Jon B. Alterman
Director, Middle East Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies
Thursday, December 15, 2005 11:00 AM
Iraqis head to the polls Dec. 15 to elect a new national assembly, a 275 member body that will in turn be responsible for selecting Iraq's president. Prominent candidates include former interim prime minister Iyad Allawi , deputy prime minister Ahmed Chalabi and President Jalal Talabani . Many Sunni politicians are also participating in this election, despite a widespread boycott of the January 30th vote. Voter turnout is widely seen as a benchmark of success for the emerging Iraqi government.
Jon B. Alterman , director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, was online Thursday, Dec. 15, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the Iraqi parliamentary elections and the next steps for Iraq's government.
The transcript follows.
Bratislava, Slovakia: An election with high turn-out is a chance for Iraq get rid of daily attacks, but how will be the situation in Iraq if the turn-out is low especially by the Sunni Arabs?
Jon B. Alterman: Good morning.
All indications are that the turnout was high throughout most of the country. They ran out of ballots and ballot boxes in some Sunni areas, which at least is a sign of engagement. The real issue, though, is looking past the election results to how the ruling coalition is formed in Iraq. The questions will be who is in, and who is out, and what do people get for being in? There will almost certainly be some Sunni participation in that coalition, but how many representatives, from which parties, and at what price, will remain unknown at least for weeks, and probably for months. Winning in public is one thing, but winning the private, back room negotiations is another, and probably more important.
Herndon, Va.: Are there any indications of how Chalabi's slate did? It seemed like an odd move for him to essentially go it alone.
Jon B. Alterman: It will be a while until we have comprehensive election returns. Chalabi often excels at back room deals and alliance building. I doubt he'll be a top vote-getter over all, but when the dust settles after the coalition is put together, I expect him to be in a very strong position.
Lyme, Conn.: What do you think of Senator Schumerer's proposal to allow three separate governments in Iraq? While I don't know if this is exactly what the Senator means, but isn't it foolish to believe that we will stop generations of hatred and violence between ethnic groups within a few months? Wouldn't temporary stability be better resolved if we allow three separate governments, one Sunni, one Shiite, and one Kurd, to form and the citizens of Iraq can choose to which government they pay their taxes and receive their services? Over time, hopefully people will realize the ridiculousness of this and the will welcome benefits of working together until eventually most government operations are merged. This has to be better than indefinitely fighting and killing each other.
Jon B. Alterman: I haven't seen that proposal. I'm worried about the idea of splitting up Iraq, though, because it doesn't split as neatly as some would like. It's true that the north is overwhelmingly Kurdish, and the south is overwhelmingly Shia. The middle of the country, though, is mixed. Splitting the country doesn't separates some populations but not all of them.
In addition, the middle contains the capital, a large proportion of the population, and most of the national elites. The idea of splitting Iraq has oil revenue going to the provinces with the oil rather than the national government. Many in the middle will argue that they built the country out of nothing, and it was being stolen out from under them. I expect the most likely result would be a brutal civil war.
Bethesda, Md.: Our domesticated media is in a (presumably administration-ordered) full-tilt marketing campaign about the Iraqi elections being a "turning point". Didn't we already have one of these "turning points" last January? Could you tell us what is so different about these elections?
Jon B. Alterman: What's different is that, for the time being, there seems to be fairly comprehensive engagement in the political process. That wasn't true in January, when few in the Sunni areas voted. As I said above, though, the real game here isn't the election returns (which we'll know within weeks) but the election results (which will take months). What will determine if this works is not who gets elected, but how the ruling coalition is formed. In my view, it's a mistake to say with successful elections we're leaving the period of uncertainty in Iraq; instead, we're leaving one period of uncertainty and entering another.
Bethesda, Md.: The Islamic Republic of Iraq already has signed a military cooperation pact with Iran. If the President resulting from this election supports Iran's right to develop nuclear weapons, will President Bush still hail "the new democratic Iraq"?
Jon B. Alterman: I have a hard time thinking the new government will do that, and if they do, I have a hard time thinking it will make much difference.
Wheaton, Md.: Once the new Iraqi government is in control, will this government make peace and establish normal relations with Israel? If not, how will this government be any different than the terrorist-led governments throughout the Arab world?
Jon B. Alterman: I think it's unlikely to do that, not because some people in Iraq don't want to, but because most people don't. In general, there's been a remarkable change in Arab publics' attitude toward Israel in the last 15 years. For example, the al-Jazeera graphic shows Israel labeled as "Israel," the West Bank labeled as the West Bank, and Gaza labeled as Gaza. People still don't like Israel, but they certainly accept the reality of it. I expect most Iraqis to feel the same way, and ultimately that they have enough problems of their own without getting involved in a battle far away from them.
Annapolis, Md.: Hi--
Could you help me understand the role of Turkey in regard to Iraq and Iran?
