Four months after Iraq held elections, a new government has yet to form as the majority Shia factions remain divided. Sarhang Hamasaeed discusses the complicated route to forming a government and the recent unrest in Basra aimed at the current government for its failure to provide electricity and other basic services.

On Peace is a weekly podcast sponsored by USIP and Sirius XM POTUS Ch. 124. Each week, USIP experts tackle the latest foreign policy issues from around the world.


Tim Farley (Host): Iraq is an interesting position right now, that is, that they have had their elections and yet forming a government has proved to be problematic. There are a lot of issues on the table. Who's getting together? Who's at the table, I guess, is one of the big questions. Let's talk about it with Sarhang Hamasaeed who is Director of Middle East Programs at the United States Institute of Peace tweeting at @sarhangsalar. We will spell it out for you at the end. Sarhang, welcome back. Thank you for being on POTUS today.

Sarhang Hamasaeed: Thank you, thank you. Good to be back.

TF: Is this atypical? In other words, is this something where it would take typically this long after elections to actually come up with a government?

SH: In Iraq, it is a typical timeline so far. The parliament just convened its first session. It was supposed to appoint, or there should be agreement of the speaker of the parliament, the president of the country, and also the nomination of the prime minister. They failed to agree on the first position, the speaker of the parliament, and that will have obviously ripple effects on the timeline for appointing the other positions, but this is not unprecedented in the sense that in 2010, the Iraqi government formation process took almost seven months.

TF: What are the issues that keep the government from being formed more quickly?

SH: Well, the major issue in Iraq is, how do the first political powers come to an agreement on the key positions of the government? This time around they seem to emphasize more about how do we come together on a government program that will be responsive to an angry public that has been demonstrating, that has shown, sometimes through violent, mostly peaceful, but with episodes of clashes, where the public demonstrated against the performance of the government. 

This time around, they claimed that they tried to agree on a program then on the key positions, but the fact remains, for the government to be formed, you need to agree on those key positions. You have two major forces on the Shia side, the majority of the country, that are split. They are going in different directions. They have not been able to form the largest block in parliament in terms of having the highest number of MPs, 165, that will enable them to nominate a prime minister. For that formation, for any of these two Shia blocs, one led by Muqtada Al-Sadr and supported by current Prime Minister Abadi, and on the other side former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki and supported by Hadi Amiri, one of the leaders of the Population Mobilization Forces closest to Iran. 

Those two forces have not been able to seal the deal internally within the Shia house, and they have not been able to secure the participation of the Kurds and the Sunni Arabs on their side. Unless those two forces, the two Shia forces, come together and form a majority core or they convince the Kurds and the Sunni Arabs to join, neither side will be able to form that key government. External pressure from the United States and Iran has played a role in forming or not forming these blocs.

TF: Give us a sense, so we understand better, how strong the position of the prime minister is, not just as an individual but as the prime minister in the Iraqi government.

SH: The position ... There are different interpretations. The position of the prime minister is definitely among the three positions, the speaker of the parliament and the president of the country. The prime minister's position is the strongest. He's the head of the executive branch of the government. He is the commander-in-chief, and therefore will have access to important decisions ... He will be making important decisions. He will be a key player in Iraq's foreign policy, in terms of how Iraq positions itself with the regional powers, how this position will manage important security portfolios, reconstruction after the fight against ISIS. 

Obviously, it has been granted that the Shia will take that position, but which camp of the Shia, between Muqtada Al-Sadr and Maliki and Hadi Amiri? This is where the issue lies. Both the regional countries like Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and also the United States, want a certain camp to win that's not pro-Iran, that will take Iraq away from that. Iran obviously wants that position to be someone that they can rely on, that will be a mitigating effect of U.S. pressure on Iran and Iran sanctions, that they will be more favorable to Iran. Obviously, there are deeper issues at stake, as well.

TF: Sarhang Hamasaeed is with us, Director of Middle East Programs at the United States Institute of Peace. In a recent op-ed in Al-Jazeera, Harith Hassan, who is a senior fellow at Carnegie Middle East and a former senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, noted that there are problems in the country like youth unemployment. It's about 20%. There are a lot of areas of issues right now that need to be addressed, and saying that there's essentially a lot of anger in the country. There are several areas that a new development strategy needs to address. Give us a sense of how you see the issues before this government, and how they can solve them, and what role the U.S. should play. Obviously, that's a lot to do in just a couple of minutes, but if you can give us a sense of the direction that they need to go in.

SH: Indeed. The different Iraqi communities, the Kurds, the Sunni Arabs, the Shia Arabs, and the religious minorities, are on different timelines in the country when it comes to what are their asks and aspirations for the Iraqi government. On the Sunni side, so in the central government, their key portfolios are continuing the fight against ISIS, the ideology and the remnant cells that continue to pose a problem. Second, rebuild after the massive destruction of the area after the fight against ISIS, a return to about two million people who continue to remain displaced.

For the south of the country, even during the existential fight of the Shia with this terrorist organization ISIS, the people were continuing to complain and say, "Okay, we lack clean water. We lack electricity. We lack health care, job opportunities, and then there is a problem with systemic corruption in government." They just want better lives. What really, usually, pushes the people over the edge is the heat of the summer, and now recently, serious water problems in Basra. Basra is the province in Iraq that is the lifeline for the country in terms of it's the major producer of oil. It gives access to international seas, international waters. When that city is unstable, then it means instability for the rest of the country. 

These are the key issues. It's an accumulation of grievances over the years. The grand Shia cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani has come online to help manage the anger and call for controlled anger, because he realized that if the Shia street revolts, the political system could go down. He is playing a stabilizing role. The United States' role is critical in the sense that it can ... and other countries. Iran has an important role to play as well in getting the Iraqi political forces to come together and form this government quickly. The most important thing is this government has to deliver on those issues that I mentioned. So, a mediating role by the United States, second, technical support to manage these complex portfolio issues, and third, helping the regional actors come together on some sort of agreement and not turn Iraq into a proxy battleground.

TF: So we can get this wrapped up in a couple of weeks, I guess. No, obviously, I'm kidding around about that. A complex situation. Sarhang Hamasaeed, as always, thank you for joining us on POTUS today.

SH: Thank you.

TF: Sarhang Hamasaeed is Director of Middle East Programs at the United States Institute of Peace. Wherefore goeth Iraq at this point? A complicated situation. He is tweeting at @sarhangsalar, S-A-R-H-A-N-G-S-A-L-A-R.

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