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October 10, 2008


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But now, contrary to what the authors argue, improved security is making the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki less likely to make meaningful compromises, since Maliki currently sees little downside to not doing so

I agree about Maliki, but doesn't the opinion of the Iraqi populace count for something? They may be scared of what will happen if U.S. troops cease an active role in security matters. Iraq has a very poor record of sectarian violence breaking out once Western troops depart or cease being active - that's as true in 1920 as in the Iraq of 2005. That's one of the reasons Europe still keeps U.S. troops around today.

Justin Colley

Polls consistently show the majority of Iraqis want US troops out of Iraq- and yes, it should matter what they think.


Marc, I think you’re right with regard to Maliki, he seems to think that no profound process of national reconciliation is needed (and currently, there seems to be no pressure on him from the Americans in this respect). But maybe you are a bit too pessimistic with regard to the prospect for change in next year’s elections, in particular the parliamentary ones. Many Iraqi politicians have concluded that the current parliament has shown itself incapable of undertaking constitutional revision (largely due to infighting between the government parties that dominate the constitutional revision committee), and that this task may be transferred to the next parliament. If the next parliamentary elections are fought against the backdrop of constitutional revision as a key issue, the 22 July parties could easily boost their numbers by highlighting specific issues that are popular among the population at large – Shiites and Sunnis alike – such as not ceding Kirkuk to Kurdistan, keeping the oil sector centralised, and banning the formation of federal entities on a sectarian basis and sectarian quotas in government. Perhaps this kind of process (which in turn would enable a new climate in Iraqi politicians where non-sectarian politicians once more would have a chance) is better than any continued attempt by the US to try to micro-manage national reconciliation in Iraq, because so far both Republicans and Democrats have proven that they are unable to liberate themselves from the sectarian paradigm of Iraqi politics which Paul Bremer established in 2003. Under that kind of more optimistic scenario, the most important job for Washington would be to ensure that elections are as free and fair as possible, and to work against any attempt by the powers that be to manipulate the situation (or at least avoid becoming an active party to any such manipulation, as they have been for the past five years). If those elections are indeed conducted in a free and fair manner, a new US administration would be able to say that Iraqis get a reasonable chance to change the post-2003 system themselves, and if it still doesn’t work out then there is probably nothing more the US can do. I think positive change in Iraq is more likely to come through this route than through Maliki suddenly changing his ways as a response to a “threat” of US withdrawal – he already seems way too confident to do so.

Solomon2, with the exception of parts of the Baathist period as well as 3 separate incidents between medieval times and 1970, Iraq does not have a record of sectarian violence. 1920?? It was a festival of sectarian coexistence, with joint Sunni-Shiite prayers in Baghdad during Ramadan in a combined attempt at getting rid of the British. Earlier, Shiite tribes in the Najaf era had called for the establishment of an Iraqi kingdom under one of the sons of the (Sunni) sharif of Hijaz.


How is it that the political empowerment of 80% of the Iraq population - the Shia and the Kurds - via a proportionally representative electoral system identical to that used in most of northern Europe and elswhere - can be called the "imposition of sectarian quotas in government"?


The idea of an “80% solution” for Iraq assumes that Shiites and Kurds think of themselves primarily as Shiites and Kurds. As far as the Shiites are concerned, they don’t. To realise this, one needs only consider the recent behaviour of Shiite MPs in the Iraqi parliament, where many Shiites this year have joined cross-sectarian alliances to protest against federalism, decentralisation of the oil sector and the idea of ceding Kirkuk to the Kurds, and to demand early provincial elections (despite the preferences of the Shiite parties in the government and the Kurds not to have any elections). And whereas voting patterns in the October 2005 constitutional referendum are often cited as the ultimate proof of the relevance of the "80% solution", this theory falters on closer inspection. In the first place, many Iraqis were not familiar with the document they voted on at all, as the final draft of the constitution was ready only days before the referendum. Secondly, it is often forgotten that the “Yes” to the constitution from the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani was an extremely reluctant one and explicitly warned that there were weaknesses in the draft. Hence, constitutional revision is a goal shared by many Sunnis and Shiites, even though the Maliki government is not taking any meaningful steps in this direction. A Kurdish politician recently provided perhaps the best repudiation of the existence of an “80% solution” by angrily accusing his opponents on the Kirkuk issue of “rejecting the 2005 constitution". These opponents, also known as the forces of 22 July, now command a parliamentary majority and incidentally include a high number of Shiites. The United Iraqi Alliance, on the other hand, has largely disintegrated, with ISCI-Daawa tensions forming the latest internal battlefront.


