Baghdad's Fissures and Mistrust Keep Political Goals Out of Reach

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, April 26, 2007

BAGHDAD, April 25 -- U.S. military commanders say a key goal of the ongoing security offensive is to buy time for Iraq's leaders to reach political benchmarks that can unite its fractured coalition government and persuade insurgents to stop fighting.

But in pressuring the Iraqis to speed up, U.S. officials are encountering a variety of hurdles: The parliament is riven by personality and sect, and some politicians are abandoning Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government. There is deep mistrust of U.S. intentions, especially among Shiites who see American efforts to bring Sunnis into the political process as an attempt to weaken the Shiites' grip on power.

Many Iraqi politicians view the U.S. pressure as bullying that reminds them they are under occupation. And the security offensive, bolstered by additional U.S. forces, has failed to stop the violence that is widening the sectarian divide.

"The Americans should take into consideration the Iraqi situation and its complications, not just their own internal politics," said Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish legislator.

Ten weeks into the security plan, even as U.S. lawmakers propose timelines for a U.S. troop withdrawal, there has been little or no progress in achieving three key political benchmarks set by the Bush administration: new laws governing the sharing of Iraq's oil resources and allowing many former members of the banned Baath Party to return to their jobs, and amendments to Iraq's constitution. As divisions widen, a bitter, prolonged legislative struggle is hindering prospects for political reconciliation.

"They are all up in the air," said Ahmed Chalabi, a secular Shiite who is chairman of Iraq's Supreme National Commission for De-Baathification. "They are certainly not going to be produced in any timetable that is acceptable within the context of the current political climate in the United States."

Other benchmarks such as provincial elections, a political agreement on dismantling militias and a program for reconciliation announced last July also have not moved forward, Iraqi officials said.

Iraqi politicians across the sectarian spectrum said their political process is being hijacked by American domestic politics. Pressured by congressional Democrats and growing antiwar sentiment at home, senior U.S. officials are growing impatient.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, visiting Iraq last week, declared that the "clock is ticking" for political progress. He urged Iraq's parliament not to take a scheduled two-month recess and to pass by the end of summer both an oil law and a proposal to reverse the de-Baathification law.

Even if compromises are reached on the three benchmarks, it is unlikely the final legislation will resemble anything close to the Bush administration's blueprint. Maliki's aides are already stressing that they cannot control how the divided 275-member parliament will react to the proposals.

"When the Americans give orders, people will be more against it," Othman said. "That's what the Americans don't understand."

Oil

In February, Iraq's cabinet passed a U.S.-backed draft law that would give the central government control over Iraq's oil reserves, the third largest in the world. President Bush and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a presidential contender, cited it as a sign of political progress.

But the legislation has yet to be introduced in parliament. Politicians from the semiautonomous Kurdish region say measures in the law that would take undeveloped oil fields away from regional governments and have a new national oil company oversee them are unconstitutional.

"Iraq, frankly, does not have the money to invest in oil fields," said Ashti Hawrami, the Kurdish region's minister of natural resources. He added that the Kurds are disputing four annexes to the draft law that would dilute their ability to exploit oil in their territory. If the draft isn't "watered down," Kurdish regional authorities will not support it, he said.

The Kurds also don't trust the central government to distribute oil revenue, saying it has been behind in payments in other instances. Some have suggested that a fund be set up outside Iraq to dole out that money. "We are asking for our fair share and guarantees that we will receive it," Hawrami said.

Sunni Arabs and some secular Shiite politicians, however, stand firm that the central government must control oil production and revenue distribution. "If we want to keep the unity of Iraq, the best way is to keep the oil under the authority of the central government," said Adnan Pachachi, a secular Sunni with the Iraqi National List party of former prime minister Ayad Allawi.

While some Kurds favor allowing agreements that would share production with foreign oil companies, many Sunnis and Shiites are against them on nationalistic grounds. They prefer service contracts in which Iraq would pay for work.

"The oil law needs time to pass in order to become an additional bond in the reconciliation process, and not cleave it," said Mustafa al-Hiti, a Sunni legislator. "If the Americans want national reconciliation, they should postpone this law, and don't force the government to pass it by the right time."

De-Baathification

For the first time in months, Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, a Sunni, saw hope for reconciling with his Shiite counterparts.

On March 26, then-U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and Maliki announced a proposal to allow thousands of additional former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party to rejoin the government or get pensions.

