After Iraq's election, the real fight

By Meghan O'Sullivan
Sunday, March 7, 2010; B01

I still remember shuttling all night between my office at the National Security Council and the State Department's Election Watch Task Force. It was Jan. 30, 2005, Iraq was holding its first meaningful elections in decades, and I was supposed to brief President George W. Bush in a few hours. When morning came, I made my way to the library in his residence and described to the president how our early anxieties in watching then-Iraqi President Ghazi Yawar cast his ballot in an eerily empty Baghdad polling booth had transformed into exhilaration as more and more Iraqis poured onto the streets and into the voting stations.

The exhilaration soon gave way to exasperation. Few of us had anticipated how protracted and fractious the post-election process of forming an Iraqi government would be. With both that vote and the one that followed in December of that year, an immediate lull in violence gave way to intense wrangling between and within parties over the nature and composition of the government. In 2006, the political vacuum produced a security vacuum, and when the new government was sworn in, it faced a situation that was significantly more violent and volatile than before.

Iraq is on much sounder footing today than it was in 2005 or 2006. Yet once again, after Sunday's parliamentary elections, the country is probably in store for long negotiations over who will share power in the new government -- a battle that could strain Iraq's fledgling political institutions and complicate the planned drawdown of U.S. forces. Although forming a government is an Iraqi affair, the United States has clear interests in the character of that government. It will preside over the withdrawal of U.S. forces by the end of 2011 and determine the nature of the bilateral relationship in the years ahead. And, for better or worse, the new government may have to navigate Iraq's role in a possible confrontation between the international community and its neighbor Iran.

There are several reasons that the process of forming a government is likely to be prolonged. The first is a positive development: the changing nature of Iraq's political parties. The once-dominant Shiite and Kurdish parties have fractured, and even Iraqis who prefer to vote for a party matching their sectarian or ethnic affiliation will have real choices on the ballot. This new fluidity bodes well for the emergence of non-sectarian politics, and it suggests that Sunday's vote will be split by a number of parties, all of which will want the chance to put forward the prime minister.

A second and more troubling factor is likely confusion over the rules Iraqis must use to form their new government. As a political adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, I helped Iraqi leaders as they wrote their interim constitution in 2004, and I was struck by how vehemently they opposed the notion of designating particular jobs for members of particular sectarian or ethnic communities. Instead, in that document and in the permanent constitution, they created "transitional provisions" mandating that a three-person presidency council be elected by a two-thirds vote in parliament. This arrangement provided leverage to minorities and led to more moderate leaders. In practice, the presidency council and prime minister were put forward as a package -- the result of complicated negotiations involving multiple political parties. These complex provisions were the Iraqis' way of ensuring that all major groups were represented, without explicitly saddling the constitution with sectarian and ethnic politics.

However, the constitution stipulates that these transitional provisions lapse with this weekend's vote, meaning that the next government will be formed with a single president, effectively requiring only a majority vote. In theory, this should make it easier to build the next government more quickly. In reality, there is no consensus among Iraqi politicians that the old provisions are no longer needed. Minority groups may be uncomfortable allowing the majority to govern without the constitutional imperative to accommodate others.

How Iraq may handle such divergent views is unclear. Iraqis have a history of distinguishing between "legal requirements" and "political requirements." My colleagues in Baghdad and I were frustrated when, at the end of 2008, a major debate broke out among the Iraqis about how many votes were needed to pass the status-of-forces agreement between Washington and Baghdad in parliament. The constitution was clear that a simple majority sufficed, yet many leaders believed that a much higher threshold was politically necessary. Then, as now, ambiguous rules create misunderstandings as well as openings for spoilers and meddling from Iraq's neighbors.

Iraqis have demonstrated an ingenious ability to resolve sticky political issues. I have no doubt that an investigation of scraps of paper tucked into suit pockets, scribblings in notebooks and records of late-night diwans would reveal the intense calculations and courtships already underway among Iraq's political parties. The election results are just the final piece of this high-stakes matchmaking game.

