WHEN “IN” MEANS “OUT”…Back in late April, there was considerable “reconciliation” buzz generated by news that the Sunni bloc that had withdrawn from the Iraqi government in August 2007 was coming back. At the time, I pointed out that the actual deal paving the way for the Sunni bloc’s return hadn’t been finalized, that such rumors of rapprochement had been periodic and common despite the lack of follow through, and thus the celebration was premature. Sure enough:

Iraq’s main Sunni Arab political bloc said on Wednesday it had suspended talks to rejoin the Shi’ite-led government after a disagreement with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki over a cabinet post.

Despite this standoff, it is still quite possible that the Sunni bloc will forge a compromise with the Maliki government in the near future – that is, before the next round of regional elections slated for November of this year. Some background:

Many Iraqi Sunni groups and voters boycotted the regional elections in 2005 out of principle, so the Sunni bloc that has been participating in the Maliki government does not really reflect the political expression of a wide swathe of the Sunni population. In recent months, rival Sunni groups have been forming to challenge the current bloc’s monopoly on the Sunni political apparatus. In particular, the Awakenings groups that have allied with the US against al-Qaeda in Iraq (especially the Anbar Salvation Council tribal elements) have been demanding a share of the local and national political machinery. In fact, some of the Awakenings constituents have threatened violence if they are not given a share of political power via elections (or some other means).

Thus, the Sunni bloc has at least a few incentives to rejoin Maliki’s government. For one, its members will be able to take advantage of their insider positions, and access to government machinery, in order to improve performance at the polls come this fall (in both legitimate and less than legitimate ways). In addition, when it announced its return, the Sunni bloc touted some gains made (though exaggerated) in terms of easing de-Baathification and securing amnesty for Sunni prisoners. Running as incumbents that have delivered tangible results for their constituents does have its advantages. Thinking cynically for a moment, the Bush administration might even be tempted to look the other way with respect to electoral manipulation in order to help a Sunni political bloc if that bloc is willing to endorse certain of the Bush team’s cherished objectives (i.e., a long term agreement on bases and troop presence).

The article cited above goes on:

Persuading the bloc to rejoin has been a main aim of U.S. policy in Iraq and is widely seen as a vital step in reconciling the country’s factions after years of conflict. Sunni Arabs have little voice in a cabinet dominated by Shi’ites and Kurds.

This vastly overstates the significance of the bloc’s return in terms of progress on the national reconciliation front. The return of this bloc to the Maliki government would not represent some bold new development in terms of reconciliation, just a reset of the status quo ante in place before its withdrawal in August 2007. So a deal for the return of the Sunnis would merely recreate the same “broad based” government that was incapable of making any meaningful progress in terms of the national reconciliation agenda for years.

Credible and lasting reconciliation will only be possible (eventually) after free and fair elections produce leaders with perceived legitimacy that address the concerns of large majorities of the population – even if (and, if polling data is to be believed, especially if) those leaders oppose the continued presence of large numbers of American troops. Ironically, if the current Sunni bloc’s reentry in the Maliki government is a sign of its intention to use its position to gain unfair advantage over its Sunni rivals in the upcoming elections, then a development that will be touted as a sign of progress on the reconciliation front will, in reality, mean exactly the opposite.