But less than 24 hours later, it quickly unraveled. Religious Shiites in Maliki's ruling coalition opposed key elements of the proposal. Now, at least three additional versions have surfaced, all diluted versions of the original proposal.

"We are suffering a political chaos," Hashimi said. "I thought when Maliki signed and gave his endorsement, he had done his homework and convinced his colleagues."

In the aftermath of the 2003 invasion, the U.S. occupation authority under L. Paul Bremer forced Baathists out of their government jobs and disbanded Hussein's army. Those actions are now widely seen as having fueled the Sunni Arab insurgency. Thousands of low-ranking Baathists have been allowed to return to their jobs, but not enough to satisfy Sunni leaders.

"Everyone agrees we need to reform de-Baathification," said Chalabi. "But there is a great sense the facts as perceived in Washington about de-Baathification are certainly not what they really are here."

The Khalilzad proposal, designed to bring minority Sunnis into the political process, would disband the de-Baathification commission and set a 90-day limit for Iraqi citizens to bring complaints in court against former Baathists.

Shiite politicians in Maliki's coalition said they would like to see those who suffered under Hussein's government compensated before former Baathists have their jobs and pensions restored.

"All of this may lead to the delaying of the law, or else producing a law not as good as Americans want it," said Haidar al-Abaidi of Maliki's Dawa party.

Many Shiites and Kurds are wary of allowing former Baathists back into national security-related jobs and worry that they could regain power. "This swift transition could create negative reaction toward the state," said Bassam Sharif, a legislator from the religious Shiite Fadhila party, which withdrew from Maliki's coalition in March. "If they had properly punished the Baathists, there would be more positive results."

Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the dominant Shiite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, described Baathists as "the first enemy of the Iraqi people." Disbanding the de-Baathification commission, he said, would be unconstitutional. "All those criminals, the Baathists, their trials should continue and it is necessary to fund the proper mechanisms to carry out their tasks," he said.

Sunni Arabs, said Hashimi, insist that the de-Baathification commission be ended within six months and that the courts provide a forum for falsely accused Baathists to demonstrate their innocence.

But Chalabi said Iraq's swamped legal system could not handle more cases to judge Baathists. "What does it mean? You make the Sunnis happy and make all the Shia unhappy. That's not reconciliation. It has to be agreed," he said.

"We have to turn a new page for Iraq. But they want to keep going," Hashimi said.

Constitutional Changes

In October 2005, Khalilzad brokered a deal with Hashimi and Sunni Arab leaders. In exchange for their participation in a referendum on Iraq's new constitution, the document would be amended to address Sunni concerns. But that has not happened, and Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds remain split over key issues: whether Iraq should be divided into autonomous regions under a federal system; the authorities of the prime minister and the president; the national identity of Iraq; and the fate of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

Fouad Masoun, a Kurdish legislator and deputy chairman of the parliament's constitution review committee, said: "There are some revisions which are necessary, but there are also demands by certain parties we reject, such as returning Iraq to a centralized government or reducing the powers of the Kurdistan region and other regions."

Sunnis, such as Hashimi, would like to weaken the powers of the prime minister, who in a democratic Iraq will almost certainly be a majority-Shiite.

"Right now, all the power is injected into one post in the government," Hashimi said. "We are, whether we like or not, now getting another dictatorship but under the umbrella of democracy. This is in no way acceptable."

Humam Hamoudi, the Shiite chairman of the constitution review committee, said it hoped to submit charter revisions to parliament by the middle of next month.

That's where the real fight will begin, Iraqi lawmakers say.

With the legislature polarized along sectarian lines, compromise is difficult. Last week, anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr pulled six of his ministers from the cabinet, but did not pull his 30 loyalists from the parliament. Bahaa al-Araji, a Sadrist legislator, said this would free the Sadr bloc to vote independently of Maliki and others.

They hold posts in the parliamentary legal and de-Baathification committees, and have influence over all three political benchmarks set by the Bush administration.

A constitutional amendment approved by parliament would face a referendum. Any three provinces can vote it down with a two-thirds majority.

The political benchmarks, Hamoudi said, are on track -- on an Iraqi timetable.

"We have a saying in Iraq. We say, 'Inshallah' " -- God willing. "We never say 'yes,' " he said. "And 'inshallah' has many interpretations."

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