Iraq's `Potemkin' government no font of optimism

General satisfaction with the elections may mean little if a growing storm of sectarian conflict cannot be contained

By Ian Bremmer  / 

Mon, Jan 23, 2006 - Page 9

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 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 percent 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 revenue. 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.

There is another reason Shia, Sunnis, and Kurds won't move immediately to undermine federal authority: the central government in Baghdad won't have the legal or economic means to challenge their local power. In essence, while all of Iraq's factions have a strong interest in promoting a central government that appears fully functional, that government's powers will in fact be limited. But, in the longer term, those limits on federal power will push Iraq toward a sectarian scramble for power and revenue. Article 11 of the new constitution declares that "All that is not written in the exclusive powers of the federal authorities is in the authority of the regions."

That formulation all but pits the central government and regions against one another in a battle for political supremacy.

Similarly, under current law, soldiers will answer not to Baghdad but to regional power brokers, while the Iraqi constitution guarantees local governments the right to pocket the revenue that flows from new oil fields within their jurisdiction. In fact, although the central government has the authority to collect the revenues generated by existing fields, there is no law to prevent local officials from modernizing old sites and claiming that they are new.

The impact of this state of affairs can hardly be overestimated. Oil accounts for about 98 percent of Iraq's current export revenue. It is the lifeblood of Iraq's economy and the source of the money that the central government will need to build durable institutions. Although inflows of international financial assistance remain substantial, reconstruction money from abroad will begin to dry up as Iraq puts its central government in place. In sum, the national government will lack both the authority and the means to govern Iraq.

Indeed, with Shiite-Sunni violence already intensifying, the Iraqi government may not be able to maintain even the appearance of effectiveness for very long. Moreover, the Kurds are the proverbial dog that hasn't yet barked. They enjoy relative economic prosperity, and their political institutions are growing more effective and efficient. Thus, for the moment, they have no reason to challenge the status quo. But this stability will face new challenges this year.

Gubernatorial elections in November will force Kurdish political contenders to offer opposing programs, and some candidates will seek electoral advantage via populist calls for independence. At the same time, cooler heads will struggle to postpone a potentially divisive referendum next year on the final status of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

In fact, the friction generated by electoral politics is likely to stoke resentments within Shia and Sunni communities as well. There is a great danger that the new Iraq's sectarian politics will benefit those who promise their constituents the most -- at the expense of the central government and the country's other factions. Debates over possible constitutional amendments intended to pacify angry Sunnis and to de-fang the insurgency are likely to incite factional hostility as well.

More worryingly, when Shia, Sunnis, and/or Kurds decide that their elected officials are not delivering the promised perks and protections, they are likely to look beyond politics to advance their individual interests.

At that point, the future of an independent Iraq itself will be called into question. Any separatist moves by Kurdish leaders would bring Turkey into Iraqi politics.

At the same time, the protection that American forces offer Iraqi officials will diminish as troops are gradually withdrawn, and Iran will race to fill the security vacuum.

In sum, the Iraqi government may appear effective for much of this year, but it will be committed to trying to serve the competing interests of sharply divided constituencies.

Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy. Copyright: Project Syndicate/Institute for Human Science