When It Comes to Iraq, Iran Loves a Power Vacuum

While Bahgdad struggles to form a government, Tehran is hoping to swoop in and make sure it has some influence over its neighbor.

If the Iraqi government is put together shoddily, if it is established by extremists from either Sunni or Shiite camps, ethnic strife will wipe out any achievements over the past few years, outgoing Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told The Washington Post recently.

Almost three months after the elections in Iraq, which were widely praised, there is still no government in that country and there is no sign that a government will be established in the near future. The result is that the American army has not yet received instructions to begin its planned withdrawal, and it is in no way clear that it will be able to pull out before a stable government is set up that can take over the security tasks from the Americans.

It is true that the number of American soldiers in Iraq dropped last week to 92,000 and for the first time since the war, their number in Iraq is lower than the number of American soldiers in Afghanistan. The fear is that if a government is not established soon in Iraq, the next stage - a further drop to 50,000 troops - will be delayed.

Vice President Joe Biden, who is coordinating the withdrawal, has declared that even if a government is not formed, the army will begin pulling out, but it seems that declarations of this kind are aimed mainly at calming the politicians in Baghdad and preventing the sides from using the American plan to their own advantage.

Maliki, whose party won 89 seats, and Ayad Allawi, whose list got two seats more than that, are still battling in court to have each other's candidates invalidated.

Maliki is hoping that the small gap between them will turn into his own advantage if another three of Allawi's elected candidates are disqualified.

Meanwhile, neighboring countries, in particular Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, are increasingly entering the fray with the hope of propping up a government that would be friendly to them.

It is therefore unclear why the American assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, is so sure that "Iran has failed in its attempt to set up an Iraqi government under its patronage," as he declared two weeks ago. If in the end a government is elected where the Islamic Supreme Council (whose leader at present is Amar al-Hakim ) has significant representation, and supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr also participate, then Iran will have sufficient anchors there to navigate its moves.

It is not only the political process that is paralyzed during this waiting period; government offices are also not working. More than 100,000 positions are waiting to be manned, clerks are staying home, and basic tasks like issuing licenses, enforcing court rulings, distributing budgets and carrying out projects are all being held up.

The suicide bombings have become rarer, the number of dead is no longer in the thousands every month, and according to reports in the Iraqi press, the citizens' feelings of security have improved. Now the greatest fear is of what will happen if a new government is not set up soon.

Iraq is continuing to pay a heavy price for its debts of the past. At the end of last month, for example, the government was forced to declare the national airlines bankrupt, in the wake of a demand from Kuwait that it be paid $1.2 billion as compensation for aircraft equipment looted during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

Attempts by the United States to put pressure on Kuwait to forgive this debt were to no avail, and Kuwait stated that even after the declaration of bankruptcy it would continue to sue the Iraqi treasury that will become the owner of the Iraqi airline company's assets.

The expectation that the income from oil would bring about the financial turnaround that Iraq so badly needs has likewise not become reality. The Iraqi oil minister, Hussain al-Shahristani, reported that Iraq had signed agreements for drilling oil that would produce some 12 million barrels per day within seven years - as compared with the 2.5 million daily barrels that Iraq produces now - but the foreign oil companies are in no hurry to send their teams to Iraq before it is clear which government will guarantee the contracts that will be signed.

Meanwhile it is Iran and the Gulf states that are considering investing some $70 billion in construction projects in Iraq. According to figures published by the Iraqi investment authority, the number of residents in Iraq is expected to reach approximately 40 million in 2025 and with this growth chances for business opportunities will also increase.

There are currently a large number of benefits for the investors including tax breaks, ownership of the land on which the projects are set up, bringing money into Iraq and taking it out without restriction, and a large number of other attractive benefits. One thing that the authority does not publish however is, who will now sign the agreements to develop these projects, and how.

Israel on their minds

It is difficult not to be impressed by Israel's place in almost every political argument that is taking place now in Egypt. The latest case relates to the dismissal of Dr. Muhammad Saadani, the head of the science and technology park named after President Hosni Mubarak, by the higher education minister, Dr. Hani Helal.

A serious disagreement developed between the two over the way in which the scientific center should be run, the division of its budgets and the authority of its director. Then it turned out, according to claims by Saadani, that the real argument was over the minister's demand that Saadani cooperate with scientists and researchers from Israel.

In an interview with the newspaper, Al-Masry Al-Youm, Saadani said that "there were Israeli attempts to penetrate the scientific center via a proposal to cooperate in the field of research; however, I prevented this."

Saadani claimed that Helal opposed his decision and instructed him to cooperate with the Israelis but he again refused. Hence Egypt has also become a de-facto place where Israeli researchers are not welcome.

Workers counting ballots in Baghdad