(CNSNews.com) - Claims of Iranian interference and legal maneuvering by narrowly defeated Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki are raising concerns that the difficult task of forming a coalition to govern Iraq may lead to fresh sectarian conflict.
Simmering disquiet about Iran’s role rose to the surface Tuesday when Ayad Allawi, leader of the Sunni-leaning bloc that won the most seats in the March 7 parliamentary election, accused Tehran of “interfering quite heavily.”
Allawi told the BBC that the Iranians had invited “everybody” but his Iraqiyya bloc to Tehran for talks, a situation he described as “worrying.” Separately, he told Iraqi television that any Iraq-related negotiations that may be under way in Iran were “shameful.”
Shi’ite parties have dominated Iraq since the overthrow of the Sunni-based Ba’athist regime of Saddam Hussein in 2003. That situation left many minority Sunnis feeling politically marginalized, a key factor in the sectarian violence that wracked the country following the last election in 2005, costing thousands of lives.
Iraqiyya beat Maliki’s mostly Shi’ite State of Law (SOL) alliance by just two seats – 91 to 89 – in the new 325-member parliament. With neither close to the 163 seats needed to form a government, the result set the stage for what is likely to be a grueling coalition-building process.
Although Allawi as the frontrunner was presumed to have first choice in having 30 days to cobble together a government, a Supreme Court ruling issued in response to a request by Maliki called this into question. The court suggested that if Maliki’s post-election deal-making gave rise to a bigger coalition, this would give him the first chance to form a government. Allawi disputes that interpretation.
Also potentially damaging to Allawi’s ambitions is an appeal by the incumbent prime minister for several successful Iraqiyya candidates to be disqualified because of suspected ties to the former Ba’athist regime.
Ahead of the election a Shi’ite-led committee prevented hundreds of prospective Sunni candidates, including some in Iraqiyya, from running because of alleged Ba’athist links. Their disqualification angered many Sunnis, and for as many as six successful candidates to be ruled out now would fuel tensions – and could easily overturn Allawi’s slim lead.
Analysts believe the likeliest coalition would involve Maliki’s SOL and the other main Shi’ite group the Iraq National Alliance (INA), which together control 159 seats. The remaining few required could be made up relatively easily by bringing in a Kurdish or other small party. (The INA was third-placed in the election, with 70 seats, followed by the Kurdistan Alliance with 43.)
But a government without Sunni participation could be a recipe for serious instability, even as the United States prepares to redeploy all combat forces out of the country by August, ahead of the end of 2011 deadline for a total withdrawal.
“The Sunnis perceive that they ‘won’ this election in the sense that Allawi, who was the person that they put most of their votes and support behind, has the most number of parliamentary seats,” said Meghan O’Sullivan, international affairs professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School.
“So their inability to be in government, or even be given the chance to try to form a government, after they won, could be explosive,” she warned in an interview posted by the Council on Foreign Relations.
O’Sullivan, a former deputy national security advisor on Iraq in the Bush administration, predicted that Iran would work hard to exclude an Allawi-led government, by encouraging a SOL-INA coalition.
‘Respect Iraq’s sovereignty’
Representatives of SOL and several INA constituent parties visited Tehran recently and held talks with each other. Jalal Talabani, Iraq’s national president and head of a key Kurdish bloc, was also recently in town, for meetings with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Further complicating the bargaining, Moqtada Al Sadr, the radical Iran-based Shi’ite cleric who heads the largest group within the INA, is reportedly opposed to a coalition that would retain Maliki as prime minister. His group plans an internal vote this week to decide which of five candidates – including Maliki and Allawi – should be prime minister if the Sadrists are to be part of the government.
U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill on Tuesday acknowledged that all of Iraq’s neighbors had an interest in the election but questioned whether Iraqis would accept the notion that Iran has “a special interest.”
“We have made very clear that we want Iraq to have good relations with its neighbors,” he said during a video press conference. “It’s just that its neighbors are going to have to do a better job of respecting Iraq’s sovereignty.”
Hill also said he did not think Iraqis “would stand for a government that is not homemade.”
“I don’t think the real issue here is whether some government is being made outside of Iraq. I think the real issue is, can the process within Iraq yield the kind of inclusive government that I think most observers believe is the more stable and capable government that can take this country into the future.”