The underlying tendency to peer at Iraq through the ethno-sectarian lens remains.
Crisis or not, Iraq will survive
Safa A. Hussein
In spite of July temperatures in Baghdad that exceed 50 centigrade and are exacerbated by a severe lack of electricity, the daily topic of conversation among Iraqis is still the formation of the government and related issues. The controversial outcome of the 2010 Iraqi national elections and the ongoing slow government formation process--what some call a political crisis--have been dominating the headlines since the March 7 election day.
July 14 was the constitutional deadline for parliament to convene and elect its leaders. This did not happen. The political blocs preferred to delay the meeting for two weeks, during which they hope to reach a deal on a package that includes the three top government positions: prime minister, president of the republic and speaker of the parliament. By doing this, they violated the constitution. But on the other hand, convening parliament without prior agreement on the aforementioned package would not be productive because no political party has close to the 163 seats that form the simple majority required to get any of these positions.
Many people blame the political parties for the delay, accusing them of preferring their own interests to those of the nation. Almost every party accuses others of favoring the positions and interests of some of the regional countries and thus blames them for the failure of the negotiations thus far. Although there is some truth in these accusations, there are also other, more complicated and more profound factors.
Iraq is undergoing fast and deep social, political and economic change. There is competition over the distribution or re-distribution of power among political entities: a struggle between the pre-2003 and post-2003 power holders, and competition among diverse post-2003 parties themselves. There are fears of losing power or of the abuse of power by others, and concern over the distribution of power and wealth among the central government, the Kurdistan region and the provinces, the disposition of disputed areas with the Kurds and relations with neighboring countries.
These struggles are often colored by sect and ethnic divides, and further complicated by a politics of fear that is driven by Iraq's political history of oppression and cruelty, making compromise more difficult. The good thing, however, is that so far all the political parties are referring to the constitution and the courts in their disputes and not falling back on violence.
Given these complexities, there is no quick fix. Perhaps a new government will be formed in the next two months, but even then it will need another three or four months to begin functioning. The ministers will be from different parties with different interests and views and could lack experience. Moreover, the new government will face a tough agenda. At the top of the list are security and the US withdrawal from Iraq.
Both Iraqis and Americans agree that American forces will withdraw as determined by the security agreement between the two countries. By the end of August this year, combat forces will complete their withdrawal, leaving some 50,000 troops for non-combat missions, who will remain until 2011. In fact, the withdrawal operation of American combat forces has been ongoing for months. It meets Iraqi concerns about sovereignty, enhances the legitimacy of the Iraqi government and creates the right climate for Iraq to engage neighbors who assist militant groups. More importantly, it denies militant groups the capacity to exploit the occupation for self-promotion, thus isolating them from the public and providing the Iraqi government with a great advantage in its counter-insurgency efforts.
In addition, the improvement in Iraqi Security Forces capabilities is very real. Their daily activities demonstrate growing success in combat despite the 2009 budget crisis and the recent stagnation in the political process. The probability of a renewed insurgency is low: the ISF is too strong for the fragmented insurgents and Iraqis are too tired of war to support them.
Nonetheless, Iraq will require continued aid, particularly from the US, to develop its security forces to the point where they can effectively meet the internal and external security challenges that face the country. And Iraq needs civilian assistance. The Strategic Framework Agreement can be the outline for cementing an Iraq-US partnership that can profoundly alter relations between the West and Iraq and the region. After decades of brutal and oppressive tyranny and years of destructive conflict, the bottom line is that Iraq will survive this political crisis--one that we can alternatively term an alarmingly slow political process--and that it still has a chance to emerge as a stable, prosperous and leading country in the region.- Published 22/7/2010 © bitterlemons-international.org
Safa A. Hussein is a former deputy member of the dissolved Iraqi Governing Council. He served as a brigadier general in the Iraqi Air Force. Currently he works in the Iraqi National Security Council.
A local dilemma or US design?
Saad N. Jawad
The former US ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, recently described the Iraqi elections and their aftermath as "high drama and low comedy". It is the perfect description, yet he should have added that this was a natural outcome of the occupation, Iraq's vague and divisive constitution, US insistence on standing by the corrupt and failing people who came in with the US forces after the invasion, and the sectarian-quota policy.