We've already seen one response to Lynch's post that argues the sectarian strife of the Baathist period and afterwards is the exception, and the sectarian coexistence of earlier days -- before most Iraqis now living had reached adulthood -- is the norm in Iraq.

I'll say here only that there is reason to doubt this assertion's relevance. However, I'd like it very much if it turned out to reflect the prospects for Iraq once the American army begins to leave. Here's the question, though: suppose it doesn't?

Lynch's argument is that political progress toward sectarian reconciliation in Iraq is hampered by the blank American check of continued military support at current levels, given to the Iraqi government; impose the threat, and perhaps the reality, of a drawdown of American forces, and the government will make concessions to Sunni Arab groups formerly allied with the insurgency. This argument appears to assume an Iraqi government that feels as dependent on American support as it did, say, two years ago, and one that would feel itself to have no options apart from concessions to its most hated enemies if that support were reduced. It also appears to assume that a government once committed to conciliatory gestures toward Sunni Arab factions could not un-commit itself in the face of provocations from other (or, perhaps, the same) Sunni Arab factions.

These are three large assumptions. Again, I'd be content to see them proven right, but if they are wrong I'd like to know what Lynch would recommend then. If sectarian violence erupted again -- say the government did not go far enough in putting factional leaders on its payroll to satisfy some of them, they responded with terrorist attacks on Shiite civilians, police, etc. and the government, rather than making further concessions, sought to crush the objecting factions by force of arms -- would he advise putting American withdrawals on "pause" until things settled down? Would he urge reestablishing an American buffer between Shiite-dominated government forces and local Sunni Arab militias? If so, for how long?

Lynch is basing his argument for beginning an American withdrawal on what is good for Iraq, and if all his assumptions were 100% right his recommended course of action probably would be. But if his assumptions are wrong we are, at best -- from the standpoint of Iraq's interests -- back where we started. From the standpoint of American interests we are left struggling with whether to withdraw in the midst of violence our decision to begin withdrawing was intended to prevent, or whether to continue indefinitely a commitment we cannot afford now.

I don't believe Lynch to be wholly oblivious to American interests, caring only about what is good for Iraq; for my part, I am not wholly indifferent to the future of Iraq, though I regard that future -- without qualification -- as less important than American interests, of which the foremost in this situation is relieving ourselves of the burden of the commitment in Iraq. But because I care primarily about American interests, I would initiate, proceed with, and complete the liquidation of that commitment whether things went well or badly in Iraq, keeping clearly in mind the strong possibility that things could go very badly indeed. Whether Iraqis succeed or fail in establishing some kind of political order that does not involve periodic massacres and suicide bombings, I want our army out of that country and I want our withdrawal to result from a choice we make now, with our eyes open, rather than from a necessity imposed on us under crisis conditions later.

I'd like to believe that the distance between what I thnk and what Lynch thinks is not very great, so that once American withdrawal does begin he will not start urging delay, pauses, reevaluations and so forth if events in Iraq take an unpleasant direction. I like, however, to hear that from him.


It was the results of two general elections in 2005 conducted on strict proportional representation as practised in northern Europe and elsewhere that I was referring to when asking how these could be called "the imposition of sectarian quotas"? The Iraqi political system is not like the Lebanese system?

The constitutional referendum was not a party vote, although when you look at the results province by province the "yes/nos" were almost identical to the percentage results recorded by the parties supporting/opposing same in the Dec 2005 election two months later. Sistani's reservations about the constitution were entirely because it did not go far enough to cement Islamic Law (shia version). In this he was opposed by the Sunni Arabs, Sunni Kurds and seculars who had a blocking majority over the religious shia.

Fortunately for those who don't want to see an Islamic state in Iraq the UIA failed by a long margin to obtain a 66% majority in the COR. This was because of the PR system. Under "winner take all" it might have been a different story as the UIA could gerrymander future elections to suit itself.

I can't see why the shia/kurdish coalition would be referred to as the "80% solution" any more than one would refer to coalitions in Europe or elsewhere as being "60% or 75% solutions"? The things is, proportional representation is neutral and unlike "winner take all" gives minority parties the opportunity to share in coalition government.

The opposition parties in Iraq who have been challenging the government would do well to coalesce in a cross-sectarian alliance to contest the next general election - that is, if their principles match their rhetoric?

Dan Kervick

I think we should start from the fact that Iraq already has a government, a government was democratically elected and enjoys a broad base of support within the country. Like any democratically elected government, it does not, of course, enjoy 100% support within the country.

Now starting from that basis, what do we have to do to get the current Iraqi government in a condition where it can effectively defend the Iraqi state from external enemies on its own and put down internal insurrections on its own? What kinds of weaponry, technical support and intelligence support does it need?

