The US votes: the road ahead for Iraq

Zaid Al-Ali
14 November 2006

Many in Iraq are wondering how the results of the United States congressional elections that took place on 7 November 2006 will affect them. The Democrats, who have won control over both the House of Representatives and of the Senate, are increasingly vocal about their opposition to the way in which the war in Iraq is being conducted, and so some are hoping that this will encourage a more intelligent approach to the administration of that country. Assuming that such a policy change is indeed in the works, this article attempts to summarise and evaluate the different options that the new authorities in Washington will be choosing from.

Until recently, George W Bush was fond of saying the United States should "stay the course" in Iraq. hat phrase was reminiscent of the slogan that he used during his 2004 presidential campaign - that the country "can't change horse midstream". The most appropriate response, just as applicable today, came from Bill Clinton when he remarked that "if we don't change horse now, we're all going to drown".

It was never entirely clear what Bush actually meant by "staying the course", but in any event, he has decided to drop the phrase. Also, judging by the fact that he has tasked a bipartisan committee, the Iraq Study Group (ISG), to recommend a series of options on how to move forward on Iraq, and that he has finally decided to let go of Donald Rumsfeld, Bush seems to have accepted the fact that a change of course is needed.

Among the range of options likely to be before the ISG, and being discussed more widely in Washington in this period of political flux, three are receiving particular attention: a US troop withdrawal, an opening of talks with Syria and Iran, and a three-way partition of Iraq.

Zaid Al-Ali is an attorney at the New York Bar and specialises in international commercial arbitration. He has graduated from King's College London, the Sorbonne University in Paris and Harvard Law School. He is also the editor of www.iraqieconomy.org

Among Zaid Al-Ali's articles on openDemocracy:

"Iraq: the lost generation"
(7 November 2004)

"Iraq's dangerous elections"
(23 December 2004)

"The end of secularism in Iraq"
(18 May 2005)

"Iraq: a constitution or an epitaph?"
(16 August 2005)

"Iraq: a constitution to nowhere"
(14 October 2005)

"Iraq's war of elimination"
(21 August 2006)

"Saving Iraq: a critique of Peter W Galbraith" (26 October 2006)

A troop withdrawal?

The first option is an immediate or phased withdrawal of US troops. A number of quarters, including groups that are party to the conflict, have been arguing that this is the solution to all of Iraq's problems (against other voices, such as Robert Kagan and William Kristol, and Senator John McCain, who advocate an increase in US troop deployments). Sectarian killings on a street-by-street level began with the arrival of the Americans, and so their presence is the original sin that ought to be reversed.

This argument brings to light one of the main differences between the conflict in Iraq and the Vietnam war. In the latter, the communist Vietnamese government that was already governing the north of the country was waiting in the wings for the US to withdraw, with a view to taking control over the entire country. Most of the parties opposed to the presence of US forces were confident that a communist administration would benefit the entire country.

In Iraq, it is anyone's guess what would happen if the US were to withdraw tomorrow, as there is no government in waiting prepared to take control. What is most likely is that at least part of the country would eventually fall in the hands of militias such as al-Qaida and the Mahdi army. The mere thought of that happening would be enough to make most Iraqis run for the hills. What is certain though is that the current Iraqi government is in no way capable of assuring any semblance of law and order in the country.

A withdrawal would therefore mean that the government would collapse, and that chaos would ensue.

Talk to Syria and Iran?

A second option, one that has been floated on a number of occasions since 2003 - most recently on 13 November - is that the US administration should open a dialogue with both Syria and Iran. Although there is obviously nothing wrong for these three parties to enter into talks, there is little chance that this will amount to anything positive.

On the one hand, Syria can do little to influence the situation in Iraq. It is true that Iraqi rebels move around relatively freely within Syria, but in light of the massive influx of Iraqi refugees into that country since 2003, the authorities in Damascus are fairly powerless to control this movement. In any event, the Syrians will be reluctant to assist the Americans, considering how diametrically opposed their positions are in relation to both Lebanon and Palestine.

On the other hand, there is little that Iran will be willing to change in terms of its involvement in Iraq. The political parties that it founded, trained, financed and armed - including the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri) - are in power in Baghdad and continue to exercise an enormous amount of influence on the situation there. Washington has already and unwittingly handed the keys to Baghdad over to Tehran. What more could the Iranians possibly want from the US, and why would they make any concessions to the Bush administration?

The partition option?

