Finally a Government in Iraq

After months of prolonged negotiations, the leaders of Iraq’s three largest sectarian communities have agreed to form a coalition government.

It took eight long months of frustration and political wrangling, but it now looks like Iraq’s leaders have set aside their differences over who will lead the next government. And from all of the reports coming out of the negotiations, Nouri al-Maliki will retain the post of prime minister for another four years.

The actual deal, however, is a bit more complicated than that. Maliki is undoubtedly the big winner, especially when one considers that his State of Law Party didn’t even finish first in the parliamentary elections last month. But Jalal Talabani and Ayad Allawi (Maliki’s fiercest critic) also came out on top. Of course, the constituencies that are actually included in the government are more important for Iraq’s future than the individual figures leading those positions. But even in that context, Iraq has largely succeeded in drawing all major sectarian communities into the political process.

From early reports coming out of Baghdad, Maliki will remain Iraq’s prime minister, thus giving the majority Shia population firm control over the country’s most powerful office. Talabani, a Kurd, will continue to be Iraq’s president. Ayad Allawi, the man who actually won the most votes, will chair a new body (the National Council on Strategic Policies) that will be responsible for Iraq’s security policy. And Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni, is rumored to head Iraq’s Foreign Ministry, although this is still based on an aura of speculation.

All in all, the Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds are finally under the same roof. Bringing the Sunnis into the government was an especially important decision for Maliki & Company to make. Without adequate representation in Baghdad, there was a very real possibility that millions of Sunni men would return to the insurgency, thereby jeopardizing the entire security situation as a time when American forces are scheduled to withdraw completely by 2011. The last time Sunnis were excluded from politics (in 2005), the insurgency in Iraq spread like wildfire. This time, the United States, specifically Vice President Joe Biden and Ambassador Jim Jeffries, recognized that a return to the past was no longer an option.

Hard work remains to be done. While Iraq’s top positions appear to be filled, the coalition government will now get down to the tough job of dishing out ministerial duties. Who will head the Interior Ministry, which is tasked with keeping a lid on domestic violence? Who will lead the Health Ministry? These are all questions that need to be resolved quickly and efficiently. Iraqis are waiting for action that will actually improve their lives; another round of political dueling over the ministries will only increase resentment among the Iraqi people and widen the gap between the elite and the electorate.

Another query still to be answered is what role the new National Council on Strategic Decisions will have with respect to Iraq’s foreign policy. The new institution was just established, so there are no rules and regulations governing the work of the council yet. What is more, there is still a chance that Maliki will simply make decisions on his own, without the council’s input (he has circumvented ministries in the past).

All of this is for another day. The first step is actually forming a government that everyone can agree on; or at least forming a government that is tolerable for the next four years. That step has finally been taken.