More than four months have now passed since the elections and Iraq remains without a government, with the parliament not convened properly to nominate a president, prime minister or head of parliament. The High Federal Court, which was supposed to be professional and unbiased, only complicated the matter further by not handing down a decisive ruling about who could be nominated as prime minister according to the election results.
This, however, was due to the ambiguity inherent in Iraq's US-drafted constitution. In every normal democracy, the head of the list or party that secures the majority of seats in parliament would be given the right to try and form a government. If that fails, the opportunity would then be handed to the head of the second-largest list or party. The Federal Court, however, ruled that the right to form a government belongs to the biggest coalition in parliament, i.e., it disregarded the results of the elections to allow different lists to establish majority coalitions.
Iraq is thus still ruled by a prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, whose term in office should have expired the moment election results were officially declared. Maliki, however, is very keen to remain in office, and is helped by a similar desire on the part of the present president, Jalal Talabani, who is supported by Massoud Barzani's Kurdish Democratic Party. While members of his own Shi'ite coalition oppose Maliki's ambition, Talabani faces opposition from some Arab and Kurdish lists who claim he has failed in performing his duties. Talabani responded by suggesting a new vote, which further antagonized his opponents. The crisis, indeed, is self-perpetuating.
This situation has resulted in an exacerbation of the chaotic situation in Iraq, and has opened the door wide for foreign and outside actors to interfere. Thus, on top of the violence that has started to engulf major Iraqi cities, the persistent lack of services, especially electricity, and the differences that appeared among the different lists and within each one, the situation has carved out an increasing role for the US as well as neighboring and regional powers.
Up to this moment there are no indications that the government crisis will be resolved soon. While Washington appears to prefer Iyad Allawi, the US is mostly just interested in seeing a government established no matter who forms it, since it can rest assured that all candidates will remain obedient. The US ensured that Maliki's outgoing government signed all agreements that were of US interest, particularly on security and oil. Yet the US generals in Iraq are also looking for loopholes in order to extend the presence of the US military in the country, as they very well know that any pullout will leave Iran in total control of Iraq at a time when the US and Israel have yet to resolve their positions regarding growing Iranian regional influence.
For their part, the Iranians favor Maliki, whom they feel they could influence more, not least since his coalition includes a number of people who hold dual Iraqi-Iranian citizenship.
Saudi Arabia favors Allawi as he is less inclined to tolerate a huge Iranian influence and his coalition includes the main Sunni parties and personalities. It seems that Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt all agree with the Saudi stance and are making this very clear. In fact, Syria went a step further by trying to minimize differences between Allawi and Muqtada al-Sadr's faction, the Sadr Movement.
The Sadrists, who alone have 40 seats in parliament and constitute the biggest single grouping there, have previously objected to both Maliki and Allawi. It was said last week that Tehran managed to make Sadr, who lives in Iran, soften his opposition to Maliki and that he signed an agreement with Maliki's representatives under the auspices of Iranian officials. However, Syria has also succeeded in arranging a direct meeting between Sadr and Allawi in Damascus. What was more interesting was the visit of Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, to Damascus and his meetings, separately, with both Allawi and Sadr. In the meantime, it was also announced that Sadr was going to Saudi Arabia. Whether Sadr is trying to pressure Maliki for more concessions, or Syria is trying to assure Tehran that Allawi will not be hostile to its influence, nobody knows.
In all of this, it is extremely difficult for any analyst to predict who will form the next government. In any civilized society, the problem would have long been solved with a coalition government. In Iraq, leaders from all lists are adamantly opposed to the idea of power-sharing. Some cynical analysts intimate that the current situation was exactly what the US (and Israel) wanted or what Washington had in mind when it drafted the constitution. The current Iraqi divisions keep the country weak and at the mercy of the US and allow the latter to continue playing the part of the balancing power in order to perpetuate its presence.
The fact remains, however, that whoever manages to form the new government, Iraqis are surely going to suffer through four more years of weak and indecisive government. For this they have only themselves to blame. They were the ones who made the same mistake twice by electing ill-efficient, corrupt and sectarian representatives.- Published 22/7/2010 © bitterlemons-international.org
Saad N. Jawad is a professor of political science at Baghdad University.
