Iraq's political space

Safa A Hussein
18 February 2008

In recent months, many American politicians and officials have criticised the Iraqi government for acting too slowly: that is, for failing to exploit the limited time available for the political reforms and national reconciliation needed to turn recent tactical security gains into strategic gains. Indeed, the reform and reconciliation process is slow, but it is unfair to blame the Baghdad government only. The real cause of the government's ineffectiveness is the current political system, which is fatally flawed.

Safa A Hussein works in the Iraqi National Security Council. He is a former deputy member of the dissolved Iraqi Governing Council, and earlier served as a brigadier-general in the Iraqi air force and as director of a research and development centre This article is a slightly amended version of one first published in BitterLemons.org

Also by Safa A Hussein in openDemocracy:

"Turkey's Kurdish tightrope: a view from Iraq" (5 November 2007)The political process following the regime change of April 2003 - administered by the Coalition Provisional Authority (until 30 June 2004) and then overseen by the United Nations through elections - created the conditions for Iraqis to identify with their sect/ethnicity rather than with the Iraqi nation through their respective provinces. The electoral process was based on closed national lists by means of which Iraqis naturally rallied to their sectarian/ethnic grouping. This system created a first generation of Iraqi politicians who played the sectarian/ethnic game to rally constituents. Politics became a destabilising scramble for sectarian/ethnic power at the national level.

When the violence in Iraq was accelerating in 2005, it was not difficult to see that a major cause was the resistance of the Arab Sunni to their loss of power and what they perceive as marginalisation in the new political system. Iraq's neighbouring countries and the United States exerted pressure on the Iraqi Shi'a government to fix the situation by making concessions on behalf of Sunni. The very nature of this process hardens the sectarian divisions that are at the heart of the dysfunction in the Iraqi state. Again, when prime minister Nouri al-Maliki was forming his government in 2006, the international community exerted heavy pressure to form the so-called government of national unity. It did not take long to realise that this is a crippled government that has further weakened the non-functioning political structure. By mid-2007 it was clear that the political process was in deadlock. Top-down politics is simply not working.

Among openDemocracy's many articles on Iraq's politics and conflicts:

Sami Zubaida, "The rise and fall of civil society in Iraq" (5 February 2003)

Peter Sluglett, "Iraq's short century: old problems, new perspectives" (3 June 2003)

Fred Halliday, "Looking back on Saddam Hussein" (7 January 2004)

Zaid Al-Ali, "The end of secularism in Iraq" (18 May 2005)

Zaid Al-Ali, "Iraq: a constitution or an epitaph?" (16 August 2005)

Sami Zubaida, "Democracy, Iraq and the middle east" (18 November 2005)

Reidar Visser, "Iraq's partition fantasy" (18 May 2006)

Zaid Al-Ali, "Iraq's war of elimination" (21 August 2006)

Sami Ramadani, "Iraq: not civil war, occupation" (7 December 2006)

Tareq Y Ismael, "The ghost of Saddam Hussein" (30 January 2007)

Zaid Al-Ali, "Iraqis in freefall" (21 March 2007)

Volker Perthes, "Iraq in 2012: four scenarios" (11 September 2007)

Charles Tripp, "Iraq: the politics of the local" (25 January 2008)

But mid-2007 also witnessed the emergence of a strategic opportunity that was created by two further significant developments. The first was the shift of the Sunni community against "al-Qaida in Iraq". This manifested itself in different forms; the most widely discussed is the so-called "tribal awakening movement" - a slogan for the tribal uprisings against al-Qaida in Iraq . The willingness of many Iraqi insurgent groups to engage in dialogue with the Iraqi government and the cooperation of many of them with that government and with American forces against al-Qaida in Iraq is an additional major indication of this shift (see Bing West, "A Report from Iraq", Atlantic Monthly, January 2008).

The second important development that created a strategic opportunity was the freezing of the military activities of the Mahdi army by its leader Muqtada al-Sadr (even if it is unclear whether this will be extended). The Mahdi army plays two roles: first, it protects the Shi'a community against Sunni insurgent attacks (and in the process fuelling the cycle of sectarian violence); second, al-Sadr followers compete (sometimes violently) with their Shi'a rivals, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (until 2007 the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq). The freezing of al-Sadr's militia has quieted both struggles (see "Iraq's Civil War, the Sadrists and the Surge", International Crisis Group, 7 February 2008).

These opportunities have permitted reconciliation at the local level. Dozens of tribal and notable "support councils" were established in volatile areas such as Baghdad itself; the districts north and south of the capital previously known as the "triangle of death" - Diala, Salah al-Din, al-Anbar; and, more recently, Mosul. A typical support council is a civic organisation established by influential locals, composed of all constituents of the area (usually tribal leaders and other notables). The Iraqi government sponsors and promotes these councils, which are given an important advisory role and in a few exceptional situations a security role. These councils play a valuable role in social and reconciliation activities, specifically in areas that have suffered sectarian violence. In many instances they are part of the tribal awakening movement. Many of these councils quickly become gardens where local leaders grow.

If these local reconciliation initiatives expand into national-reconciliation and political-reform projects, and if the local leaders turn into Iraq's second generation of national political leaders - then the result may be a major evolution in Iraqi politics in the form of some sort of a bottom-up political process (see Charles Tripp, "Iraq: the politics of the local", 25 January 2008). This may be the answer to Iraq's problems. It will encourage Iraqis to participate in politics through provincial identification, thus allowing them to cross ethnic and sectarian lines and facilitating national unity. Yet it may also bring new challenges, insofar as the speed and final outcome of this evolution are affected by the national election law, the provincial elections and the attitude of the existing political parties.

The previous national election law established a voting process that operated via closed lists of candidates. This arrangement suited parties that use religion and ethnicity to collect votes throughout Iraq. By its nature it creates sectarian and ethnic leaders who become part of the political problem. If this law is not changed, there will be little chance for local leaders to become national politicians. There are calls to change this election system and pass a new law, but will the major parties in parliament allow this?

The timing and conduct of the next provincial elections is another issue. A new law defining the ties between Baghdad and Iraq's regional authorities, and defining the powers held by the provinces, was passed on 13 February 2008. It contains a provision for provincial elections to be held by 1 October. At present, the major political blocs in parliament control the provincial councils and are not eager to conduct elections that will give a chance to newcomers; it is not clear yet whether this step will open the way to progress here (see "Iraq laws are progress, but not enough", Reuters, 18 February 2008).

The existing Sunni political parties have been critical of the new local leaders. They see them as a threat to their position as sole representatives of the Sunni and as competition for the support of neighbouring countries. The current mood and statements of senior Sunni politicians suggest that they want to contain these new local leaders. The possibility of a deeper split that cripples Iraq's nascent political process still exists.

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