US Foreign Policy
Commentary

The Challenge of Holding Iraq Together

in Program

By Amy Buenning Sturm – The new initiative to secure Baghdad, or as Ambassador Zhalilzad puts it, the “Battle for Baghdad,” is not the only problem facing Iraq.  While the debate about Iraq’s civil war continues, important hallmarks of the democracy experiment in Iraq are being largely ignored.  Where democratic processes do function, they seem to point to a central government that, while completely formed, is disconnected from the rest of the country, and struggling to find unity and common ground.  The difficulty the central government is having extending its influence outside of the Green Zone may be more dangerous to US interests in the long-term in Iraq than even the horrific violence.  The challenges currently facing US and Iraqi policymakers extend far beyond securing the country, and reveal an uncertain future for the government of Iraq.

Trouble in the Provinces

The government of Iraq is struggling to broker consensus, and to maintain legitimate authority in its increasingly independent provinces.  In Basra, where the security situation remains troubling, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki established the Emergency Security Committee to take command of security in the southern town, and to establish law and order outside the purview of militias.  On August 9th, however, the Local Council voted to cease cooperation with the Prime Minister’s representatives, and decided to send their own representative to Baghdad to address the security situation. Basra decided, democratically, that the Prime Minister did not know how to properly address their security issues, and voted to handle it in its own way.  That is certainly not something that would have occurred in Saddam’s Iraq, but it is also not necessarily a positive step towards a unified state.

Trouble at the Center

The one bright spot in Iraq’s political development was the emergence of a national unity government, composed of Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds.  The new permanent government in Iraq, however, seems to be heading towards a shake-up.  Member of Parliament Abdul Latif told Alwat Al Iraq on August 14th that at least three cabinet ministers in al-Maliki’s government are expected to change.  Simultaneously, Shiite and Kurdish parties are planning to oust Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, the Sunni speaker for the Iraqi Parliament, after the Parliament returns from recess in early September.  Mashhadani has been a controversial figure due to his comments on amnesty and regional governance.  While his party has indicated that they will not resist a call for his resignation, a Shia and Kurish initiative to oust a Sunni speaker of parliament has the potential to inflame the growing sectarian tension.  One of the chief complaints is that Mashhadani has been an outspoken critic of regional self-rule, which is generating increasing favor from Shia and Kurdish parties.  These expected cabinet and Parliamentary shifts indicate that the central government is not yet fully consolidated.  The lack of consensus on many issues may not be harmful to the emerging Iraqi government, but a leadership crisis could potentially impact the government’s effectiveness.

Iraq has also yet to begin the constitutional revision process, a promise made to the Sunni opposition in October 2005, in order to ensure a fully ratified constitution.  The United Iraqi Alliance is now suggesting postponement of the revision process, mandated in Article 142 of the Iraqi Constitution.  According to Hammam Hammoudi, the former chair of the Constitution Drafting Committee, “At present, we don’t want to instigate any political controversy among the parliamentarians as a result of the expected constitutional amendments.”  While opening the Pandora’s Box of the Constitution may be a recipe for political disaster for the struggling Iraqi government, avoiding the issue could reinforce the feeling of Sunni under representation within the government. 

The Good News?

On the security front, most parties agree that the government is trying hard.  The Maliki government has made it explicitly clear to Iraqis that its first priority is security.  In a July 2006, International Republican Institute (IRI) poll, 35% of Iraqis believed that the Maliki government will be most effective at providing security, while in contrast, fewer than 9% of citizens believed that the government would be effective in providing jobs, stimulating the economy, providing services, etc. 

The central government does seem to be asserting itself as mediator in a range of disputes.  In late August the General Conference of Iraqi Clans agreed on twenty-one recommendations to support the national reconciliation process in Iraq.  The conference, attended by Prime Minister Maliki, the Speaker of Parliament, and a number of key cabinet ministers, brought together over six hundred tribal leaders in Iraq to discuss the myriad of challenges facing the state.  The agreement includes specific provisions condemning sectarian violence, disbanding militias, etc., but, in practice, may be a ceremonial event that has little to no effect on policy outcomes.

The central government made progress, again in August, when it worked with the local government to successfully negotiate a cease fire in Diwaniyah between the Iraqi Army and the al-Mahdi militia.  It remains unclear, however, if they will be succeed in the stated goal of fully disbanding militias in Diwaniyah and elsewhere.  Twenty-four hours after the cease fire was negotiated by the central government, the Iraqi defense minister declared the agreement null and void, given its concessions to the militia, and demanded a full investigation and new security structure in Diwaniyah.

The story in Iraq is much more multi-faced and complex then merely a country whose security situation is steadily eroding.  Amidst the violence, towns and provinces are electing governments, making decisions, and forging ahead with daily life.  Within the government, cabinet disruptions and changeover could signal trouble ahead for the Iraqi government, or it could indicate a renewed commitment to the primacy of the central government in addressing Iraq’s growing problems.  This could result in a central government that manage to hold the country together, or that defaults to loosely associated federal states.  In either case, Iraqi officials may elect to pursue policies designed to distance themselves from their American partners, in order to preserve political independence and legitimacy in the eyes of the electorate in Iraq.

The United States should be prepared for the possibility that Iraq decides, democratically, that it does not want to be a unified state, or that it defaults to a weak federation of states.  While it may be promising for US interests that political activity is developing, the emerging democracy in Iraq may look as startling to Americans as the democratic election of Hamas.  Regardless of the path Iraq chooses, the US should also be prepared in the short-term for the fact that Iraq’s problems extend far beyond the security sphere, and must be addressed comprehensively, from a political, economic, and social perspective, in order for Iraq to stand any real chance of cohesion and stability.

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