A bad omen
Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi
In June of 2004, I was invited for a dinner at a restaurant near an airport here in the Gulf. I recall seeing a group of bodyguards dressed in traditional Gulf attire entering the restaurant. Before I knew it, we were sitting next to a table whose guest of honor was Iyad Allawi, the newly appointed prime minister of Iraq, who was hosted by the foreign minister of that Gulf country. I witnessed how genuine and warm their relationship seemed to be. They were exchanging laughs as though they were two old friends, catching up after a prolonged absence.
Allawi's premiership lasted for under a year, but he re-emerged in the autumn of 2009 as a serious contender for that position once again in the spring 2010 elections. Months later, Iraq is still at a political impasse. Today, many of Allawi's supporters feel that their vote was stolen. Some Iraqis and Arabs believe that the same political forces responsible for denying the Iranian people a genuine election last summer played a role.
Allawi, a secular Shi'ite politician, became a symbol for those disenfranchised Iraqis who voted for his party, many of them from the Sunni Arab minority, as well as of regional Arab governments that saw in him a chance to restore balance after years of Iranian influence over internal Iraqi politics under the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. For others, Allawi simply represents the lesser of two evils.
By now, Gulf governments feel extremely insecure about US President Barack Obama's troop withdrawal plans this summer and next. Today more than ever, the plan seems premature, given that the current impasse hasn't deteriorated further only due to American involvement.
The Arab Gulf states have mostly sat on the sidelines since the 2003 war. Even Qatar, diplomatically the most active state in the Gulf, has been conspicuous by its absence from the Iraqi arena. Indeed, the peninsular emirate has recently successfully mediated similar situations in Sudan, Yemen and Lebanon--the latter crisis ending with the formation of a Lebanese government last November after five months of heavy-handed negotiations.
Unlike Iran, the policy of some Gulf governments seems to be quiet behind-the-scenes backing of Iraqi politicians. Some countries, including the United Arab Emirates, have expanded commercial relations, while others, including Bahrain, have facilitated travel for their Shi'ite citizens to perform the pilgrimage to Najaf. Although the Gulf States understandably want to steer clear of meddling in Iraq's internal politics, the arena is now wide open for other players to support their candidates.
Tehran, for instance, is known to invite groups of Iraqi politicians for consultations. The relationship between the current Iraqi and Iranian governments reminds me of a car used in driving instruction. The person behind the wheel (Iraq) looks to the outside world as though they are in full control of the vehicle. Yet the instructor (Iran) is sitting, foot on the brake pedal, poised to stop any forward movement at will.
Maliki has displayed tendencies usually associated with dictators of republics in the Arab world. Even before his refusal to give up power, Maliki is said to have appointed senior military and intelligence officials without the parliamentary approval process that one would normally associate with a democracy. Prior to the Iraqi elections, the Times of London reported that Maliki had taken a series of measures to consolidate even more power in his hands.
Maliki's lack of popularity in the Gulf is an open secret. Unlike the popular Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and a host of other Iraqi politicians, he has never been invited to Riyadh. Last November Maliki, confusing person with state, declared on his website that "all the signals confirm that the Saudi position is negative regarding Iraqi affairs", adding, "we have used up [all] initiatives from our side".
Whatever government emerges next will be working on a tight schedule. It may not have the luxury of publicly announcing its disagreement with a heavyweight power in the region. It is also unlikely that President Obama will risk withdrawing his troops if in so doing he leaves behind a government headed by someone who enjoys better relations with Tehran than with Riyadh. Regardless of the identity of its head, the next Iraqi government must take into consideration that two major parties won a similar number of seats and that both their representatives should be included.
What Arab Gulf governments and citizens, Sunnis and Shi'ites alike, want is for an independent Iraq to emerge within the framework of its Arab sister states, yet without negating the importance of having strong political, economic and cultural relations with its non-Arab neighbors. Until this issue is resolved, the continuing political impasse remains a bad omen.- Published 22/7/2010 © bitterlemons-international.org
Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi is a non-resident fellow at the Dubai School of Government.
Ethno-sectarian approach likely to have lasting repercussions
Which American has done the most harm to Iraq in the twenty-first century? The competition is stiff, with George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and L. Paul Bremer, among others, to choose from. But, given his game efforts to grab the spotlight, it seems churlish not to state the case for Vice President Joe Biden.
