Forging a Durable Post-War Political Settlement in Iraq

Report Middle East

Forging a Durable Post-War Political Settlement in Iraq

September 24, 2002 11 min read Download Report

Authors: James Phillips and John Hulsman

One of the major byproducts of a campaign to rid the world of the grave threat posed by Iraq's arsenal of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) will be the end of Saddam Hussein's brutal regime. In the aftermath of such a campaign, the United States should help the Iraqi people establish a new federal system of governance that provides representation for all the people of Iraq and that poses no threat to America's national interests, its allies, or stability in the oil-rich Persian Gulf region.

Under no circumstances should the United States advocate the kind of top-down, highly centralized "nation-building" experiments that the Clinton Administration tried unsuccessfully in Haiti, Somalia, Kosovo, and Bosnia. That approach failed in those cases precisely because it ignored the unique political realities on the ground. Nor should the new government be established by a U.N. mandate, since Iraq's regional political leaders would have no stake in its success. The United States cannot afford to fight and win another war with Iraq only to see that victory squandered.

To be effective, a new post-war Iraqi government must be pluralist, one that is inclusive of the three major sub-national groups in Iraq and that advances their interests. The Administration should begin working now to convince the leaders of Iraq's three major groups--Sunni Arabs, Shiite Arabs, and Kurds--that a decentralized federal political system offers the best means of assuring local autonomy, protection against the return of a tyrannical central government, a fair share in the political settlement in Iraq, and an equitable disbursement of Iraq's oil and tax revenues. With such assurances, Iraq's post-Saddam leaders will be more likely to embrace a federal political system with the degree of enthusiasm that is necessary for its success.

A loose federal system organized along decentralized lines also would greatly improve regional stability. Such a post-Saddam government would be cohesive and legitimate enough to guarantee Iraq's territorial integrity, and leave fewer opportunities for a central government to finance and undertake another threatening military buildup or menace its neighbors.

A good political model exists for such a successful post-war Iraqi federation--the so-called Great Compromise of 1787 that enabled the creation of America's constitutional arrangement among the states. In Iraq's case, this type of system would give each of the country's three major sub-groups equal representation in an upper house of the legislature in order to protect their own interests at the national level. These political outcomes--an Iraq that can control its own political destiny and that does not threaten its neighbors--are critical if an Iraqi settlement is to be judged a success.

A New Federal Government in Iraq

A decentralized federal system will best fit the political realities on the ground in Iraq and best meet the needs of its people. (See above, "The Constitutional Model for a Post-Saddam Iraq.") Iraq, which the British carved out of the Ottoman Empire to advance their own interests, is not a cohesive nation in the Western sense. It is in fact far from homogeneous. The Sunni Arab elite have long ruled the country, advancing their own interests at the expense of both the more numerous Shiites, who were treated as second-class citizens, and the Kurds, who often were treated as third-class citizens. Iraq also has small Turkoman, Assyrian, and other minority groups who should be included in the post-war government.

Saddam Hussein sought to legitimize his rule by posing as the champion of the Arab world against the West, Israel, and Iran. And though the bloody war against Iran from 1980 to 1988 did strengthen Iraqi nationalism, Saddam's repression, favoritism toward Sunni Arabs, and efforts to play tribal politics in a divide-and-rule strategy have weakened that national unity in recent years.

Not Another Afghanistan. Much as the Taliban regime did in Afghanistan, Saddam's repressive regime provoked broad but splintered political opposition. But unlike the disorganized Taliban, Saddam Hussein has done a much better job in intimidating, demoralizing, and crushing his opposition. Consequently, there is no Iraqi opposition movement equivalent to the battle-hardened Northern Alliance, which played a major role in the war in Afghanistan. Although Kurdish opposition forces in northern Iraq could assume a limited military role in a war to bring down Saddam's regime and eliminate his WMD threat, they are not as strongly motivated, heavily armed, and well-organized as the Northern Alliance, nor do they enjoy the same level of external support from neighboring states. The Sunni and Shiite opposition groups are weaker still.

The military weakness of the Iraqi opposition means that U.S. military forces probably would have to assume a much greater role on the ground to help force a regime change in Iraq than they did in Afghanistan.2 Fortunately, the political situation in Iraq after such a war will likely be more manageable than it has been in Afghanistan, which has experienced bitter factional struggles since the defeat of the Taliban.3 Indeed, Afghanistan is a complex mosaic of more than a dozen ethnic groups divided by fierce political, tribal, religious, cultural, and ideological rivalries often exacerbated by fractious warlords.

