Iraq’s March 7 parliamentary elections will be a major milestone that will help determine that nation’s future political evolution and prospects for security and stability. Additionally, these elections will significantly affect the Obama Administration’s plans for a rapid drawdown of U.S. troops in Iraq.
The elections will hopefully produce a broad-based multi-party government capable of resolving Iraq’s many problems. But if the election results are disputed or they exacerbate existing sectarian, ethnic, tribal, political, and ideological rivalries, then Iraq risks a plunge into a renewed civil war. Either way, the United States should actively facilitate deals between rival Iraqi factions and postpone the gradual drawdown of U.S. troops as long as possible, subject to the terms of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) negotiated in 2008.
Iraqis have embraced democracy with a vengeance. Hundreds of parties have fielded over 6,000 candidates to compete for 325 seats in the parliament. According to recent polls, no faction is expected to win the 163 seats needed to form a government on its own. This would be a positive outcome to the degree that it encourages the emergence of a centrist multi-party coalition government.
But the extensive coalition-building negotiations and political horse-trading necessary to form a government will leave Iraq rudderless for many months. For instance, following the December 2005 elections, the new government took six months to form. This time the coalition-building process may take even longer given the break-up of some of the former political blocs and the proliferation of small parties.
As intense as the campaign before the elections was, the post-election period is likely to be even more politically charged, especially if the losing political parties fail to accept the legitimacy of the election process. Already, Ahmed Chalabi’s Accountability and Justice Committee has thrown a monkey wrench into the political works by disqualifying hundreds of candidates, mostly Sunni Arabs, on the grounds that they belonged to former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s Baathist Party. This has set back the prospects of many secular and nationalist parties and could significantly depress the turnout of Sunni voters, who largely boycotted the 2005 elections. Such an outcome could partially reverse the positive trends observed in last year’s provincial elections, in which secular and nationalist parties made substantial gains at the expense of sectarian religious parties.
The elections will not by themselves settle crucial issues such as how to share oil revenues, how to balance power between the central and regional governments, or national reconciliation. The next government must resolve these persistent problems while tamping down longstanding ethno-sectarian tensions that could explode into violence.
In particular, there is rising tension between Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, and Christian minorities over territorial and jurisdictional disputes in northern Iraq that could degenerate into open conflict unless durable political settlements can be hammered out. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda in Iraq, Iranian-supported Shia militants, and other insurgent groups are likely to use terrorist attacks to fan the flames of sectarian resentment and undermine trust in the democratic political system.
The U.S. Role in Iraq’s Transition
Iraq’s elected leaders must resolve Iraq’s problems, but in order to do so, they require substantial, continued support from the United States. A calming U.S. military presence will be needed to support Iraqi security services in combating terrorist threats, shoring up the rule of law, and mediating between rival armed factions, particularly in the north, along the disputed edges of the Kurdish territories. General Raymond Odierno, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, has correctly called for a “robust engagement” with Iraqi political and military leaders to ensure a smooth transition to the next government. In addition, the United States should:
These prudent readjustments in U.S. policy can help ensure that a responsible drawdown in U.S. troops brings a successful transition to stability in Iraq.
James Phillips is Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs 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.
See also James Phillips, “Obama Administration Must Focus on a Successful Transition in Iraq, Not Just an Exit Plan,” The Foundry, July 1, 2009, at http://blog.heritage.org/2009/07/01/obama-administration-must-focus-on-a-successful-transition-in-iraq-not-just-an-exit-plan/.