As he rarely failed to mention while a presidential candidate, Biden traveled to Iraq seven times between the 2003 invasion and the 2008 primaries. He has made several more trips as number two in the Obama White House, most recently over the July 4 weekend to "reaffirm" the US commitment to Iraq amid the throes of forming a new government. As evidenced by the frequent flying to Baghdad, Biden is point man for Iraq in the administration, a job he seems to have been given as part of the president's surrender of foreign policy to his campaign rivals, chiefly Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The drafting of Biden was intended to lend foreign policy heft to the young Barack Obama's candidacy; Biden was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and his many fans in the mainstream press reliably cheer his "seriousness" about international issues as compared to other Democrats. This reputation is bizarre, given his actual record. Indeed, the outsourcing of Iraq policy to Biden shows what a low priority it is for the White House, which is primarily concerned to bolster the narrative that, come September 1, the US war in Iraq will be over. Faced with challenges to that storyline, such as the wrangling over a new Iraqi government, the White House really has no idea what to do. Its fallback position is to plead that the government be "representative", a fine concept that cloaks the deepest flaw in the US view of Iraqi politics.
Biden stumped for president as a critic of the Iraq war, a persona he invented on the fly, as it were, because public opinion on the mission unaccomplished was souring. In 2002, he voted for Bush's authorization of force resolution, calling Saddam Hussein "an inevitable threat" to global security.
But he will be remembered for the "Biden plan" that he developed later, with advice from the disgraced former UN official Peter Galbraith, recommending that Washington encourage the devolution of the Iraqi state into three autonomous federal regions, one "Sunni", one "Shi'ite" and one "Kurdish". This cockamamie idea, all the more inexplicable coming from a senator who boasted of his multiple visits to Iraq, both drew upon and fed the fiction that Iraq is uniquely artificial among the nation-states of the world.
Americans had already been conditioned by countless CNN graphics to view Iraq as three countries rather than one, each of "the Sunnis", "the Shi'ites" and "the Kurds" living in homogeneous areas separated by imaginary straight lines on the map. Bremer, prodded by the twin Kurdish parties and sectarian Shi'ite Islamists, superimposed this map upon the real Iraq when he insisted in 2003 that his Iraqi Governing Council be composed of "representatives" of each of the various ethno-sectarian communities. Ever since, when the US applies the term "representative" to Iraq, this de facto quota system is what they mean.
Biden's twist was to suggest that the imaginary lines be drawn administratively. Of course, he forgot all about his plan once he signed up on the Obama ticket and there is no danger that the White House will resurrect it. But the underlying tendency to peer at Iraq through the ethno-sectarian lens remains: Tony Blinken and Puneet Talwar, two top Biden advisers from his Senate days, head up the Iraq policy team on Obama's National Security Council. On the July 4 trip, the vice president was reportedly disturbed that the Iraqis haggling over the new cabinet were not reserving the presidency for a "Sunni".
The Iraqis rebuffed him, and it is tempting to conclude that the continued fixation on ethno-sectarian representativeness renders US interventions ineffectual and--therefore--harmless. "Quota" and "muhasasa", Arabic for "allotment" by communal identity, are dirty words in Iraq, where (outside of Kurdistan) most politicians prefer to appeal to national unity. And of course, Biden's silly conceits have not done as much damage to Iraq as the attack-Iraq chorus conducted by Cheney and Wolfowitz, the invasion ordered by Bush and the occupation bungled by Bremer.
Once the notion of muhasasa was planted, however, it sank roots. Whole cadres of communal party members and their relatives have been ensconced in ministries and, underneath the rhetoric of national unity, the competing lists in the 2010 parliamentary elections were clearly composed along ethno-sectarian lines. The Iraqis in power, moreover, wish to please the Americans even as they must appear to be bucking them. Perhaps the jet-setting Joe Biden will remind future historians that imperial interventions shape the politics of vanquished realms long after the emperor has lost his luggage, if not yet his clothes.- Published 22/7/2010 © bitterlemons-international.org
Chris Toensing is editor of Middle East Report, published by the Middle East Research and Information Project in Washington, DC.