Jon B. Alterman: Turkey has a complex role. It is a NATO ally of the US, and it has a large Kurdish population that it often worries may be itching toward secession. It is seeking EU membership. It has a democratically elected Islamist government, but the republic is avowedly secular. Its policy ends up reflecting these tensions, as well as their discomfort at turmoil among their neighbors.
San Francisco, Calif.: Hello!
In Foreign Affairs, Gause (Can Democracy Stop Terrorism?) shows how the Bush administration contends that the push for democracy in the Muslim world will improve U.S. security.
Gause easily points out there is no evidence that democracy reduces terrorism.
Gause then speculates that a democratic Middle East would probably result in Islamist governments unwilling to cooperate with Washington.
Will that be the case with Iraq vis a vis the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the Islamic Dawa Party?
Jon B. Alterman: Greg is a friend, but I'm not sure I agree with everything in his article. The current government of Iraq is led by the SCIRI and Da'awa people, and they seem pretty cooperative to me. In general, though, outside of Iraq I expect Islamist parties to be less cooperative with the U.S. than authoritarian governments currently are.
Bethesda, Md.: A recent study by your organization confirmed previous analyses that only four to 10% of the Iraqi resistance is comprised of foreign fighters. I see in The Post that insurgents are providing security at some polling places, to protect voters from these foreigners. Were you surprised when the Iraqi government admonished President Bush last week that not all of the insurgents are "terrorists"? (I've watched in awe as our domesticated press has let that demagouge-ing go without any factual context for about a year.)
Jon B. Alterman: Let's be clear about one thing to start with: no one really knows that much about the insurgency. We guess, we analyze and we surmise, but we could be completely wrong (as we were about WMD). It's my understanding that we've been conducting dialogues for many months with Sunni groups that proclaim they have ties to the insurgents. It's hard to know if those ties really exist, or whether the insurgents will listen to the interlocutors we're working with. Since the summer, there seems to have been a clear US push to broaden our contacts.
The bottom line is this: some insurgents will be able to be co opted into the political process, and some will never give up -- they will have to be arrested or killed. The problem comes in discerning how many fall into each camp, and how you classify people when you come into contact with them. Amb. Khalilzad has thought about these kinds of issues for a long time, and he's pretty comfortable with those kinds of decisions. Whether he's right or not, it's too soon to tell.
Columbia, S.C.: How will The Washington Post and the New York Times be able to "spin" the high voter turnout in Iraq today as a defeat for the Bush administration?
Jon B. Alterman: I think everyone is hoping for some good news. At the same time, it's irresponsible to think we're out of the woods.
Fairfax, Va.: How does the election directly affect insurgent violence? Is the idea that a representative vote would appease those who are doing the bombings? It seems that the goals of suicide bombers aren't to see democracy, so it is a bit confusing when the election is linked to a hoped-for decrease in violence. Thank you.
Jon B. Alterman: Some Sunnis argue that they need to support violence, because its the only thing they have to trade in order to become part of the political process. As I understand it, the US government sees these people as "rejectionists" who can be brought along with an electoral process that leads to money, jobs and power flowing to their communities.
Others want to keep the country in chaos, because they think the political process we've set up will only lead to a bunch of our stooges taking the country into licentiousness and decay.
It's important to remember that many Sunnis--probably most-- just want to put all this violence behind them. And let's not forget that for many Iraqis, the whole idea of sectarian identification is distasteful and primitive.
Herndon, Va.: The NYT and some wire services had a story about ballot smuggling from Iran into Iraq yesterday; their Web update now carries some qualifiers and denials from various officials, but no correction or retraction. Can you clear this story up for us?
Jon B. Alterman: Gosh, I'm sitting in an office in Washington, DC. I'm the last person who can help -- I'm just as dependent on the reporting as you are.
It's a useful reminder, though, of just how uncertain conditions on the ground really are. It's an awfully big country, it's dangerous in some places, and there are lots of very skilled people with a keen interest in lying, especially given the stakes of these elections.
Chicago, Ill.: I don't understand the Bush administration's assertion that increased Sunni participation will dent the insurgency. Based upon historical examples it appears that guerrilla movements have a military wing as well as a political wing. This is true of for example Hezbollah and the IRA. It seems to me that the Sunni insurgents in Iraq will use military force as well political pressure to try and force the U.S. military out. What do you think?
Jon B. Alterman: The academic literature on terrorism is still relatively thin, but a number of people who have written on this for years (for example, Prof. Martha Crenshaw at Wesleyan) have sought to distinguish between groups with clear (and often national) political goals and those with a more messianic or utopian agenda. Their sense is that you can work with people in the first group. Realistically, it often means provoking a split between people who want to negotiate and those who want to still fight. The goals is to bring over a critical mass into negotiations, and then to crush the smaller and weaker rejectionist core.
