After the Elections

By Zalmay Khalilzad
Thursday, December 15, 2005

Today is a historic day for Iraq. Iraqis of all sects and ethnic groups will participate in elections. Most significantly, the Sunni Arab community will participate in large numbers. More than 1,000 Sunni clerics have called on their followers to vote. A number of Sunni Arab political groups that boycotted the January elections are fielding candidates. Sunni Arab leaders have called on insurgents to cease their attacks, and some insurgent groups have said they will comply.

Today's elections will create a National Assembly that is far more representative than the current one. This in turn can help accelerate progress toward success in Iraq. Success will depend on improvements in establishing a broad-based and effective government; building stronger Iraqi security forces, and gaining the confidence of all Iraqi communities in their security institutions; winning over insurgents to the political process; increasing the capacity of the national and local government; instituting economic reforms and promoting private-sector development; and gaining more support from neighboring states for stabilizing Iraq.

Broad-based government. Before today, the priority was to engage the Sunni Arab community -- including the rejectionists -- and get it to buy into the political process. Now the focus shifts to forming a moderate, cross-ethnic, cross-sectarian coalition that can govern the country effectively. Many Iraqi political leaders have expressed a wish to form or participate in such a coalition. It will be important that the head of security ministries be trusted by all communities and not come from elements of the population that have militias. Equally important is that key ministers be selected not just for political considerations but also for competence. And the next government must put more emphasis on human rights.

We will work with the new ministers and implement a program of support to increase the capacity of key ministries. The new constitution delegates much authority to the provinces. To assist in this transition and improve the capacity of local governments, we are building up our presence in the provinces to work with local institutions. The goal here, as with the security sector, is to promote self-reliance.

To bring Iraqis together and consolidate their participation in the political process, the next National Assembly will have the opportunity to amend the constitution, with the goal of broadening support for the document and turning it into a national compact. The assembly also must review how de-Baathification has been carried out so far and outline a way forward that balances the requirements of justice with those of reconciliation.

These steps will create the needed conditions to achieve our goal of inducing Iraqi rejectionists and insurgents to abandon violence -- and thus isolate Saddamists and terrorists. Together with the next government, we will continue to expand our engagement with the Sunnis' leaders.

Confidence in security institutions. A key challenge facing Iraq is the need for greater confidence in the security institutions. Besides training Iraqi forces, the next government must continue to increase the credibility of those forces within Iraqi communities. This will require balanced representation of all communities in the security forces, an end to the kind of abuses that have recently been discovered in facilities operated by the Interior Ministry, and competent and widely trusted ministers heading security institutions.

Continued pressure on the terrorists who promote a civil war will also be required. Together with the Iraqis, we will conduct focused operations that will clear areas of terrorists; deploy capable Iraqi forces to hold them against enemy re-infiltration; and build up the local capacity for governance, reconstruction and economic development. We will need to provide logistics, intelligence and quick-reaction forces in support. In the coming year Iraqis will assume much more of the burden of action on the front lines and do so more effectively.

Economic opportunity. The United States will work with the new Iraqi government to better stimulate private-sector economic development in areas such as agriculture and to reduce subsidies -- with the ultimate goal of eliminating them while also creating a safety net for the least fortunate. As economic opportunity grows, the ranks of the unemployed -- some of whom engage in terrorism just to earn money to feed their families -- will start to contract. We will engage provincial and local authorities, who have the best sense of community needs, in designing and implementing development programs to further isolate extremists and promote job creation and improvement of essential services. We will encourage the new government to better engage regional states and others in Iraqi reconstruction and debt-forgiveness programs.

Enhanced diplomacy. Together with the new government, we will need to intensify diplomatic efforts to mobilize support for Iraq in the region and around the world. As part of the outreach campaign to Sunni Arabs in Iraq, the United States is taking advantage of advice and contacts from friends in Arab states and Turkey. The United States is also encouraging its friends to increase their contacts and economic ties with Iraq. This will have to intensify.

In addition, the United States and the new Iraqi government will need to put continued and, if necessary, increased pressure on Syria to prevent Saddamists and terrorists from operating on its territory.

Our strategy in Iraq is putting us on a path toward success, though many challenges lie ahead and much hard work remains to be done by Americans and Iraqis alike. But the benefits of success are worth the effort. Success in Iraq will advance American interests and values. It is a linchpin in the needed transformation of the broader Middle East, which is the defining challenge of our time.

The writer is the U.S. ambassador to Iraq.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company