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A new-old Iraqi government at last?

It's being widely reported that a deal has finally been reached among the major Iraqi political blocs on the outlines of a new power-sharing agreement which would produce -- finally -- a new Iraqi government. There's still plenty of ways for this to go off the tracks, of course, but if the deal holds then it looks an awful lot like the outcome will be pretty much exactly the government which I and most everyone else expected before the elections... and an awful lot like the old government. The deal as reported has Nuri al-Maliki staying on as Prime Minister, Jalal Talabani staying on as President, Tareq al-Hashemi and Rafi Issawi staying on as Deputy Prime Ministers, and Usama Nujaifi taking over as Speaker of the Parliament. Ayad Allawi would be offered the position of head of a new National Council for Strategic Policies. The name being circulated for Foreign Minister -- Saleh al-Mutlak -- is intriguing and sure to be controversial, but that's the exception. Try not to remember that the March 2010 election had been touted as a triumph for "change."

Despite the inevitable arguments here in Washington, this outcome really shouldn't be seen as a victory for either Iran or the U.S. It is hardly a show of strength for Tehran that it was unable to impose its will on Baghdad's politics for 8 long months, and that the final composition of the government reflects most of Washington's key interests. Both Iran and the U.S. were backing Maliki by the end, but he wasn't either's first choice -- Iran would have preferred a more pliable candidate from the Shia list rather than the pugnacious Maliki, while the U.S. probably would have originally preferred Allawi. Neither got their first choice, neither will be terribly disappointed. Washington had clearly signaled that it wanted a broadly inclusive government, and that's what it seems to have gotten.

The biggest change, if it turns out to happen, would be the appointment of the controversial Sunni member of the Iraqiyya list Saleh Mutlak as Foreign Minister -- a real switch in style and personality from the Kurdish Hoshyar Zebari. Mutlak, you may recall, was at the center of the de-Baathification shenanigans which tarnished the election campaign. If he becomes Foreign Minister, it might help appease Saudis and other Arabs upset with Maliki's remaining in power and help with enticing them into playing a more constructive role in Iraqi affairs.

The biggest wild card would seem to be the role of the newly created National Council for Strategic Policies, which Allawi is slated to head (though last I heard had he hadn't yet agreed). It seems a clever compromise, giving Allawi a potentially meaningful position and ensuring a voice for key groups in major decisions. But the Council currently has no Constitutional status, so will have to be created through legislation -- an early test for the long-dormant new Parliament. Its powers don't seem clearly defined. Maliki's office may well resist ceding real power to the Council, which could set the stage for entrenched intra-government infighting over the coming years. If the Council does have teeth, then it could check the long-circulated though recently dampened worries about the concentration of powers in the Prime Minister's office; if it doesn't, then conflict between them could be a persistent source of gridlock. We'll have to keep an eye on that.

This outcome has to be seen as a real letdown from the much-touted idea that the Iraqi people had voted for change in March 2010. But those hopes faded so long ago that I wonder if anyone even remembers them. After the long months of political paralysis, I suspect that most people will just be happy to have a government which can start addressing the many long-neglected issues facing Iraq. It is fortunate that despite the political paralysis, the state has largely continued to function and violence has not really increased overall despite a series of widely reported spectacular attacks. Hopefully the new government will now be able to move forcefully, quickly regain some political momentum, start addressing outstanding vital national problems, and work with the U.S. on its responsible military drawdown. At this point, that's enough.

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