Iraq locked in two-man power struggle after vote

By Rania El Gamal – Analysis

BAGHDAD (BestGrowthStock) – Two months after a general election that produced no outright winner, Iraq has become locked in a battle between two men fighting for power that threatens its fragile security and hopes for stability.

Whether or not Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and ex-Prime Minister Iyad Allawi are putting personal ambition ahead of the nation’s good, their battle could stoke sectarian tensions and invite foreign interference, analysts say.

“The battle in many ways boils down to the personal antipathy between the two, something which is now threatening political stability,” IHS Global Insight Middle East analyst Gala Riani said.

A cross-sectarian coalition led by Allawi had a two-seat win over incumbent Maliki’s largely Shi’ite bloc in the March 7 parliamentary election. Neither had what it takes to form a government, leaving the country adrift in political uncertainty.

Both want the prime minister’s office, and the impasse that has resulted could imperil U.S. plans to end combat operations in August, and invite deeper meddling by neighbors such as Shi’ite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia.

Allawi said his slim lead at the polls gave him the right to form and lead a new government, a claim Maliki was quick to challenge. Neither appear likely to bow out without a fight, analysts said.

“One of the two will prevail. This is a scenario for instability,” said analyst Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group. “It is hard to see how a government led by one of these two men will be inclusive, as the other will refuse to participate.”

U.S. and U.N. officials have long noted that Iraq’s nascent democracy will not be defined as much by who wins the election as by the behavior of the losers. So far, no one appears willing to serve as a political opposition.

The inconclusive poll gave none of the main players the outright majority needed to form a government alone. Shi’ite, Sunni and Kurdish politicians were left jostling for a place in the new government.

Maliki sought an alliance with the powerful Iranian-backed Iraqi National Alliance, but is facing strong opposition to his demand for another term as prime minister.

Allawi, a secular Shi’ite, also tried to woo the INA but faced an uphill struggle to form a coalition, with dubious Shi’ites viewing him as a frontman for Sunnis’ interests.

That left Maliki’s State of Law and Iraqiya with a new option — trying to forge a parliamentary majority together.

But both Maliki and Allawi want the premiership, members of both camps said.

“Every time the conflict intensifies between Maliki and Allawi, it becomes a factor in removing both of them from the competition over power, because they started to raise fears and worries of others. There must be a compromise,” said Iraqi political analyst Ibrahim al-Sumaidaie.

POLITICAL INSTABILITY, RESOLUTIONS

The March vote, declared largely fair but nevertheless dogged by legal battles and claims of fraud, showed strong support for Allawi from minority Sunnis, who were dominant under Saddam Hussein and want a greater say in politics now.

Maliki successfully sought a recount of votes in Baghdad, which was viewed as an attempt to overturn Iraqiya’s lead.

To muddy matters more for Iraqiya, a Shi’ite-led body whose aim is to prevent followers of Saddam’s outlawed Baath party from returning to power is challenging votes cast for candidates with alleged Baathist links, most from Iraqiya.

Allawi, a British-trained doctor who was interim prime minister from 2004 to 2005, lobbied regional countries to intervene and said the international community should organize a new election.

The call angered Maliki, who lashed out at Iraqiya for wanting outside intervention and denounced what he said was the foreign powers’ desire to stage a coup through the ballot box.

“Allawi has chosen to make himself the main man for the influential states in the region … as a means of counter-balancing Maliki who has become increasingly unpopular over time across the region,” Riani said.

“This certainly invites concerns of the emergence of a Lebanon-model scenario in Iraq, where domestic players look to external backers to shore up their domestic political capital.”

A reversal in Iraqiya’s lead after the Baghdad recount and a possible court ruling on Monday that could invalidate votes given to Iraqiya candidates may anger Sunnis, who have felt marginalized after the U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam.

Conversely, a government not blessed by two of the main Shi’ite players — followers of anti-U.S. cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, both in the INA — could also unleash sectarian conflict, analysts said.

Iraq is trying to move ahead with rebuilding its battered economy as violence starts to subside. It signed a raft of deals with global firms to unlock its vast oil reserves, to boost crude output and generate billions of dollars needed to rebuild.

A solution is for all blocs to seek a compromise candidate for prime minister acceptable to all.

“This could be a stable arrangement,” said Hiltermann. “But who will convince Maliki and Allawi to step back for the sake of the country?”

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(Editing by Jim Loney and Charles Dick)

Iraq locked in two-man power struggle after vote