BAGHDAD â€” US leaders are pushing Iraqis hard to resolve the deadlock over a new prime minister and form a unity government. But getting that done will offer no guarantee of a quick end to the country’s violence.
It’s a fact often obscured in the appeals by American officials for the Iraqis to settle their bickering and install a government of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds as the best hope for getting the country on track and moving away from sectarian violence.
At best, however, it will take the new government months to win public confidence. At worst, new leaders will be no more successful than the old in reining in Shiite militias and persuading Sunni Arab insurgents to lay down their arms.
The reality is that having Sunni Arabs and Kurds in the new government is not enough to calm Iraq’s political storm. Members of those minorities have held key posts in every Iraqi administration since the first one set up by US officials after Saddam Hussein fell in 2003.
The outgoing government includes a Kurdish president, a Sunni Arab vice president, a Sunni defence minister and a Kurdish parliament speaker.
Their presence was not enough to prevent a sharp rise in tensions between Iraq’s majority Shiites, who hold the prime ministership and the biggest bloc in parliament, and the minority Sunni Arabs, who are fearful of losing the power they enjoyed under Saddam.
So far, much of the blame for the impasse has focused on the Shiite decision to nominate Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari to stay on as head of the new government.
Sunni and Kurdish politicians refuse to accept him, and the Shiites need them as governing partners because no group has a majority in parliament. Jaafari so far has refused to step aside and the Shiites cannot decide whether to replace him.
Without the others, the Shiites cannot count on enough votes in parliament to win approval for Jaafari and his Cabinet. But the Sunnis and Kurds lack the votes to push through an alternative.
Talks are continuing in hopes of breaking the deadlock in time for a planned parliament meeting Monday. Ultimately, a deal will be cut â€” either to replace Jaafari or persuade the others to support him. The latter likely would be a figure whom Shiite powerbrokers do not consider a threat and thus possibly someone politically weak.
Jaafari’s opponents blame him for the rise in sectarian bloodshed, much of it due to armed Shiite militias and Sunni Arab extremists engaged in tit-for-tat killings.
Yet it’s unlikely any other prime minister would have any more immediate success controlling them.
Many Iraqis consider the militias little more than thugs.
Nevertheless, they have gained support among Shiites in religiously mixed areas because they provide some protection against Sunni extremist attacks and intimidation.
With dozens of armed militias operating throughout the country, no militia commander is willing to disband his group unless his rivals do, too.
Shiite followers of the radical anti-American cleric Moqtada Sadr, for example, have said privately that they are sticking by Jaafari because they fear others may crack down on Sadr’s armed force, called the Mahdi Army.
Thus, the choice facing the new government will be to either embark on months of difficult negotiations with militia commanders or to confront them on the battlefield, raising the threat of even more and wider spread violence.
And the militias are just one of the tough issues likely to make the going rough for any new government.
It also will have to grapple with a review of the constitution adopted last fall, the key condition put forward by Sunni Arab leaders for them to take part in the political process.
That will mean once again debating contentious issues such as how to divide Iraq’s vast oil wealth and how extensive Kurdish self-rule in the north and Shiite autonomy in the south should be.
The result is likely to be more long months of debate and political infighting, giving insurgents, extremist Shiites and hardline Kurds plenty of issues to exploit and cause more division.