Elections Signal New Phase in U.S. – Iraq Relations

March 12, 2010

This past weekend, Iraqis went to the polls for the first parliamentary elections since 2005. Though results are still taking shape, there are reasons for cautious optimism about the elections themselves. Turnout was strong, particularly among Iraq’s Sunni and Kurdish minorities, and  though violence did occur, it did not derail the enterprise.  Now, the country moves into the more critical government formation period, which experts predict will be characterized by intense jockeying by Iraqi politicians.  Though the possible consequences of this stressful maneuvering are a concern, Iraqis and the U.S. have both prepared for it.  This is why General Ray Odierno, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, said that U.S. drawdown plans remain “on track.”

The elections signal that U.S. – Iraqi relations have entered a new phase.  It is Iraqis who will address the challenges ahead.  Where heavy-handed U.S. influence was once taken for granted, it now wanes, as U.S. troop presence decreases.  But as Iraq expert Marc Lynch points out, withdrawal should not mean that the U.S. ignores Iraq.  Rather, in this new context, the U.S. is best served by an indirect approach, in which it assists Iraqis as needed, while focusing more heavily on the development of a long-term strategic relationship with the country.

Overall picture still far from clear, but there are strong indications that Iraqi election turned out better than expected. While there was much anxiety in the lead up to the recent Iraqi election this past Sunday, the process went off smoother than expected.  Violence and political clashing did not derail the electoral process or delegitimize the vote.  Marc Lynch explains: “Iraq’s election day went off remarkably well. Despite some scattered and tragic violence, there was nothing like the kind of devastating violence threatened by a few insurgent groups and only scattered reports of problems in the electoral process. The de-Baathification shenanigans of Chalabi and al-Lami did some long-lasting damage to the credibility of state institutions and the rule of law, but not enough to cripple the elections. The relatively calm election day was overseen, it’s worth emphasizing, by Iraqi security forces and not by U.S. troops — something which I was often informed, over the last year, couldn’t possibly happen. It did. This is simply excellent news, and a credit to the emerging capability of the Iraqi state.”

Despite reports of low voter turnout there were actually promising signs for democratic progress.  The LA Times reports that, “Iraq achieved a respectable turnout at the polls over the weekend as 62% of registered voters cast ballots,” despite the fact that “[s]ome Western officials had predicted that 55% to 60% of the 19 million eligible Iraqis would go to the polls.” In fact, the overall voter turnout is even higher than it appears.  The Century Foundation’s Michael Wahid Hanna writes: “Most stories have led with the percentage of voters who turned out on Sunday, citing the approximately 62% released by IHEC. But this number is not particularly useful for comparative purposes and is, in fact, somewhat misleading. This is a result of the increase in voter registration rolls since 2005… As such, the more relevant figure for comparison’s sake is the total number of voters. As you can see above, that number for in-country voting was under 12 million in December 2005. But according to an IHEC representative, total voter turnout on Sunday exceeded 12 million after figuring in 272,000 out-of-country votes. So the level of in-country participation appears to have held steady as opposed to suffering a serious decline, which has been the general implication of much of the press coverage.”  In addition, there was greater participation among Iraq’s minority groups.  The Christian Science Monitor reports that, “turnout in Sunni provinces was as high as 75 percent… Many Sunnis boycotted the last election.”  And the Gaurdian reports “A strong turnout from Iraq’s Kurds in national elections.” [LA Times, 3/9/10. Michael Wahid Hanna, 3/10/10. The Gaurdian, 3/9/10. CSM, 3/9/10]

As predicted, following national elections, Iraq enters new phase of political jockeying. Iraq’s elections were an important moment, but now the country enters the even more critical stage of forming a new government. A New York Times story reported on the political maneuvering: “Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, an ally of Mr. Allawi’s, held meetings with rivals, with or without Mr. Allawi’s blessing. Shiite politicians said that the followers of a radical cleric, Moktada al-Sadr, had performed surprisingly well, giving them a greater voice. Already, party leaders were suggesting alternatives to Mr. Maliki if his alliance entered a coalition,” reported the Times.

This jockeying is not unexpected.  Before Iraqis headed to the polls, analysts were predicting intense, drawn-out maneuvering among Iraqi politicians. The Carnegie Endowment’s Marina Ottaway observed prior to the elections: “What is certain is that the process of forming a new cabinet will take a considerable amount of time. It took four months in 2006 (Iraq’s previous elections were held in December 2005) before the cabinet was formed. There is an expectation that there will be a similarly protracted conflict this time.”  The Obama administration is prepared for this possibility.  On the day of the elections, the Washington Post reported that the White House, Pentagon and State Department had been planning intensely for post-election contingencies, “[i]n twice-daily meetings leading up to the vote and in a final preelection videoconference Thursday with the U.S. ambassador and military commander on the ground.”

