March elections are another step toward normality in Iraq

By Ad Melkert
Sunday, February 28, 2010


This city with many faces jostling to define its future is my new home. From my desk at the head of the U.N. Assistance Mission in Iraq, it is striking how unreservedly foreign politicians, diplomats, think tanks and journalists offer their opinions or prescriptions on the future of this country. Yet Iraqis have a vivid sense of international interference over their long history. I am acutely aware that despite all the talk on how to "normalize" Iraq, our international prescriptions of "normalization" might not be what Iraqis are seeking.

The U.N. presence in Iraq represents a paradox. One the one hand, we reflect the global community's direct interest in Iraq's future. Yet to break with the past, we must transform international involvement from interference into engagement. Our engagement should facilitate and support Iraq to return to the community of nations on its own terms. This effort could be accelerated in three ways in particular.

-- First, by recognizing the political process. The efforts leading to parliamentary elections on March 7 deserve more credit. A big majority of Iraqi citizens and lawmakers has shown serious commitment to organize elections with an outcome acceptable to the people and the constitution. Hurdles have been overcome, including voting in Kirkuk, and Iraqis abroad having gotten their say. The constitutional requirement that allegiance to the Baath spirit precludes holding public office has been a more difficult hurdle. Yes, this stipulation could be used to settle political scores, but foreign observers should be cautious about trying to understand the new balance of forces in strictly black-and-white terms. The bottom line is that about 6,000 candidates and a considerable number of serious alternative coalitions and parties are likely to compete for the votes of the people -- people who until five years ago were unable to decide their governance.

-- Second, by figuring out to share oil revenue to ensure stability. This cannot and should not be driven by foreign agendas, no matter the lure of oil. Since 1922, exactly that temptation is what has shaped Iraq, to the detriment of stable coexistence arrangements among Iraqis that will last only if they are not externally imposed. International engagement should take the form of facilitating common agendas and agreements, including supporting security arrangements. It is important to make this happen in conjunction with the withdrawal of U.S. forces without seeing that drawdown as the only yardstick of progress. It is vital for Arabs and Kurds to agree on the future of their relations within the federal state of Iraq, including the sharing of oil revenue and the delineation of territorial and administrative responsibilities. The objective of international engagement should be to back up Iraqi actions, not prescribe outcomes on this front.

-- Third, by garnering international commitment to support Iraq's return to normal business. Various Security Council resolutions dating to the Persian Gulf War keep Iraq under U.N. supervision, and there are diplomatic obstacles to be overcome. Understandably, Iraqis do not consider this fair or relevant. It is also understandable that neighboring Kuwait seeks reaffirmation by Baghdad of the existing borders. But economic agreements betweeen the two are critical, and acceleration of international engagement is possible.

Will this be the year of normalization for Iraq? After three decades of wars, sanctions and dictatorship, the shape of a new era is visible from where I sit. With ups and downs, pluralism is becoming embedded in daily political life. Serious efforts are underway in Baghdad and Irbil to improve governance. Oil production contracts provide solid potential for revenue management and state building. Iraqi forces, despite disturbing lapses, are making progress in taking control of domestic security. Political debate is vibrant, the media landscape quite diverse, and an election law was agreed upon after a process that, while protracted, provided evidence of the ability to bridge differences.

Security threats are real, including the targeting of political candidates and election organizers. But it is unlikely that such risks could derail the process. The back and forth on the exclusion of candidates with ties to Saddam Hussein or the Baathists is of concern but also inevitable in this nation's transition from dictatorship to a new politics -- not unlike that of post-communist Eastern Europe. And despite setbacks, a sense of normalization is in the air.

Formidable obstacles, including social disparities and the reconciliation "gap," remain sources of instability. But these cannot be good reasons to continue to perceive Iraq as if it would still need some form of "supervision." Letting the people of Iraq make their own decisions requires a change of mind and habit of many regional and international stakeholders. All stand to gain if we take the right course.

The writer is the special representative of the U.N. secretary general to Iraq and head of the U.N. mission in Baghdad.

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