Iraq has a more modern sociopolitical system with its three major sub-groups. The Sunni Arabs (making up roughly 20 percent of Iraq's 23 million people) are concentrated primarily in central Iraq, and historically have played the dominant role in Iraqi politics. The Shiite Arabs (about 60 percent of the population) are predominately located in southern Iraq; and the non-Arab Kurds (about 20 percent of the population) primarily control northern Iraq.

Though the political differences between and among these groups are significant, they are not as pronounced as the differences among the factions in Afghanistan. The Iraqis, moreover, have a stronger sense of nationalism, a better-educated populace, and a more developed economy than the Afghans, which should give the Iraqi factions stronger incentives to cooperate in a new post-Saddam system.

The task of building a post-Saddam government could be made easier by tapping into Iraq's enormous oil resources. These resources should provide a steady stream of revenue to the new government, which could be used to reward the rival political factions for their cooperation. In fact, the equitable distribution of oil revenues is likely to be the biggest carrot that will facilitate the successful creation of a decentralized federal system of government.


Although the military potential of the current Iraqi opposition is limited and splintered along political, ethnic, and ideological lines (see Table 1), it still can play an important role in building the post-war federal government.

The Kurds. Non-Arab Kurds in northern Iraq mounted the earliest challenge to Saddam Hussein's regime and provide the bulk of the opposition's military muscle today. The two main Kurdish groups, which have been fighting Baghdad and each other on and off since the 1970s, can mobilize up to 100,000 guerrillas. The Kurdistan Democratic Party, led by Massoud Barzani, controls the northern portion of Iraqi Kurdistan, while the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, led by Jalal Talabani, controls southeastern Kurdistan.

During the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, the Kurds escalated their armed opposition to Saddam's regime with support from Iran. Baghdad responded with a murderous campaign that took the lives of approximately 180,000 Kurds in the late 1980s. Saddam's vengeance included the use of illegal chemical weapons against Kurdish civilians. One such attack in 1988 killed some 5,000 Kurds in the town of Halabja. The Kurdish opposition also was crushed by Iraqi armed forces when they rose up against Saddam after the 1991 Gulf War.

These costly rebellions and Baghdad's 1996 offensive into Kurdish areas, which provoked no effective response from the Clinton Administration, soured the Kurds on the idea of a direct military challenge to Saddam's regime. The Kurds also have eked out a large degree of autonomy since the 1991 imposition of the U.S.-British enforced no-fly zone over northern Iraq, which protects them from attacks by Saddam's air force. They are reluctant to jeopardize their unprecedented freedom or the economic benefits of smuggling Iraqi oil across their territory into Turkey, with the collusion of Baghdad. Both Kurdish factions say they will not help topple Saddam Hussein unless they are certain that his replacement would be a net benefit to their political and economic welfare.

The Iraqi National Congress. The Iraqi National Congress (INC), the best known of the exiled opposition groups, was founded in 1992 as an umbrella group of mostly Kurdish and Shi'a opposition groups. Led by Ahmad Chalabi, a pro-Western Shiite intellectual from a wealthy banking family, the INC enjoys considerable support in the U.S. Congress and the Department of Defense. But it has limited support inside Iraq after being expelled from its foothold in northern Iraq by an Iraqi offensive in 1996.

The Iraqi National Accord. The Iraqi National Accord, led by Ayad Alawi, consists mainly of defectors from Iraq's military and security services. It was set up in 1990 and reportedly receives financial support from Britain, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait. It favors a military coup against Saddam, but suffered a setback in 1996 when Iraqi intelligence services infiltrated its operations and arrested up to 100 military officers. It remains popular among exiled Iraqis, particularly in Europe, and claims to retain links to disgruntled military officers inside Iraq.

The Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. The Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), led by Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, is made up of exiled dissidents of Iraq's Shi'a community. It is based in Iran and enjoys Iranian support. It is estimated to have 7,000 to 15,000 armed guerrillas and, together with the Kurdish groups, mounts most of the armed resistance inside Iraq.

