Al-Maliki Likely To Retain Iraqi Prime Minister Seat

Iraq has set a record for the amount of time taken to form a new government. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has the backing of the main Shiite coalition, but there is still no end in sight to the political jockeying. Michael Wahid Hanna, who studies Iraq for the nonprofit think tank The Century Foundation, talks to Steve Inskeep about the prospects for stability in Iraq.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We're following up this morning on what appears to be a near decision of who will rule Iraq. The country has gone through more than 200 days of indecision since this year's election and now Iraqis are said to be relatively close to having the same prime minister they had before.

We're going to talk about what this means with Michael Wahid Hanna. He's a human rights expert who studies Iraqi politics and law. He's with The Century Foundation. He's in our New York studios.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. MICHAEL WAHID HANNA (The Century Foundation): Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: The news headlines suggest that Nouri al-Maliki, the current prime minister, is going to keep his job. Is that certain at this point?

Mr. HANNA: It's not absolutely certain. But it's always been the odds-on most likely result, and that's a function of demography and politics. Iraq is a Shiite-majority country and so although his party was the runner-up in the March elections, it was always likely that he was going up as the premier one more time.

INSKEEP: Well, because nobody had a majority so it was a matter of assembling enough building blocks among these parties to have a majority.

Mr. HANNA: That's right. He lost by two seats, his party did, but obviously the next step is to form a government. And it was always going to be difficult for Iyad Allawi, the leader of the rival Iraqiya list(ph), which is seen as a sort of secular list, although he is a Shiite. Most of his votes came from Sunnis and so it was always going to be difficult to construct a parliamentary block where they were the majority.

INSKEEP: You say that there was this party that got the most votes but hasn't been able to assemble a coalition that included both major religious groups. Instead, Nouri al-Maliki is close to assembling his majority and he would basically be relying on Shia votes to do that. What does that mean for Iraq?

Mr. HANNA: Well, this discussion now is a function of some disunity among the Shiites. In the previous parliamentary elections, they ran as a unified slate. This go-round they broke up into their constituent parts and so we've had a discussion now among Shiites about who would be their candidate. This is just a function of the numbers, frankly, and there is a great deal of consensus on that side.

INSKEEP: If Sunnis feel left out of power and Shias feel that they have all the power, does that intensify the civil conflict that Iraq has had for years?

Mr. HANNA: Well, I don't think the country is on the verge of tipping back into sectarian civil war. I think people are fatigued and there's been something of a victory for the Shiite parties and their related militias in the central government.

INSKEEP: Meaning they've wiped the Sunnis out of a lot of neighborhoods of Baghdad, for example?

Mr. HANNA: Well, there's been a lot of ethnic cleansing that's clarified lines, unfortunately. There is a huge number of Sunni refugees that have left the country or been displaced internally. And so it doesn't look like there is any core to flip the insurgency back into something broad-based and countrywide that could threaten the security of the government at the moment.

INSKEEP: Do you think that this coalition with Nouri al-Maliki at the head of it can keep the country stable and do things that seem to be aligned with what the United States would consider its vital interest there?

Mr. HANNA: Well, I think looking at the Iraqi security forces and what they've been able to do since the draw-down of American forces we're at something like 50,000 troops now, in a support role - should be encouraging. I mean violence in Iraq is horrific but in a stable way, and that can only be said about Iraq. Compared to any other country the situation would be abysmal. But Iraq has seemed to cope, and the insurgency has been downgraded.

INSKEEP: You know, Americans learn in school that one of the great tests of a democracy is a peaceful transfer of power. If Iraq has this situation where after more than 200 days the guy who was prime minister manages just to hold on to power, is that a missed opportunity for Iraq?

Mr. HANNA: Well, I think it's a reflection of the politics and where they are at the moment. And let's not forget, we still have quite a protracted process ahead of us. Nouri al-Maliki will now have to turn his attention to the Kurds, who have significant demands about resources and power and territory. And this could drag on for months now. But Maliki was a strong figure. He reaped some popular acclaim for the increase in stability. So I don't know if we should read too much into it. It's been a messy process, but it's not as if his government has taken massively illegal steps to ensure their repeat performance in the premiership.

INSKEEP: Michael Wahid Hanna studies Iraq for The Century Foundation. Thanks very much.

Mr. HANNA: Thank you.

INSKEEP: And we'll continue following this story on MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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