A third possibility has been spreading like wildfire amongst policy makers and political commentators in the US. The suggestion is to divide Iraq, or to "partition" it, into three separate entities. It is not clear whether the partitionists are arguing in favor of dividing Iraq into three independent states, or if they are arguing that the country's three communities should be separated into three distinct administrative regions that will be loosely administered by Baghdad. In fact, these two options amount to one and the same as the second course of action will necessarily lead to the first.

Iraq's new constitutional framework establishes a system that will force federal entities to confront each other. It also deprives the country's central authorities of many of the most basic powers that just about every government in the world enjoys, which means that they will not be able to act as an arbiter when such conflicts arise. Finally, judging from the performance of Iraq's new political class, it seems fairly certain that none will rise to the challenge and break down sectarian barriers for the sake of saving the people from disaster. Establishing three autonomous entities - Shi'a, Sunni and Kurdish - under the current federal framework will only increase tensions and would no doubt lead to the breakup of the country once and for all.

In fact, what most partitionists do not realise is that the solution that they have been advocating will actually increase the levels of violence. The more militia leaders and warlords hear the word "partition", the more they will accelerate the fight to gain control over those areas of the country that are up for grabs, such as Baghdad, Baquba, Mosul, and Kirkuk, among many others. This applies to the fighting that is ongoing between Kurds and Arabs (in Kirkuk, and in and around Mosul), but even more so to the struggle between Shi'a and Sunni militias, as the faultlines there are much more important (e.g. Baghdad itself).

Those who reject partition as a viable option for Iraq can be split into two distinct groups. In the first are those who continue to maintain old prejudices against Iraq's Kurdish population and who are attached to an outdated notion according to which all of Iraq should be ruled by Arabs. In the second are those who are merely concerned for the welfare of the people living in the country, and indeed in the region, and who believe that partition would likely lead to a full-blown war involving all of Iraq's neighbours. This second group does not necessarily oppose partition in principle, but is opposed to it on the grounds that the partition effort would provoke unprecedented levels of violence.

To the surprise of many, James Baker - co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group - recently placed himself in the second camp. He has argued that "(there) are no boundaries between Sunni areas and Shi'a areas in Iraq. How do you draw the boundaries? And the minute you say we're going to do that and make three autonomous regions, you're likely to kick off a huge civil war".

The question of whether or not the country will be partitioned by the Bush administration is an open one, but the burden is on those who oppose partition to show that there are alternatives that are possible and less painful.  

A reformed government?

A few months ago, rumours were circulating in both Baghdad and Washington that a military coup d'ètat was imminent. In fact, there wasn't much in terms of evidence to back that story, but it was representative of how little faith there is in Iraq's new generation of political leaders among political commentators and observers. These leaders are considered to be incapable of governing the country and of reaching out to all the country's communities in the way that Nelson Mandela did in South Africa after the fall of apartheid.

The feeling was therefore that a military junta could do a better job of running the country, and that it would be better to silence any dissent rather than to let the country continue to disintegrate. That story fell apart a few weeks ago after the new Iraqi military was routed by the Mahdi Army in a battle that took place in Diwaniya, a sleepy town in southern Iraq. During the course of the battle, the Iraqi soldiers ran out of ammunition and were executed in the centre of the town by the militiamen. If the military cannot even control a single town, then what hope could it have of governing the whole country?

Regardless, the feeling that Iraq's ruling elite has to be changed is apparently shared by Nouri Al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister himself. On 12 November 2006 he told a closed session of parliament that he was planning a major shake-up of government. Many of his ministers, he said, were incompetent, and others were contributing to sectarian hatred rather than anything else. His new government would seek to overcome Iraq's difficulties and work to unite the country.

It is unlikely that al-Maliki will succeed. Assuming that he genuinely intends on forming a non-sectarian government that is independent of the militias, the parliament will not allow him to do so as a result of the fact that its members were elected precisely because of their sectarian credentials and because they are associated with militias.

In fact, the problem with al-Maliki's initiative is that it does not go far enough. In order to reform the government, and to give it any hope of succeeding, he must call for new parliamentary elections, and insist upon the application of the code of conduct issued in 2005 by the independent electoral commission of Iraq (which forbids any political party from being associated with a militia, and requires all to be financially transparent).

This would allow for the formation of a government and parliament that are truly independent of the militias, and that would therefore have a direct interest in ensuring that the Iraqi state is in a position to defend its citizens. Organising fresh elections that are this time transparent and truly democratic will not be easy, but it would be less painful than partitioning the country or abandoning it to the militias. Also, if it succeeds, the benefits would be beyond measure for all Iraqis, for the region, and for the United States as well.

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