bulk of the Sunni vote.

To many of the country's Shia, who make up 60% of the population, that could smack of a comeback by Saddam Hussein's minority Sunnis, who are around one-fifth of the population.

The Kurds, who command a total of 57 seats, have warned that if nothing changes, they would regard Mr Allawi's as the biggest bloc with first claim on the prime minister's job.

Squaring the circle

But that would not be the end of the story as numerically they would not be able to form a government without at least some elements from the Shia blocs.

From the outset, it has been agreed in principle that all four of the major blocs should be included in a government of "national partnership".

Because they are all significant in different ways, it is hard to imagine any of them being excluded.

But how to fit them together, what the political platform should be, and who should take the lead, are the big problems.

Once agreements on these issues are reached, some phases of the process could move fairly swiftly.

After choosing its own speaker, parliament would also elect the country's next president - widely expected to be the incumbent Mr Talabani.

He would then have 15 days to ask the nominee of the biggest parliamentary bloc to try to form an administration.

That task would have to be completed within 30 days, otherwise somebody else would be allowed to try.

US encouragement

Watching this apparently interminable wrangling with mounting unease are the Americans, who want to leave a stable political scene behind as they pull their troops out.

The US embassy in Baghdad lost no time in issuing a statement welcoming the Supreme Court's decision, and urging Iraqi leaders to move swiftly to form "an inclusive and representative government to work on behalf of the Iraqi people".

"Now is the time for all political leaders to come together to put the interests of the Iraqi people foremost in their negotiations over the makeup of the new government," it said hopefully.

The rise in violence in recent weeks, while relative, has sharpened fears that a prolonged period of political stalemate could see the security situation worsen.

It has also underlined the possibility that if the Sunni community, which largely backed Mr Allawi's list, should find itself marginalised by a Shia-dominated government, that could give another lease of life to the Sunni-based insurgency, which is clearly still smouldering under the ashes.

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