Amatzia Baram is a professor in the Department of the History of the Middle East and director of the Center for Iraq Studies at the University of Haifa, Israel. Prior to the invasion of Iraq, he served as a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. In 2003-2005 he was Senior Fellow at the USIP and the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., and in 2006 taught an honors course on Iraq at Melbourne University. He also advised various branches of the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations on Iraq and the Gulf region. Presently he is a Goldman Guest Professor for Middle East at Georgetown University. On October 28, Mr. Baram addressed the Middle East Forum in New York on the current political situation in Iraq. The following is a brief summary, including updates to the end of November 2010.
Dr. Baram began his talk by contrasting the Iraqi election results of 2005 with those of 2010, finding some striking differences. The Shi'a parties, which were originally one bloc and won 47.3% of the seats in 2005, were by 2010 divided into three factions, the largest of which is led by the current Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki and no longer advocates an overtly Shi'a Islamist, pro-Iranian agenda. On the Sunni side, offshoot parties of the Muslim Brotherhood had their proportion of seats reduced from 16% in 2005 to less than 2% in 2010, while Ayad Allawi's secular bloc won 28% of the seats in 2010, up from a mere 9% in 2005. In short, Allawi tripled his representation and became the biggest party in parliament.
According to Mr. Baram, there were three reasons why the political deadlock persisted for eight months: 1) Iraq's voting system is similar to that of Israel's, which allows parties that do not have the largest number of seats to form ruling coalitions. Maliki and Allawi, each believed that he should be Prime Minister. Allawi, because his party is the largest, Maliki because he could build a governing coalition more easily. This is precisely the Israeli syndrome: Livni heading the largest party, but Netanyahu succeeding in building a majority coalition. 2) There is an intense rivalry between the two leaders. 3) Thirty-five years of essentially Sunni hegemony and dictatorship and, afterwards, the bloody civil war of 2005-2008 left a heavy legacy of mutual fear and mistrust. Each camp can be satisfied only if they have all the security and economic authority, leaving nothing of substance to the opposite camp.
A compromise, a pre-condition for the success of the new government, seems to have been reached, but in view of his semi-dictatorial and sectarian policies during his first term as PM, Maliki is suspected by the Sunni minority. The U.S. suggested a compromise whereby Maliki becomes Prime Minister and Allawi is made President, with the Iraqi constitution altered to allow the President to have real power. This promising idea fell through. Instead, Allawi will apparently lead a committee for national security and strategic decisions, but its real authorities are not clear for now.
Mr. Baram went on to emphasize that the surge was only one factor in achieving limited political stability in Iraq, and that engagement with the Sunni tribes was equally if not more important to the success in quelling around 90% of the insurgency within less than two years. Nevertheless, the tribes now feel abandoned and betrayed by the U.S. as Maliki has arrested Sunni leaders in tribal areas, often without due process, and reduced salary payments to the tribal policemen/militiamen and Sunni city militias (al-Sahwah and Sons-of-Iraq). Many Sunnis are therefore alienated from Maliki's government. As a result, a minority of Sunnis has returned to the insurgency.
Even so, most Sunnis are generally pragmatic and still willing to work with the Americans or even with Maliki, if he shares power. Mr. Baram stressed the need for continued engagement with the Sunni tribes. (In fact, many Shi'i tribes, too, are more than willing to keep in touch with the Americans). He concluded by noting that some tribal Sunnis, including some of those who were Saddam's staunchest supporters, no longer view Israel as an expansionist threat. Some even consider Israel as a potential ally against Iran, the latter being considered the real expansionist threat. Mr. Baram recommended to keep the U.S. connection to the tribes and make sure that power at the center will, indeed, be shared more-or-less equally between all three main political blocs: Shi'is, Sunnis and Kurds.
Asked about the nature of Grand Ayatollah Sistani, Mr. Baram explained that, unlike the rest of the Iranian leadership, Sistani is not the sort of radical who believes in forcing the Shari'a on the people, and that despite his influence he prefers to keep out of Iraqi politics. However, in the near future he could serve as an arbiter of political power among the main blocs in the Iraqi parliament.
Summary written by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi.