March 15, 2005

Iraq: Forming a Coalition Government

In the January 30, 2005 elections in Iraq, the United Iraqi Alliance (a primarily Shi'a grouping) won 140 of the 275 seats in the newly-created National Assembly. Although a majority, it still is not enough to form a government on its own. Its most likely coalition partner is the Kurdish Alliance with its 75 seats. The resulting 215 seats provides the two-thirds majority required to elect a president and two vice presidents - they will in turn nominate the prime minister.

As of yesterday (March 14), the Shi'a and Kurds had almost reached an agreement to form a coalition government. The conditions for Kurdish participation include the appointment of Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) Secretary General Jalal Talabani as president, and control of the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk (which the Kurds consider their traditional capital). The agreement also includes a "right of return" clause for as many as 100,000 Kurds displaced from Kirkuk during the Ba'th party years.

Jalal Talabani and the author

Despite misgivings from the Kurds over the Shi'a preferred choice for the post of prime minister - Dawa' Islamic party leader Ibrahim Ja'afari - they most likely will go along. The control over Kirkuk is that important to them. However, Kurdish control of Kirkuk is a hot-button issue for Turkey. Turkey regards itself as the protector of the Iraqi Turkomen, a Turkic people living mostly in Kirkuk.

The main issue between the Kurds and Turkomen is the right of return. The Kurds have identified which specific properties they believe belong to Kurds. Some of the Arab and Turkomen residents have been forcibly removed already, with compensation not yet provided.

I know Jalal Talabani personally as well as the two most influential Kurds in the interim government - Barham Salih (interim deputy prime minister for national security) and Hoshyar Zebari (interim foreign minister). Barham is a senior PUK official who previously was the organization's representative in Washington. Hoshyar is a Kurdistan Democratic Party (rival to the PUK) official who represented the party in London. Jalal is the founder of the PUK and regarded as the grand statesman of the Kurds.

Based on their backgrounds, all three are smart and politically astute. I am hopeful they will come up with something that will be palatable to all. They realize that you cannot totally ignore the realities of current property distribution in Kirkuk, but I believe that they will opt for a condemnation/compensation scheme.

As for the Sunnis, both the Shi'a (United Iraqi Alliance) and the Kurds (Kurdish Alliance) realize that they must include the Sunnis in the formation of the new government. Sunni commitment to the new government is key to defeating the insurgency.