Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 01/2011

Promise, Peril for Iraq's New Government: Interview with Joost Hiltermann

Bernard Gwertzman (interviewer)

December 2010

Council on Foreign Relations


Joost Hiltermann, Deputy Program Director, Middle East and North Africa, International Crisis Group

Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor,


After nine months of political wrangling, Iraq's parliament confirmed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's new coalition government December 21. Though the government is "a good basis for setting out," says Iraq expert Joost Hiltermann, there's much uncertainty about how cohesive it will be and whether the inclusive government formed can govern. Hiltermann says there are questions about who will head the three major security ministries, whether a new National Council for Strategic Policy--designed as a "real check" against Maliki's power--will be approved by parliament, and whether Ayad Allawi, who headed the Iraqiya bloc that won the most seats in the election, will want to head that council. The United States pushed a power-sharing agreement "that went beyond the sharing of ministerial positions," says Hiltermann, but it remains to be seen whether various factions, including the prime minister and his allies, will allow that to happen.

Is Iraq's new government a solid beginning or are there still major problems?

This is a good basis for setting out. The government is not complete, even if the Supreme Court of Iraq allowed it to go forward without some of the ministers having been appointed. There are still issues that need to be resolved before you have the kind of package deal that was originally discussed by the coalition partners. And beyond that, while this will be the basis for government, the likelihood of an effective government is reduced by the fact that this is a very broadly inclusive government necessitated by the fact that Iraq remains weak and the only way to present a reversal to civil war is in fact by having everybody around the table. The drawback is that governance is going to suffer.

What are the positive aspects of this agreement? Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has temporary ministership of defense and two other ministries, so he hasn't chosen those important posts yet, right?

That's right. There are a number of ministerial posts unfilled but taken by other ministers for the moment, and they may be filled later this week, possibly. And then there are three key security ministries--the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Interior, and the Ministry of State for National Security--that also remain unfilled and that Maliki has taken for himself for now, until what he calls "suitable persons" have been identified. The question is: How long will this interim situation last and what kind of people will Maliki appoint for these positions? Will they be technocrats or will they be political people from the different coalition partners, or are they essentially Maliki's lieutenants? This remains to be seen.

Is Ayad Allawi, whose Iraqiya coalition won the most seats in last March's elections, due to be sworn in soon as the head of this new Council for Strategic Policy?

The Iraqi Parliament still has to legislate into law this new National Council for Strategic Policy, or whatever it ends up being called. And yes, if that were to come about, and it is in fact the kind of council that Allawi can live with, and if he agrees to be the head of it, he would be appointed to head it. But we first have to see whether the Parliament can agree on this council, and what powers it will have, and then whether Allawi feels that it satisfies his earlier demands for having a real check against Maliki's power as prime minister.

The U.S. government has been urging this new council, right?

The U.S. government has been urging from the beginning a power-sharing agreement that went beyond the sharing of ministerial positions, that would create mechanisms [to] check the powers of the prime minister. But again it remains to be seen that this will come about.

Allawi himself has been ambiguous about whether he would commit to govern or not?

If it is an advisory council that Maliki can ignore, there is very little in it that would satisfy Allawi. If however the council has some real powers, it would become much more attractive from Allawi's perspective to become its head. Because then he could offer a check on Maliki's power, which is the issue that has marked the past four years of Maliki's tenure when he was accused of having accumulated power [for] himself without any kind of checks.

Did the Kurds get what they wanted? They remain the president and foreign minister.

In terms of positions, the Kurds did no worse than they did four years ago because they indeed still have the presidency [Jalal Talabani] and the foreign ministry [Hoshyar Zebari] and several other ministries, as well as the deputy prime minister and the deputy speaker of Parliament. But in terms of their demands--they have a laundry list of nineteen of them--they received further promises from Maliki personally and from the coalition partners that these demands will be implemented. We've already seen in the past that such promises do not amount to a whole lot, so I don't have the sense that the Kurds have gained anything that they didn't already have before, along with promises that may end up not being implemented.

Is the key issue for the Kurds still the disposition of power in Kirkuk province?

The key issue is Kirkuk, and yes, there are other disputed territories including districts of Ninawa, where Mosul is located. The other big issue in that region is oil law and the right for companies that have signed contracts with the Kurdistan regional government to be paid. This hasn't happened yet. For the Kurds this is critical because without such payments these companies will not be able to continue to pump oil. This would have a negative impact on the income the Kurdistan region hopes to gain from its own oil and gas reserves.

This is to allow the Kurdish government to pay the oil contractors to drill?

