Bigger Hurdles for U.S. In Iraq's Next Phase

By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 18, 2005

Iraq's election may be over, but for the United States the trickiest challenges -- and the issues most critical to a timetable for U.S. withdrawal -- are still to unfold over the next nine or 10 months, according to U.S. officials and Middle East analysts.

Iraqis have elected a government but still have to prove that they can rule. Two Iraqi interim governments over the past 18 months left a trail of political bitterness, rampant corruption and chronic inefficiency, with militias playing a growing role as instruments of political coercion, Iraq experts say.

Whoever the winners turn out to be in last week's election, they will still rely heavily on the United States as a broker next year-- in helping to form a government, rewrite the constitution, build up the army and police, jump-start the floundering economy and prevent a civil war, Bush administration officials acknowledge. Iraqis are too divided to do many of these tasks alone, experts add.

In his first address from the Oval Office since announcing the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, President Bush is expected tonight to outline the next year's challenges in Iraq and the role the United States will play, U.S. officials said.

The administration has worked out a rough timetable for 2006, with estimates that a new government will not be formed until late January or February -- at the earliest. It took the Shiite and Kurdish winners of the Jan. 30 election three months to form a government. This time, the Sunnis will also vie for position, with their political survival at stake, so U.S. officials say it could take just as long.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and Gen. George Casey, the U.S. commander in Iraq, have already begun prodding the parties about the need to move quickly and not lose the momentum.

But the next phase is not expected to be complete until the fall, by which time officials hope Iraq's new leaders can agree on, then put to a popular vote, amendments to the constitution. The period leading to that vote could prove as combustible as this year's politics, U.S. officials and analysts say. And it still may not produce a strong government.

"Iraq has performed miracles in going from destroyed ministry buildings and staff not showing up for work to creating a government. But it is still a fragile society that lacks skilled decision makers and political consensus, so it won't have a fully functioning government anytime soon," said Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute of Near East Policy.

The toughest job facing U.S. officials comes after the new government takes office, when the Council of Representatives, the renamed National Assembly, reopens debate on the constitution. Iraqis will have four months of constitutional negotiations to finally answer the contentious issue of how to apportion power and allocate oil riches in a federal state. Only U.S. intervention prevented a breakdown in constitutional talks in the fall; a U.S.-brokered compromise deferred the toughest issues until after the election Thursday.

Expected to play out over the spring and summer, this post-election phase could be the most delicate yet for Iraq's new leaders. "If they succeed in creating an inclusive structure in virtually any peaceful form, Iraq succeeds. If they fail, the [U.S.-led] coalition fails almost regardless of its military success and that of the new Iraqi forces, and Iraq will move towards division, paralysis, civil conflict and/or a new strongman," said Anthony Cordesman, a Persian Gulf expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Sunnis, who are only 20 percent of Iraq's population of 25 million, want a strong central state to protect them and provide more equitable revenue sharing; powerful Shiite and Kurdish leaders want their own regions in a loosely confederated country.

During this period, U.S. diplomats in Baghdad will reach out to Sunni groups to help assuage fears of being marginalized, U.S. officials say. But getting other Iraqi factions to meet their demands will be difficult, Iraq experts warn.

The Sunni turnout Thursday did not mean the minority, which historically ruled Iraq, has fully rejoined the political process, said Wayne White, head of the State Department's Iraq intelligence team from 2003 to 2005 and now a Middle East Institute adjunct scholar. Most Sunnis voted in the October constitutional referendum to reject it. They voted again in Thursday's election largely to ensure major changes and "get back the rights that they perceive as being lost," White added.

Constitutional amendments need two-thirds support from the legislature. "The Shia and Kurds agreed to discuss the constitution again but the Sunnis, even if they double in number, will easily be voted down. In the end they can only be spoilers by blowing things up," said Juan Cole, an Iraq expert at the University of Michigan.

The danger of political disputes erupting between parties -- many with their own militias -- makes the post-election period the most vulnerable to date, says a new report by Lawrence Korb and Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress. The State Department, which is now in charge of U.S. Iraq policy, is increasingly focused on the question of militias.

"If Iraq falls into civil war, it will be because of militias," said Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy. "The insurgency then becomes a secondary problem."

In blunt language after talks at the White House, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) warned Friday that Iraq has no hope of stability as long as the militias exist. "You cannot have a democracy where you have political parties with armies," said Graham.

If a new government does produce constitutional changes, the popular vote on them may not take place until September. A senior administration official cautioned Friday that "there is still a lot of wiggle room in all of this."

The complicated process -- with checks and balances among Shiites, Kurds and Sunnis for forming a government and then revising the constitution -- is intentional. "In a country with serious divisions, these are mechanisms to ensure that no one rides roughshod over others. It's more time-consuming although at the end of the day it is about consensus-building in a conflict environment," the official said.

Even as it debates the country's laws, Iraq's government will need to produce improvements in daily life, which the two interim governments failed to do -- and which will require major ongoing U.S. assistance, officials and experts say. "What we have not paid attention to is the enormous corruption in the ministries and the fact they don't have the personnel or capability to do much," Pollack said.

For all that was achieved in Iraq's vote, some experts say the United States still has a lot of unfinished business. "If you look at what the administration wanted to accomplish, we're only 20 percent of the way there," said Henri Barkey, a former State Department policy planner now at Lehigh University.

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