Baghdad's Political Clock

The US has tried to fix the Iraqi political process before General David Petraeus, US commander in Baghdad, and Ryan Crocker, US Ambassador to Iraq, deliver their much anticipated mid-September report to Congress.  Even though, according to Petraeus, “We are making progress” on the security front Iraq’s political process is floundering to near total collapse.  However, disappointment in the political process should not lead Iraq to be viewed as a failure but rather as a shift in Iraqi politics.  Baghdad needs time to find its own way ahead.

The US can’t solve Iraq’s political woes; rather,Iraq must be pushed to self-reliance — creating a unity government that serves all citizens equally and effectively — and the surge is buying time for that process.  Unfortunately, the US Congress is too anxious to abandon Baghdad.

Congress mandated in the Iraq Accountability Appropriations Act 2007 that the administration assess Iraq’s performance against 18 benchmarks and render a progress report next month.  Seven of those measures address security issues while the balance depend on political decisions which are tethered to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government which is widely criticized for being secretive, sectarian, a one-man rule and lacking any sense of urgency.  Mr. Crocker acknowledged that the public’s frustration with the government was “pretty striking.”

For weeks, US officials have worked feverishly to prop-up Maliki, offering advice and encouragement.   The Bush administration wants to keep Maliki’s government on life support fearing that our security gains could be set-back by any delay associated with forming a replacement government.   Furthermore, a government collapse before the September report could give Washington naysayers the last bit of ammunition they need to force the commencement of  US troop withdrawals regardless of the regional repercussions.

On August 16, after days of backroom negotiations and plenty of Washington coaxing, Maliki announced a new governing coalition which excludes the largest Shiite, Sunni and secular parties in Parliament.  "This is not the solution for Iraq’s problems," said Hachim al-Hassani, a secular Sunni lawmaker. "The solution for Iraq’s problems is for the real parties to get together and agree on an agenda to fix Iraq’s problems." 

Maliki avoided sticky Sunni-related problems by building a coalition between Iraq’s two Kurdish parties, his Dawa Party and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Party.  It’s expected that this political mix can quickly pass US-benchmark legislation, including law on sharing Iraq’s oil wealth and de-Ba’athification reform — reintegration of former Ba’athists who have not committed crimes.  Passing these laws may please the US Congress but excluding the largest parties especially the Sunnis will backfire because it ignores a widely understood motivation — sectarian fear. The Shia fear re-emergent Sunni power and the Sunnis fear Shia-sponsored genocide. 

Maliki’s fresh alliance predictably drew fire.  “America is asking them now to abandon their sectarianism, but they came to power depending on sectarian lists,” said Wamidh Nahmi, a Baghdad-based political scientist. 

In April, Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr pulled out of both Maliki’s cabinet and the Parliament.  “They are saying that this bloc is for moderates and nationalists,” said Haidar Fakhar Adin, one of Sadr’s parliament members, about the new coalition.  He continues, “Where are the moderates and nationalists who are ignoring whole sects, blocs and political parties?”

In desperation to balance Maliki’s new government, the US reached out to former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite, to encourage him to join the coalition hoping his presence would make the government less sectarian.  Allawi, who has ambitions to return to government, turned down the opportunity to serve complaining that Maliki was given suggestions for improvement earlier this year but never responded.

In contrast to the disappointing political news, the seven-month old security surge has provided measurable improvements in spite of last week’s grim backdrop of al Qaeda’s mass murder via four truck bombs in three Kurd Yazidis villages.   Those attacks were intended to portray Iraq as a security failure to the US Congress.

The surge results are impressive.  On Aug. 17, Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, commander for the Multinational Corps Iraq, outlined the results of Operation Phantom Thunder, which is a large scale offensive that began June 15th.  That operation has netted 6,702 detainees, killed 1,196 enemy and wounded another 419.  The operation captured or killed 382 high value individuals, found and cleared 1,113 arms caches, 2,299 improvised explosive devices and 52 vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices were neutralized.

The security news from Anbar province, formerly the center of the worst violence, is especially encouraging.  Only 74 security incidents were noted for the week ending August 8 — the lowest tally since records were started in January 2005, and significantly lower than the 450-500 weekly incidents registered last summer and fall.

Petraeus promises not to “sugarcoat things, or put lipstick on a pig” when reporting to Congress about conditions in Iraq.  He will make it clear that “Hard is not hopeless” and that the surge needs to continue because the wobbly Iraqi political process needs time to build self-reliance and find its own solutions. 

Ambassador Crocker warned, “Washington tends to focus more on the continuous violence, American casualties and the rising cost of its presence in Iraq.”  Like General Petreaus, the Ambassador reminded a media roundtable group on July 31 that “Iraq is currently in a very complex and difficult situation and that finding solutions to the country’s problems requires more time.”

The ambassador understands that Washington is looking for quick results in Iraq but the “get out now” view growing in Washington could have serious consequences.  For example, Iranian influence could grow to destabilize the entire region.  “The Iranians aren’t going anywhere,” reminds Crocker.  “I have significant concerns that a coalition withdrawal would lead to a major Iranian advance.”

Maybe western-style democracy is expecting too much for Iraq but something radically different and better from what it has experienced is still possible.  But Washington still operates on American time and Baghdad operates on Iraqi time. The greater the difference becomes, the lesser time remains for either nation to bring this to a successful conclusion.