Washington, D.C.: On NPR this morning, Ann Gerrels reported from Fallujah that at some voting stations, women were staying home and men were being allowed to vote for them. What? Have you heard anything else about this and how vote counters will address this miscarriage of rights?
Jon B. Alterman: I haven't heard more about this. There are going to be many problems, I'm sure, but there are a few things working in the favor of elections. First off, these are the third elections the Iraqis have run this year. They're learning and getting better at them (which is good, because the stakes are increasing). Second, the electoral roles are fairly good, because they're based on the old regime's ration lists. Knowing who is supposed to vote where is a large part of the challenge of organizing elections, and in that, they have a good head start.
Casablanca, Morocco: As an Arab I still don't understand why so many westerners (now mostly Americans) are involved in telling us how we should run our governments, how we should engage in politics, and so on. Today, there are countless of so-called NGOs (mostly headed by former high ranking U.S. officials) working to "spread" democracy in our "backward" countries as they claim.
We have neither elected you to represent us, nor are able to hold you responsible for any mistakes you could make. You could get a way with everything.
The way I see is that Iraq has become an experimentation lab for all kind of players in America (from the army to political analysts), a lab in which thousands of people are paying the price.
These elections, as history tell us, do not mean anything since it will always have an American stamp on it. Sooner or later, people will revolt against it. It is a marketing show meant mainly for internal U.S. consumption.
Jon B. Alterman: I understand your point, but I'm not sure I've heard anyone call Arab countries "backward."
There's a bigger problem here, though. The other argument I've heard from Arab friends is this one: "Where do these governments get their legitimacy from? It is not from us, it is from you. We do not elect them. You put them in place, and you maintain their position. They are your responsibility."
It seems to me that there's a middle ground we should try to reach here, in which the U.S. works to "deregulate" politics in the Middle East. I described it in an op-ed in the Financial Times that came out in October. You can find it on my program's Web site, http://www.csis.org/mideast/. I'd welcome your thoughts.
New York, N.Y.: If the Sunnis turn out in great numbers, will their representation increase? I thought the problem was that Sunnis refuses to run for office (for fear of assassination or being co-opted by the Shiite establishment), not that they refused to vote. In other words, there is no one for whom Sunnis can vote. Thanks.
Jon B. Alterman: Sunni candidates (from a variety of political stripes) did run in this election. In addition, 230 of the delegates (out of 275) will be elected at the provincial level. This means that Sunni provinces will presumably have some Sunni representation (although many Sunnis may also cast votes for secular, non-sectarian lists). They actually have a lot of ways they can vote, and not all of them have to do with their Sunni identity.
Toronto, Canada: Secretary of State Colin Powell assured the World that U.S. forces would leave the moment an Iraqi government asked them to do so. But it doesn't seem as Secretary Rumsfeld has any contingency plans for a withdrawal. If Iraq is really sovereign they could ask for a complete U.S. withdrawal, not just one that allowed the U.S. to retain bases there.
Paul Bremer made 100+ decrees. Some of them were extremely controversial -- like giving Iraq intellectual property laws that those of his political stripe would be unable to institute in a real democracy -- and giving not only coalition forces, but the 20,000 trigger-happy mercenaries immunity from Iraqi law.
Do you anticipate that the newly elected Iraqi legislators will feel independent enough to overturn Bremer's decrees?
Jon B. Alterman: 1) It's true -- if the Iraqis ask us to withdraw, we will. Our UN mandate to be there is predicated on an Iraqi invitation. My sense is that while a broad spectrum of the population wants us out, very few want us out tomorrow, for fear that we'd leave chaos in our wake. Defining what a "phased withdrawal" will look like is hard to do. My bet is that defining such a withdrawal will be part of the negotiations over forming a post election government (and a key demand of some Sunni parties).
2) I'm completely confident the new Iraqi parliament will feel no compunction overturning many of the decrees of the CPA. How high a priority that will be is something else. I expect most of the early discussions to be about controlling resources.
Rockville, Md.: I read that Judith Miller wanted to investigate why we believed WMD's were in Iraq (New Yorker) and thought she had leads to an Iraqi program to deceive the U.S. and other western intelligence services. Did she have a lead? Why was she told to not investigate it? Has anyone talked to former Iraq military and government officials and officers?
Jon B. Alterman: I have no idea. I do know that weapons inspectors were constantly alert to the possibility people were lying to them -- an awareness that extended both to people who claimed Iraq had WMD, and those who said Iraq was clean. There was one defector, Khidr Hamza, who made quite a splash a few years ago making claims about the Iraqi nuclear program. The serious folks I knew in the weapons inspector community were very frustrated that he wouldn't do the sort of painstaking lead-checking and cross-checking that their work required, and they wrote him off.
Jon B. Alterman: Well, I'm back to my day job. Thanks for the terrific questions. I hope we'll have a chance to do this again soon.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.