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Iraq: let the bargaining begin

As Iraq settles in for the sizzling summer heat, the political temperature looks set to stay high well into autumn and possibly winter as well

The results of the recent parliamentary elections were unequivocal in one sense, but extremely messy in another. While Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Sairoon group won the most seats—54 out of 329—he won't be able to form a government on his own. Weeks, possibly months, of political bargaining lie ahead,

Before all that can begin in earnest, the post-election constitutional course has to be followed, with the choice of a speaker of parliament and then a federal president. There's no guarantee that this process will remain clear of obstacles that could delay progress.

Then, assuming that Sadr tries to form a coalition, there's the question of which parties he'll seek to align with. The cleric is no fan of Iran and so is likely to shun the group that came second (with 47 seats) in the polls, Fatah—the main vehicle for Iran-backed Shia militias—as well as the State of Law bloc of former premier Nouri al-Maliki (25 seats), also a favourite of Tehran.

Another plank in Sadr's platform is the goal of eliminating sectarianism from Iraqi politics in order to form a government where the key posts are awarded to technocrats. Former prime minister Haider al-Abadi, whose Nasr bloc came third (42 seats) in the elections, has indicated that he could work with Sairoon. But not all those within Nasr, and few among other political groupings, will agree to dump a system that awarded them privileges based on religious or ethnic backgrounds.

Nor will the squabbling involve Iraqis alone. Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states will be watching to see how Iran seeks to maintain its political influence in Iraq. That's to say, the extent to which the Iranians will seek to block Sadr and push for Fatah and State of Law to be the main holders of power. Any such manoeuvring by Tehran will be seen by the Saudis and their allies as further proof of what they regard as Iranian meddling in the Arab worldwidening the rift between the two Middle East giants.

For Iraq's Sunnis, meanwhile, many of whom appear to have boycotted the elections, there's the prospect of another Shia-dominated government—of whatever hue. Their lot appears to be many years of political marginalisation.

As for the energy sector, it will be business as usual with those projects that are proceeding without difficulty. But where issues arise that require government approval, IOCs and others should expect months of frustration as they await the formation of a new administration in Baghdad.

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