While I've been too busy to post for the last week, I've been following the saga of the provincial elections law closely. When the Parliament finally adjourned without reaching agreement, I was not particularly happy to be proven prescient about the political stalemate- I had very much been hoping to see an agreement on the law, followed by elections in December. Not October, since the Iraqi Higher Election Commission and the UN had both publicly warned that they could not guarantee the integrity of the election on that time frame. For these hotly contentious elections, in which everybody expects to win and pre-emptive allegations of fraud and 'shaping operations' are already rampant, guaranteeing their integrity, preferably with serious international supervision, will be absolutely essential. Their postponement to December or even a bit longer in order to ensure their integrity is definitely preferable to rushing them in October - but their indefinite postponement promises a world of problems, especially in the Sunni areas. (*)
The anger among the Awakenings movements is already palpable. The New York Times quotes Ali Hatem Suleiman saying that “We are running out of patience,” and Sheik Hamid al-Hayis saying “This is a slap on the face of Iraq... we couldn’t make
a big change in the government structure. That pushed us to work to
make change in the provincial council. But even that we can’t touch.” Dr. iRack, just back from Iraq, reports that the notoriously outspoken Ali Hatem "is deadly serious about returning to war against all the Islamic parties (Sunni and Shia) if the Awakening groups are not given the power they think they deserve." That fits what I've heard from others less prone to hyperbole.
Leaders of the Awakenings have been warning that they are "losing patience" and "the next few months will be decisive" so many times that I suspect some people have stopped taking them seriously. As with the evident nonchalance about the prospects of the major Sunni insurgency factions flipping back to the other side, this seems to rest on a notion that they have nowhere else to go and that there is neither the ability nor the desire to go back to the insurgency ("we don't need to accommodate those hoodlums," pace General Keane). This strikes me as a very dangerous bit of best-case scenario thinking, of a kind which hurt American efforts in the past and has continued to mar the analysis of surge cheerleaders throughout. There are all kinds of warning lights blinking, from both the Awakenings and from the insurgency factions whose members make up many of their cadres outside of Anbar:
- For the last eight months they have been the target of a systematic campaign of attacks by the Islamic State of Iraq (AQI). I have not seen any reliable statistics about the toll this has taken, but hardly a day goes by without a report of another attack on a checkpoint manned by Awakenings fighters or a hit on a leader. This has led to a lot of complaints from the Awakenings of a lack of military support from the US and the Iraqi security forces - they feel that they are being put on the front lines and not being supported.
- Their frustration at not being integrated into the Iraqi security forces has been mounting for months. The Iraqi government has been slow-rolling this, despite US pressure, and even the upper limit (20%) is far below what the Awakenings want and expect. Proposals for other employment opportunities - the best American alternative on offer - hold little appeal to these fighters who want the prestige and honor of security jobs.
- Awakenings men have also been grumbling about being cut off by the Americans, about being targeted by Iraqi security forces, and about being generally disrespected. The fall from grace of Abu Abed continues to reverberate.
- Awakenings leaders held out hopes of filling the Sunni positions in the Maliki government vacated by the Iraqi Accordance Front last summer - hopes fanned by Maliki's people and amply recorded in the Iraqi press at the time. Instead, the positions remained vacant until the IAF finally returned a few weeks ago - almost certainly in order to have state resources at their disposal to help with the provincial elections.
- Their efforts to seize power from the Islamic Party at the local level have led to numerous dangerous clashes and threats, but little progress. Concerns over these local political struggles and rising security concerns have led to a delay in handing over Anbar to Provincial Iraqi Control (PIC) - which, like so many other things, has recently been pegged to the provincial elections.
- And now, finally, the failure to pass the provincial elections law has left their anticipated route to political power blocked, perhaps indefinitely.
We are potentially approaching a moment of truth. The consequences of building up these forces outside of the structures of the Iraqi state, while stringing them along with promises that require Iraqi government acquiesence to deliver may be coming due. I know well that US military commanders have been far more attentive to these issues than have the cheerleaders, and MNF-I and Ambassador Crocker have been working as hard as they can to resolve them. Their failure to deliver a compromise on the provincial elections law and their failure to deliver meaningful progress on SOI integration both suggest the limits of American influence in Iraq - a lesson which the advocates of "strategic patience", who continue to view American decisions as the only ones which really matter, never seem to digest.
(*) sentence edited for clarity.