After the elections, Marc Lynch acknowledged the concern, but cautioned against alarmism: “Everybody has been predicting that the post-election coalition maneuvering will be long and painful, and could create the kind of security and political vaccuum which caused so many problems in the first half of 2006. I suspect that this is wrong. Iraqis learned from that experience, and they’ve been spending the last half-year gaming out coalition scenarios. I think that we’ll see some intense political jockeying, with escalating warnings of disaster which lead to some worried op-eds about how the U.S. must get involved to resolve the conflict.” [NY Times, 3/12/10. Washington Post, 3/7/10. Marina Ottaway, 3/3/10. Marc Lynch, 3/8/10]

American – and Iraqi — interests are best served by sticking to withdrawal plans while building strategic relationship with an Iraqi government in control of its own affairs.  As General Ray Odierno said following the elections, “I look at it today, we think we’re on track to be down to 50,000 and change our mission.”

There is no question that many challenges still confront Iraq.  In addition to the difficult process of forming a new government, Iraqis will need to address such issues as the Arab-Kurdish divide, Sunni re-integration, and a stalled hydrocarbons law.  Ultimately, these are challenges that Iraqis must address themselves.  As the Center for American Progress’s Brian Katulis and Peter Juul wrote recently, “[o]ne of the worst mistakes the United States can make at this stage as Iraqis continue to reassert control over their own affairs is to get in the way of that process. Suggestions that the United States renege its commitment to redeploy its forces from Iraq, according to the schedule negotiated in the 2008 bilateral agreement signed with Iraq, are misguided…”

Katulis and Juul went on to explain how the Obama administration’s redeployment strategy is the best way to advance broader U.S. interests in the region.  ”This redeployment strategy has risks, and the security environment in Iraq will remain uncertain, but the main objective driving U.S. policy should ultimately be to help Iraqis take control of their own affairs. Sticking to this schedule as closely as possible is best for broader U.S. national security interests unless there is a serious request by a unified Iraqi leadership to change the troop redeployment schedule. Even if Iraq’s new government would make such a request, the United States would have to evaluate it in the context of broader security objectives in the region and globally.”

As Marc Lynch wrote recently, withdrawal “doesn’t mean ignoring Iraq.”  What it does mean, according to Lynch, is “moving to develop a normal, constructive strategic relationship with the new Iraqi government, with the main point of contact the Embassy and the private sector rather than the military, and adhering in every way possible to the SOFA and to the drawdown timeline.” [General Ray Odierno, 3/08/10. CAP, 3/5/10. Marc Lynch, 3/8/10]

What We’re Reading

At least 39 people were killed and 100 injured in two suicide bomb attacks directed at army personnel patrolling a busy market place in Lahore, Pakistan.

Some U.S. officials see a growing rift between the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda; meanwhile, Afghan tribes the U.S. has hired to fight the Taliban are increasingly fighting amongst eachother.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Thursday that Persian Gulf allies understand sanctions are the inevitable next step in dealing with the threat of a nuclear Iran.

An annual State Department report said the human rights situations in Iran and China are “poor and worsening.” The report also noted “growing concern” over discrimination against Muslims in Europe.

The United Nations World Food Program announced Thursday that it would not give any new contracts to three Somali businessmen who have been accused of diverting food aid to Islamist militants.

Chile’s new president, Sebastián Piñera, was minutes from being sworn in on Thursday when major aftershocks struck the central coast of the earthquake-ravaged country.

Federal investigators testified in the Senate that corruption by drug cartels among federal law enforcement officers patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border is “significantly pervasive.”

For a second straight year, the Chinese government has increased security across parts of the vast Tibetan plateau to dissuade any Tibetans from holding protests to mark the anniversaries of ethnic uprisings.

Clashes broke out between riot police and some workers striking to protest austerity measures in Greece.

The Internet is making it easier to become a terrorist.

Commentary of the Day

Georgetown University law professor Gary Solis writes that CIA drone attacks produce America’s own unlawful combatants.

Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt of the International Crisis Group says China has many reasons to obstruct and water down sanctions on Iran.

Jeffrey Gettleman explains why Africa’s wars never end.

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