Iraq’s Potemkin Government

With the votes in Iraq’s election in December now counted, attempts to form a new government are set to move into high gear. Encouragingly, all sides appear to accept the results. But the key question concerning the future of the country remains: will Shia, Sunnis, and Kurds will unite behind a functioning central authority?

In the short term, there are good reasons to believe that the most powerful among Iraq’s three main groups will do so. But can any such government administer the country as a whole? The answer to that question is likely to be no, which is why Iraq probably will be a much less stable place a year from now.

The new Iraqi government, when it is formed, will have at least the appearance of viability for the immediate future. Shia have an interest in supporting the central government because they believe that their demographic weight (60% of Iraq’s population) means that representative democracy will guarantee them the right to rule and protect them from Sunni demands and attacks.

Sunnis also will support the government, at least initially, because it represents their only opportunity to win what they consider their share of power, resources, and revenues. Kurds will accept the arrangement because they believe that the new constitution guarantees their right to control most of the oil wealth that lies beneath their territory, and because they don’t want the blame should Baghdad descend into chaos.