Slow But Steady Progress in Iraq

Report Middle East

Slow But Steady Progress in Iraq

April 15, 2005 5 min read
Senior Research Fellow, The Heritage Foundation
James Phillips is a senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at The Heritage Foundation.

Pessimists have been repeatedly wrong about the prospects for postwar political progress in Iraq. They doubted that the Iraqis would finish writing an interim constitution on time in 2003; they doubted that sovereignty could be transferred to an interim Iraqi government by that constitution's deadline in 2004; and they doubted that elections could be conducted on the constitution' ambitious timetable, in January 2005. They were wrong on all counts. And now they bemoan Iraq's relatively slow progress in forming a transitional government after the January 30th elections.


The interim constitution requires that two-thirds of Iraq's 275-member National Assembly approve the Presidency Council, made up of a president and two vice presidents. This led to considerable political jockeying before Jalal Talabani, a Kurdish leader closely aligned with the United States, was named President and Ibrahim Jafari, a leader of the Shiite-dominated United Iraqi Alliance, which won 140 seats in the National Assembly, was named Prime Minister.


Jafari, a physician, appears to be a pragmatic politician who has taken an inclusive approach to build a broad-based government. This, understandably, takes time. He has formed a partnership with Kurdish political parties and reportedly has reserved six cabinet posts for Sunni Arab leaders to entice the Sunni Arab minority, which was Saddam Hussein's base of support, to abandon the insurgency and support the government.


Although critics impatiently complain about its slow pace, Iraq is making much faster progress in standing up an elected government than Germany or Japan did following World War II. Given the tremendous damage inflicted on Iraqi civil society by more than three decades of dictatorship, the Iraqis are doing remarkably well in forging a national consensus among the Shiite Arab majority, Sunni Arabs, Kurds, and other minority groups with a long history of mutual distrust.


The January 30th elections galvanized Iraqis and reframed the terms of debate: it now is increasingly clear that the insurgents, who proclaim their opposition to foreign occupation, oppose an elected Iraqi government and seek to impose a repressive dictatorship organized along Baathist or radical Islamic lines. Many Sunni Arabs who boycotted the elections due to their support of the insurgents or fear of them now have second thoughts about opposing the newly elected government. Other fence-sitters, who hedged their bets, waiting to see if President Bush won re-election last November and the U.S. could be depended upon for continued support, have been encouraged by the successful Iraqi elections to defy the insurgents and give greater support to an elected government. Even the Association of Muslim Scholars, a Sunni group that has been hostile to the United States and supported a boycott of the elections, has called on Sunni Arabs to join the government's security services.


The insurgents' failure to stop the elections, coming on the heels of their defeat and expulsion from their Fallujah stronghold last November, has undermined their ability to intimidate Iraqis. A popular television program, "Terror in the Hands of Justice," features interviews with captured insurgents, many of them misinformed foreigners or petty criminals who admitted to launching attacks in return for cash payments. This program has demystified the insurgency and helped replace many Iraqis' fear with scorn.


The security situation gradually is improving. The number of insurgent attacks has declined, along with American casualties, since the elections. As the New York Times reported on April 11:


Attacks on allied forces have dropped to 30 to 40 a day, down from an average daily peak of 140 in the prelude to the Jan. 30 elections but still roughly at the levels of a year ago. Only about half the attacks cause casualties or damage, but on average one or more Americans die in Iraq every day, often from roadside bombs. Thirty-six American troops died there in March, the lowest monthly death toll since 21 died in February 2004.[1]

Iraqi security forces are slowly increasing their effectiveness and numbers. They now outnumber U.S. troops, 152,000 to 142,000. As the Iraqi forces grow more capable of fighting the insurgents, U.S. forces can gradually withdraw from highly populated urban areas, which will reduce friction with civilians and undermine the ability of the insurgents to exploit resentment of the American presence. Two neighborhoods in Baghdad and Mosul have been turned over to Iraqi security forces so far, and the Pentagon has talked about reducing U.S. forces in Iraq to about 105,000 by the end of the year if current trends continue.


Since the elections, security forces have received a surge in tips that has increased their ability to target insurgents. The al Qaeda forces in Iraq, led by Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab Zarqawi, have been particularly hard hit, with up to a dozen of Zarqawi's lieutenants killed or captured in recent months. The ruthless violence of Zarqawi's predominantly non-Iraqi militants, who indiscriminately kill Iraqi civilians with huge car bombs, has undercut support for the insurgents.


In addition to taking increasing ownership of the struggle against the insurgents, Iraqi political leaders are taking ownership of Iraq's future. The most important role of the National Assembly will be to write a permanent constitution by August 15th. This will set the stage for national elections for a new Iraqi government by the end of the year.


There are still many thorny issues to be resolved, including the role of Islam in government; the status of Kirkuk, a city historically dominated by the Kurds before Saddam Hussein's regime supplanted them with Arab settlers; how far to proceed with de-Baathification without permanently alienating the Sunni Arab minority; the status of the Kurdish pesh merga militia; and a formula for sharing oil revenues. Resolving these issues through political compromise will be an incremental and messy process. But it will be a major sign of progress if these issues can be settled through the political process rather than through the use of force.


The United States must play a firm but patient supporting role in helping Iraqis build a secure and democratic future. (See Heritage Foundation Executive Memorandum No. 957, "Stabilizing Iraq After the Elections.") Many potential pitfalls that could derail the development of stability in Iraq remain. Still, progress has been slow but steady, and many important trends are headed in the right direction.

James Phillips is Research Fellow in Middle Eastern Studies in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.

[1] Eric Schmitt, "US Commanders See Possible Cut in Troops in Iraq," New York Times, April 11, 2005, at


James Phillips

Senior Research Fellow, The Heritage Foundation