Let's figure out what those levels of support are, give it to the Iraqi government and get most of our people out of the country. Why are we trying to re-engineer the political outcomes that have already been determined by the Iraqi people? Why does Iraq need a new "political settlement"? It's already had a political settlement called "elections".


BB, you keep writing as if the UIA still exists in its original incarnation but it doesn't. There is only ISCI, the two Daawas and some of the independents left, and ISCI and Daawa are currently in the midst of a dispute over state structure and control of the security forces. That's the point I'm trying to make: the UIA has been much weakened because many Shiites have found that they share the interests of other Iraqis from different sects.

As for the constitution, no one knows exactly what Sistani's objections were, but repeated comments from people in his circle suggest that federalism, the weakening of the central state and the enshrinement of sectarian divisions were among his key objections (he made many of these points with the TAL as well). On the other hand, Sistani is reportedly quite happy with the Islamic aspect of the constitution i.e.no laws can contradict the basic tenets of Islam.


Also, with regard to the "imposition of quotas", this began in 2003 with Bremer’s governing council and not in 2005. The governing council created its own “government”, passed the TAL and adopted the first Iraqi elections law. By the time of the January 2005 elections a very sectarian atmosphere had been created and Iraq had a political system which was easy for the returned exiles with sectarian inclinations to dominate (single constituency, no local knowledge of candidates etc.)


This discussion of "How To Leave a Stable Iraq" only touches tangentially on the central point: that Maliki has already launched his campaign to unite the country, by his refusal to sign the SOFA. Most of non-Kurdish Iraq supports him on this. It is as good an approach as any, a nationalist one - eject the foreigner. I don't know whether he will succeed, though I think he will. He has in effect made a do or die throw. The US leaves by the end of 2011, with no alternative. The possible consequences for the US in deposing Maliki are not that great: opinion in non-Kurdish Iraq seems solidly anti-American now, so a military coup d'etat inspired by the US would end up isolated.

If he did succeed in ejecting the US by the end of 2011, as he says, of course political stability would not really be achieved. But we would be as close as could be expected. Iraqis would work out their own problems.

Eric Martin

On the other hand, Sistani is reportedly quite happy with the Islamic aspect of the constitution i.e.no laws can contradict the basic tenets of Islam.

Right. Keep in mind, Sistani opposes the Khomeini school of Vilayet-e-faqih, and is quite amenable (relatively speaking) to allowing for the protection of individual rights and the expression of democratic will to dicatate major decisions.


Can we just clarify: that it is not correct to state or imply that the Iraqi elections in Jan and Dec of 2005 were conducted on the basis of "imposed sectarian quotas"?

ISCI/Badr and Dawa: if they break the coalition, then in order to win the same number of seats in the COR as they divvied among themselves for their list in Dec 05, ISCI/Badr (36) will have to poll about 12-13% nationally, and the 2 Dawa parties (25 seats) about 8% nationally, or around 4% each if they contest separately. They would be largely competing against each other in the same 10 or so provinces.

Fadhila (15 seats in the divvy) will need about 5% nationally and the Sadrists (32)about 10-11% In relation to Fadhila and the Sadrists, the one being an offshoot of the other, they would also be competing against each other largely for the same vote in the same southern provinces where ISCI and Dawa would also be competing?

If ISCI/Dawa split and run separately as you suggest then almost certainly the next government will be formed from the Kurdish coalition which got 53 seats with 21.7% vote nationally.

The alternative to the Kurds would be that the parties of ex Baathists, Baath apologists, takfiri and takfiri apologists (this would likely be the shia parties perspective, not mine) form a coalition and knock out the Kurds as the party with the largest number of seats and therefore be entitled to nominate the prime minister and cabinet?

It seems rather unlikely the two main shia parties in the existing government would risk this, especially given the Iraqis expertise in basic arithmetic as the people who first discovered mathematics!?


BB, I am not sure why we keep coming back to the “imposition of quotas in the 2005 elections?” Have I said exactly that?? I have been discussing quotas in government and key committees (commonly known among Iraqis as muhasasa) and the imposition of sectarian master narratives and paradigms, but not in elections, which were conducted with various PR formulas as everyone knows.-

The fact that I find interesting today is that the Sadrists and Fadila and many independents have already said farewell to the UIA and are working with Sunni and secular parties in parliament. I’m just suggesting the possibility that this cooperation may well continue if these parties still feel marginalised by Maliki.

Finally, one very minor detail: Please note that the UIA breakdowns presented in your comment are inaccurate and probably based on a Wiki article which misreads articles by myself and Juan Cole. ISCI has around 30 seats, not 36.