It would have the Iraqi federal government pay these companies for the exploration that these companies are doing in the Kurdistan region on the contracts signed unilaterally by the Kurdistan regional government in the absence of a federal oil law. So these contracts have been signed, these companies are active and working and operating, but they're not being paid. And the revenues from oil exports accrue directly to Iraq's national budget, then are disbursed to the Kurdistan region as part of its annual budget allocation of 17 percent of the national budget. Nothing was done to pay these companies for the actual costs or the profit, and so the demand that the Kurds have raised is that the federal government pay these companies like it pays the companies operating in other parts of Iraq. They say in the end, these companies are contributing to Iraq's income.

The oil fields in the south are under the control of the Iraqi Oil Ministry, and the people who've been put in charge of that are veteran oil people, so I guess that's a decent appointment, right?

Yeah, and we see a continuation there because for the past four years we had Hussain al-Shahristani as the oil minister. He has been promoted to be the deputy prime minister with apparent oversight over energy policy. And his former deputy, Abdul-Karim Luaybi has been appointed as the oil minister. That is certainly reassuring to international oil companies active in Iraq exploring for oil and rehabilitating the existing fields that have begun producing.

What about the Sadrists? They broke the logjam and agreed to support Maliki as prime minister after opposing that for a long time. Did they get what they wanted in this new government?

One reason the makeup of the government is not finished is because there is some unhappiness on the Sadrists' part that they didn't get everything they had asked for. They're certainly getting a number of ministries, especially service ministries. They also have the deputy speakership of Parliament, and they are asking for one of the security ministries, meaning either the interior or defense or the Ministry of State for National Security. It is very unlikely that Maliki would give them one of those, but the Sadrists have some bargaining power and they are using it right now.

The Bush administration signed as one of its last actions an agreement to pull its forces out of Iraq by the end of next year. Is that still on track?

The withdrawal is definitely on track. The question was always if it can be delayed through an extension of the current security agreement the Bush administration signed with the Iraqi government. This would require a Status of Forces agreement that would have to be initiated by the new government. Now, the new government is barely functioning, and it's so much a coalition government involving so many different parties and individuals that it's going to find it very difficult to come to any sort of decision. It's going to be operating by default more than anything. We'll have to see whether this government can muster the will to approach the United States and say "yes, we do want to negotiate a follow-up treaty to the security agreement," and then to pull it off within the time period that works. For U.S. forces to fulfill the promise to withdraw before the end of 2011, they would have to set things in motion by June of 2011 at the latest.

Where do the Sunnis come out on this?

They were represented to a large extent by Allawi, who is a secular Shiite, and the Iraqiya list. In terms of positions they've done very well. The government we've had the last four years was also an inclusive government, but many of the Sunnis in that government were not truly representative of the broader Sunni community in Iraq. In the new government it comes closer to that, so the Sunnis in that sense can be happy. But we still have to see what kind of control they would have over, say, the defense ministry, which is critical because, for example, former insurgents were organized from 2006 on in Awakening Councils, and these people need to be integrated into the Iraqi army and other security forces, or be brought into the public sector. The defense ministry has to play a key role in this, but if it's under somebody who is not sympathetic to this particular aspiration then it's not going to happen. So for the Sunnis this is a very important issue.

More broadly, the Sunnis, just like Allawi, want to see a real check on Maliki's power. So do the Kurds. That would be a mandate of this new National Council for Strategic Policy.

I think we have a government. What we don't quite have is the package deal that was discussed by Maliki's opponents as a condition for their joining the government. They have joined the government for fear of being left out, but they don't yet have satisfaction of some of the critical demands they have made, and we'll have to see whether these demands are going to be fulfilled.

For us on the outside, which of those demands should we watch for?

Who is going to control the various security forces and intelligence agencies? Are these going to be under civilian ministries and the army chain of command? Or are they going to be under the prime minister? Second, who sets the strategy of Iraq? Is it the prime minister, is it the president, is it the Parliament, is it the new council, or is it a combination of all these factors? And if it's only the prime minister, then again we have a problem.

What Maliki's opponents wanted after four years of Maliki as prime minister was a change because they saw him, rightly or wrongly, taking power and not sharing it. Now, they want to reverse that. That is what we need to look for in the next four years. If his opponents succeed in getting power sharing, then you may well see Iraq put on very solid footing in the coming months to organize elections at the local level, and then of course legislative elections four years from now. If not, then Iraq may end up with authoritarian tendencies which are not so different from regimes elsewhere in the region.

What is your sense of the popularity of this government?

What people want are services and jobs in addition to stability. If this government can't provide that, it will be unpopular. Maliki gained some popularity for bringing stability, and for crushing militias and insurgents without any preference for any group. This was back in 2008. Now, they will look to him to provide essential services. If he is successful he will be very popular. If not, he won't be, and hopefully there will be elections down the line to correct that.