BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Fridays were a favourite of Sunni insurgents in Iraq; rich pickings for suicide bombers among the Shi‘ites at prayer.
The drumbeat of attacks has slowed since the sectarian war of 2006/07, and this past Friday only the heat pounded unforgiving off the concrete of Baghdad’s al-Hurriya square.
People prayed at midday before heading home. Life was slow -- too slow for the university professor, a Christian manning his late father’s stationery store and waiting for a government.
“Iraqis are abnormal,” he said, refusing to give his name.
Three months have passed since Iraqis voted for a government on March 7, and the failure to stitch together a coalition to fix some of what is broken in this shattered country, and hand out jobs to the loyal, is feeding frustration.
Trust in the politicians, many of them exiles who arrived with the U.S. tanks in 2003, is at rock bottom -- fertile ground for extremists who laid low for the election in hope of reward.
“They are interested in only two things, the bag and the chair. The bag they put their money in, the chair they don’t want to leave,” said Ahmed Mohammed Shandal, a 35-year-old hardware store owner with a Fu Manchu moustache and a picture of Shi‘ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr pinned to his cash register.
The election returned a narrow winner -- the cross-sectarian Iraqiya bloc of secular former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.
He won thanks to the votes of the Sunni minority, which expects to share government with the Shi‘ite majority empowered by the U.S. invasion that toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein.
In 2005, five months passed before a government was formed.
This time, Sunni-backed Iraqiya says it has the right to pursue a governing majority, with Allawi at the helm.
He risks being outmanoeuvred by the second and third-placed Shi‘ite blocs of incumbent Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and the firebrand anti-U.S. cleric Sadr, who is close to Iran.
They in turn are squabbling over who will be prime minister, with Maliki resisting demands from the Sadrists to step aside.
“Before Maliki came to power, no one knew him,” said the university professor’s brother, who also declined to be named. “Now it turns out he’s ‘al-Dharorah’,” he said, using an Arabic term once reserved for Saddam and meaning ‘the needed one’.
In his clothes shop, Abdullah al-Abdullah wiped the sweat from his bald head and apologised that there was no electricity to run the air-conditioning. There rarely is.
“They are all thieves,” he said. “We have nothing. No electricity, no water.”
The Supreme Court certified the election results on June 1 after a long recount and appeals process that changed nothing.
Parliament must convene by June 16, but it could still take months to form a government, well into the next phase of U.S. disentanglement when troop numbers will drop from just under 90,000 to 50,000 by Sept. 1.
Sunnis are unnerved at the prospect of being sidelined, having again voted in defiance of the insurgents who warned them not to. There is a fear too that Shi‘ite militias like Sadr’s Mehdi Army could re-emerge to stake their claim to power.
Iraq’s neighbours are vying to secure a friendly government in Baghdad, feeding a perception common among Iraqis since the British drew their borders that their destiny is decided by outside powers.
“It is up to Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Syria. They will decide how this government will be formed,” said Zuhair Salih, a jobless Shi‘ite in the southern oil hub of Basra.
Allawi has warned that any attempt to exclude his bloc from government could trigger renewed violence. On Saturday, a second Iraqiya candidate was gunned down in the restive northern city of Mosul, a killing the bloc said was clearly political.
The same day, Iraq’s military withdrew the right to carry weapons from 10,000 former Sunni insurgents who helped turn the tide of war by joining Iraqi and U.S. forces to fight al Qaeda.
In a Sunni barbershop in Baghdad, Saif Ghazi, an unemployed 25-year-old, had a warning for Shi‘ites thinking of sidelining the Sunnis: “Iraqiya will take the lead in forming the government whether the others accept it or not.”
The United States, he said, must support democracy by supporting Iraqiya. Otherwise, said Othman Salia, a Sunni in Basra, “the killings, the violence, the explosions will return”.
But the United States is due to leave completely by the end of 2011. Asked what will happen then, a Shi‘ite man in Baghdad, who asked not to be named, shot back: “Civil war.”
Meanwhile, Baghdad sweats without electricity, often without water, and without a government.
“The outlook is ominous,” Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group thinktank wrote last week. “Baghdad’s surface calm may therefore be deceptive.” (Additional reporting by Aref Mohammed in Basra; Writing by Matt Robinson; editing by Tim Pearce)