Reidar ... the issue came up with me because in your first comment you said: "If the next parliamentary elections are fought against the backdrop of constitutional revision as a key issue, the 22 July parties could easily boost their numbers by highlighting specific issues .... .... (and) banning the formation of federal entities on a sectarian basis and sectarian quotas in government."

This gave the impression that sectarian quotas are imposed by the Iraqi constitution. Thank you for clarifying.

Re the widespread and ill informed beliefs about Iraqi so-called historic "Sunni/Shia" sectarianism - the issue never has been Sunni versus shia or vice versa, but between those sections of the Iraqi population who were persecuted and oppressed by the Baath regime and its army for three decades and those who continued to support the Baath and ALqi insurgency after April 2003 which targeted shia police, army recruits and civilians, killing tens of thousands more.

It seems to be entirely forgotten that the brutal repression of the shia by the Baath army after the uprising of 1991, killing an estimated 150000 shia in the space of a few weeks, and the flight of millions of Kurds to the Turkish and Iranian borders, occured ONLY 12 years before the Baath regime was finally abolished. ie it was and remains fresh in the living memory of the 80% of the population who have suffered at the Baathists hands and continued to do because of the insurgency.

Re ISCI - I haven't been able to find another authoritative source (including yourself!) who gives the definitive breakdown of the SEATS the UIA allotted to each of its components after Dec 05. Your website only talks about it in % terms and doesn't even seem to give the seat distribution of the compensatories?

In any case, if ISCI only gave themselves 30 of 130 the seats in the divvy up, it goes further to my point that if the major shia parties ISCI and DAWA contest the the next election separately that the Kurds almost certainly will be entitled to form the next government? Unless of course the July 22 parties do form a coalition, in which case they might end up having the largest block of seats. But parliamentary co-operation to secure short-term political goals is a different thing to an election that decides who will form the government?

Still, I'd like to be a fly on the wall during the negotiations, if there are any!



You should have come to USIP's presentation on Iraqi Recommendations to the Incoming Administration (http://www.usip.org/events/2008/1003_iraq_recommendations.html), in which a few of our panelists echoed your sentiment. Feisal Istrabadi had a memorable quote. The analogy is not perfect, but the point is driven home that Iraqi political progress can and will only happen on an Iraqi timetable:

"If the French had made it a condition of their support of the [American] colonists that they adequately resolved by then prevailing European standards, the issue of slavery -- which is to say they abolish slavery ; that they adequately resolve the issue of federal assumption of state sovereign debt and that they create a bank of the United States; before the French would intercede to help you or to continue to help you gain independence from the British, you would still be the Britannic majesty’s most loyal subjects because it took you 100 years to resolve the issue of slavery and another 100 years to resolve the issue of civil rights."

A few of the speakers agreed that U.S. interests in Iraq can only be secured through mutual bilateral concessions with Iraq's neighboring countries, making U.S. withdrawal a sort of bait for regional engagement. This may be a piece of the puzzle worth considering.


Two issues I would raise with your analysis. First, the one thing that can be said with certainty about the next round of Iraqi elections is that they will have more Sunni participation. With only a little speculation, one could say that a substantial portion of this increased Sunni participation would be either affiliated with or have a strong affinity with the Sons of Iraq. Combine this with the fact that the factions in the current government that are more prone to making a settlement, such as the one headed by Adil Abd al-Mahdi, have only marginally less representation now than the current ruling faction and the next election propel a more deal-making faction into power.

Second, while you attack the notion of security providing the breathing space for political accommodation, you entertain no such questions as to whether or not being put in a position where failure to make accommodations would undo the security gains would induce Maliki to make those accommodations. This notion requires several assumptions. One is that Maliki thinks that he is unable to maintain the current security level without American help. It is also possible that Maliki believes that if he can't maintain the security on his own, that assistance from Iran would tip the balance in his favor, which would eliminate any incentive to reconcile.

In assessing the role of "breathing space," or any alternative, in inducing reconciliation, it is necessary to look at why breathing space would do so. One effect of having security on the ground is that it eliminates the drumbeat from below saying, "Protect 'us' from 'them.'" The essence of "breathing space" is removing this pressure. However, the absence of this type of pressure does nothing if the leaders lack interest in reconciliation. The next question is, what is the best way to induce the Iraqi people to vote for a government that is prepared to reconcile? In speculation, if they go to the polls with the thought of "who will protect 'us' from 'them?'" they will be unlikely to vote for reconcilers. That is why we must make sure that the security holds through the next election. The cost of that is comparably low, and it would probably be better to assess the next government when it takes office than now.

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