During the Bush administration, we wrote dozens upon dozens of memos updating the president about the negotiations in forming the Iraqi governments in 2005 and 2006, identifying core American interests and proposing options for possible U.S. engagement. I imagine that President Obama's team is doing much the same now. And although Iraq is fully sovereign today and its political and security landscape is dramatically different, Washington still faces delicate questions about how to conduct itself in the critical window ahead.

Given sensitivity to U.S. interference, some will advocate a "hands off" approach. This is much more difficult than it sounds. We attempted it when the Iraqis formed their government in 2005 and found that some Iraqis tried to use the American position as leverage against their opponents. Any U.S. gesture or comment can be misinterpreted and brought to bear on internal negotiations. (Recently, comments by top U.S. officials about Iranian influence on Ahmed Chalabi were twisted to justify the withdrawal, temporarily, of a key Sunni Arab party from Sunday's elections.)

Apart from the difficulties of a hands-off approach, U.S. interests in the character of the Iraqi government warrant some engagement -- but what kind, and to what extent?

As a first rule of thumb, the United States should not try to advance or derail particular individuals. The prolonged stalemate over government formation in 2006 occurred at least in part because the candidacy of Shiite leader Ibrahim al-Jafari for prime minister became a proxy war between the United States and Iran. I was not the only U.S. official to sit in Iraqi living rooms and argue that his candidacy was stalled because he could not muster the broad support effectively required by the Iraqi constitution. However right our legal arguments, Iraqis perceived our efforts as a U.S. veto on Jafari.

The United States should also decide where it stands on a possible government of "national unity" -- one that would go beyond Iraq's constitutional requirements to include all of Iraq's major groups and parties in the cabinet. Washington argued strongly for such inclusive governments in the past. Hundreds of cups of tea were sipped as U.S. officials and diplomats made the case to Iraqis that in order to reduce violence, there must be some evidence that the Sunni minority could wield political influence. Many Iraqi leaders saw the situation similarly, and the government approved by parliament in 2006 was one of national unity by almost any standard.

But Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other Iraqi politicians believe that the time for such governments has passed; electoral victors should govern, and losers should form the opposition. In all likelihood, aspiring prime ministers will find good reasons to include some ministers from all sectarian and ethnic backgrounds, but it is feasible that a government could be formed between Shiite and Kurdish parties alone, without Sunni representation. Although I believe Iraq no longer needs a "national unity" government formally bringing in all parties and groups, as long as identity politics are paramount, the government should be broadly national in character. Iraqi politics are still fragile enough that complete political exclusion of any community could fuel violence.

It is fashionable to argue that the United States has no influence in Iraq anymore. But the reality is more subtle. Certainly, U.S. financial leverage dissipated years ago, when Iraq's oil revenues skyrocketed; similarly, U.S. military leverage was always hard to use, because threats of withdrawal were credible only in extreme circumstances.

Yet, although Washington is less central than in the past, it remains influential. The United States is the only party respected, if grudgingly, by nearly all sides. No other entity has the same power to convene in Iraq -- not Iran, not the United Nations. This power can be critical in a crisis or a deadlock.

Also, the next Iraqi government will want a good relationship with Washington. Even if not a single American combat soldier remains in Iraq in 2012, the Iraqi security forces will look to the United States for equipment and training. Similarly, the Strategic Framework Agreement between the two nations portends a robust relationship yielding benefits in education, investment, technology and science. Few prime ministers will easily dismiss all that.

On Jan. 4, 2006, days after Iraq's second election, President Bush announced that two U.S. combat brigades would be leaving Iraq, in addition to 20,000 troops whose tours had been extended for the vote. Some administration officials clearly hoped that a successful election promised greater stability. Instead, the subsequent negotiations over the government became a harbinger of the most violent Iraq since the days of Saddam Hussein. As I watch this new election, recalling the euphoria of those early Iraqi votes and marveling at the resilience of the Iraqi people in the years since, I am also sobered by the knowledge that the hardest work is yet to come.

Meghan O'Sullivan was special assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan during the Bush administration. She is the Jeane Kirkpatrick professor of the practice of international affairs at Harvard University and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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