President-elect Obama’s administration must not give any inkling that Iraq is becoming less important to Washington if it wants to shore up real but fragile gains in Iraqi stability.
Iraq has reached a political plateau. The U.S. troop surge has stopped the downward spiral in sectarian violence, allowing politics to move in a different direction. There are least three processes to watch: the on-going struggle for power among various parties and groups, recent state building efforts, and the cohesion of the four-party (two Shi’i and two Kurdish) coalition currently in power.
Shiite Islamists are likely to ultimately become the dominant power in post-war Iraq. As the Baath Party is dismantled by the Coalition Provisional Authority, the organizational counterweight to Shiite Islamist power is being weakened, and the Shiite Islamist groups have demonstrated that they are better organized and funded than other non-Baathist groups.
As the elections end, the hard work of constructing the new Iraq begins. While Iraqi voters can congratulate themselves on a remarkable achievement in the face of extraordinary difficulties, the situation remains precarious.
After the first large demonstrations organized by Shiite clerics in Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was asked about the possibility that radical Islamists would rise to power. That, he answered, "ain't gonna happen, I just don't see how that's going to happen."
Though Iraqi political life since the ouster of Saddam Hussein may appear formless, it is following certain patterns familiar from other post-authoritarian settings. All countries where an authoritarian regime suddenly collapses go through a period of decompression in which political oxygen flows very rapidly into a previously closed system, producing disorientation and confusion.
As anti-American attacks escalate elsewhere in Iraq, the Kurdistan region remains steadfast in its support of the United States, if not all of the policies of the Coalition Provisional Authority. This does not, however,translate into unconditional support for Bush administration's political objectives in Iraq, which may become painfully obvious when Iraqis finally sit down to write a constitution.
Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraq's Sunni Arab community — estimated to be less than twenty percent of the population — has been demonized and victimized by many inside and outside Iraq. Having dominated Iraq's political, educational, and military institutions since 1920, Sunni Arabs are now frightened by their sudden, dramatic loss of political power, social status, and economic well being.
British officials publicly worried recently that the United States-led coalition occupying Iraq had only about a year before the Shiites of Iraq turned against it. Shiites, the majority in the country, so far have been more welcoming of the coalition military and civilian presence than have Sunni Arabs.
Underlying the political map of the Middle East —those weird straight lines of Sykes-Picot vintage running through the desert— is the real configuration of this enigmatic region: the ethno-religious layout. Kurds, Berbers, Arabs, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Turks, Armenians, Copts, and more, depending on where one decides the Middle East ends.
To date, the United States-led Coalition Provisional Authority has exhibited a strong tendency to appoint Iraqis to political positions based primarily on sectarian and ethnic considerations.
The Agreement on Political Process signed on November 15 by Ambassador L. Paul Bremer III for the Coalition Provisional Authority and by Jalal Talabani for the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) provides a much needed and long overdue roadmap for the restoration of sovereignty to an Iraqi government. Unfortunately, the agreement contains numerous clauses that will make implementation quite difficult.
In the months since the end of the war, the United States has set up scores of local councils in Iraq's cities and main towns, reaching an estimated 51 percent of the country's population. Put together under emergency conditions, the local councils are not elected, but selected by the civil affairs teams in consultation with Iraqis.
On July 15, 2003, the American administrator of Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, finally articulated a clear benchmark for ending the Coalition Provisional Authority's administration of Iraq: the governing council's promulgation of a democratic constitution and the subsequent holding of national elections. Bremer has said he expects the constitution writing process to take about six to eight months.
Since the collapse of the regime of Saddam Hussein, the Shiites of Iraq have come to the forefront of the debate among Western and Arab intellectuals and politicians. A clear majority of more than 60 percent of the population, the Shiites of Iraq have never held a majority or even a powerful minority status in Iraqi politics since the establishment of modern Iraq eight decades ago.
Ten weeks after the January 30 elections, Iraqis have chosen a Kurdish president, Shiite and Sunni vice presidents, a Sunni speaker and Shiite deputy speaker of parliament, and now a Shiite prime minister. Why has it taken so long to form the new government?
When the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) dissolves on June 30, it will leave behind a series of enactments designed to remake significant parts of the Iraqi legal order. While the juridical and political basis for the CPA's enactments is shaky, any succeeding Iraqi authority is likely to hesitate before repealing them wholesale.
The lingering effect of Baathist-era distortions and intensifying violence are hindering efforts to create a civic culture based on tolerance, cooperation, and individual initiative in Iraq.
Freed from state control, religious authorities—drawing on their moral authority and extensive mass communication networks, and benefiting from the weakness of secular forces—quickly filled the political void created by the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime. A year later, these authorities remain the principal shapers of public opinion among most Iraqi Arabs.
Iraq's Shiite Islamists are in an undeniable position of strength as the June 30, 2004 hand-over of sovereignty approaches. Their leadership has gelled with the emergence of Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, 75, as the major political force in the country.