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Amid Biden visit, Iraq inches closer to forming a government

The formation of a new Iraqi government is proving as complicated as solving a Rubik’s cube, but at least Vice President Biden has a better sense now of how all the pieces might fit together.

Biden spent the July 4 three-day weekend in Iraq, meeting with nearly all that country’s major power brokers. It was the most active U.S. involvement in Iraqi politics since the Obama administration took office, and although it didn’t produce any breakthroughs, it gave a useful nudge to the Iraqis -- and a reminder to all factions that the United States has continuing interests there.

Biden brought two messages to all the Iraqi factions, a source said. First, “We have a long-term commitment. We are not disengaging. The nature of this commitment is changing from military involvement, but we’re not going away.” This was “well received by everyone,” the aide said.

Second, Biden told the Iraqis, “We’re not meddling in government formation, and we think you should resist meddling by anyone else,” such as the Iranians and other neighbors. “But if you want us to be helpful, we’re all ears.”

Biden came away hopeful that the long-delayed haggling over forming a new government may be accelerated by the July 14 constitutional deadline for naming a new speaker of the Iraqi parliament, which will then have been sitting for thirty days. Like everything else in Iraq, that rule can be fiddled -- but it does seem to have concentrated the minds of the Iraqi leaders. And they are not likely to name a speaker until the other key positions have been assigned, too.

Another factor accelerating the process is that the holdover incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki seems to have decided that the waiting game he has been playing may not work in his favor any longer. Maliki and his Shiite “State of Law” party finished second in the balloting to former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiya coalition, a secular group that was strongly backed by Iraqi Sunnis.

Maliki’s problem as incumbent is that he gets blamed for Iraq’s everyday problems -- including electricity shortages this summer that produced strikes and protests that were organized by some of the Shiite factions that Maliki needs to form a governing coalition.

This Shiite unhappiness with Maliki is a new factor -- and is said to be pushing him toward a possible deal with Allawi. The two factions have held intensive meetings over the past week. It’s still not clear who would be prime minister if such a deal could be hatched. But the U.S., which has worked reasonably well with both of them, would be pleased with that outcome.

The alliance of Kurds, who hold the swing vote, are said to be insisting that they hold onto the presidency, with a new term for incumbent President Jalal Talabani. Other key figures are Adel Abdul Mahdi, the head of the Shiite party known as ISCI, who is mentioned as a possible compromise prime minister, and Rafa al-Essawi of Iraqiya, a Sunni who is mentioned as a possible speaker of the parliament.

The Iranians are fighting to keep in power some version of the Shiite coalition that currently rules the country, in the expectation that it would be pliable to Iranian demands. But many of the Shiite politicians have shown increasing willingness to buck Tehran’s tutelage -- at least during this long period of political jockeying and horse trading since the March election.

The Saudis and the Turks favor Allawi. The Saudis in particular are resistant to the idea of another term for Maliki -- and would probably prefer almost anyone else.

By David Ignatius  | July 6, 2010; 5:08 PM ET
Categories:  Ignatius  | Tags:  David Ignatius  
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Funny...the pan-Arab newspapers don't have this same assessment.

Posted by: CCM73 | July 7, 2010 12:50 AM | Report abuse

" gave a useful nudge to the Iraqis..."

Yes, all factions came together and had a good laugh at Biden.

Posted by: kitchendragon50 | July 7, 2010 12:08 PM | Report abuse

This kind of inside reporting is why Ignatius is invaluable to interested citizens like me and will keep me reading the Post as long as he's there.

Posted by: Roytex | July 7, 2010 12:10 PM | Report abuse

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