A Loose Coalition. Personal rivalries, ideological tensions, and ethnic differences have hampered the development of a unified Iraqi opposition coalition. Some of the other groups resent the ambitious leadership and Washington contacts of Ahmad Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress. Recently, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and the Iraqi National Accord formed a loose coalition to coordinate strategy and cultivate foreign support. Sensing that they will have a golden opportunity to replace Saddam Hussein in the event of another war, the opposition is slowly moving toward greater cooperation, but much work needs to be done.

Though the Iraqi opposition may not be capable of playing a major military role in a war to bring down Saddam's brutal regime, it could provide valuable military and political intelligence about nervous Iraqi commanders who might be willing to defect. Moreover, it could act as a magnet for defecting Iraqi troops, who could become a force against Saddam. Some opposition groups, particularly the Kurds, could isolate, capture, or destroy any pro-regime military and security forces after they have been weakened by U.S. air attacks and cut off from Baghdad's command and control. Shiite opposition forces could help guide U.S. forces operating near Baghdad, where the population is predominantly Shiite. But the Iraqi opposition's most important role will be to help form a successful post-war government.


U.S. Expectations for the New Government. The United States must implement a clear political strategy for post-Saddam Iraq. It should stress that while the specific details of the ultimate political settlement will be determined by the Iraqi people, Washington will first lay out the broad contours of an acceptable accord for the post-war government. Iraq's post-war government must:

  • Pose no threat to its neighbors;
  • Cooperate in the elimination of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles, in accordance with U.N. resolutions; and
  • Build an inclusive, broad-based ruling coalition sensitive to the interests of all the country's ethnic and religious groups, especially the interests of its three major groups, the Sunni Arabs, Shiite Arabs, and Kurds.

U.S. Objectives. Washington should place the highest priority on helping to facilitate a post-war government that would enable America to consolidate its main war aims. These are: (1) eliminating Iraq's long-range missiles and WMD programs, (2) ending its threats to the security and stability of the Persian Gulf region, and (3) ensuring international access to its energy resources.

The Bush Administration should articulate an optimal political outcome to Iraq's various factions, but it must allow the Iraqi people to reach their own political decisions. Ideally, the post-Saddam Iraq will be one that espouses democratic and free-market principles, that is pro-Western and that cooperates extensively in the war against terrorism, and that supports a negotiated solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. However, measuring the success of U.S. policy in Iraq should not be defined by these highly ambitious goals, which could undermine the new government's long-term viability and raise criticism that it is an American puppet. Rather, success should be judged by how well the three more realistic and more important war aims are achieved.

Specifically, to help the Iraqi people build a stable, friendly, and non-threatening state, the Administration should:

  • Strengthen and help unify Iraq's political opposition. Iraq's long-suffering opposition movements, neglected by Washington in both prior Administrations, not only could play a helpful role in removing Saddam Hussein's regime from power, but also in forming the foundation for a stable post-Saddam government.4 Once Saddam's regime is gone, these opposition groups will have vested interest in rooting out his supporters and preventing them from making a comeback.

    The Administration should provide immediate enhanced economic aid, logistical assistance, organizational training, and technical advice to the widest possible variety of Iraqi opposition groups. Such aid would help to gain their cooperation in the establishment of a stable post-war federal-style government. U.S. aid should be conditioned on a public pledge by the leaders of these groups to cooperate in replacing the current regime. The groups must be able to demonstrate that all of the aid is being channeled inside Iraq, not diverted elsewhere. This requirement would mean there must be enough transparency to assure Washington that the U.S. funds are being used for their intended purposes, but not so much that the current regime could gain intelligence about opposition activities.

    Washington should provide exiled Iraqi organizations the equipment they need to communicate secretly with their followers in Iraq. Radio Free Iraq, an important component of Radio Free Europe, should step up coverage of opposition groups and broadcast frequent interviews with their leaders to educate the Iraqi people on the benefits of regime change.

    Intelligence support and limited military aid should be provided to opposition groups that already have carved out liberated zones in Iraq, such as the two Kurdish factions. U.S. special operations forces should be deployed with these groups before the outbreak of a war to acquire useful military intelligence about the Iraqi armed forces and to help protect Saddam's opponents from his wrath before he is toppled.


James Phillips

Senior Research Fellow, Douglas and Sarah Allison Center

John Hulsman

Former Senior Research Fellow