Presented by Lapham's Quarterly and the Institute for the Future of the Book

Iraq is a sovereign state with a democratically elected Council of Representatives. A government of national unity was formed in May 2006 that is broadly representative of the Iraqi people. Iraq has ratified a constitution, and—per agreement with Sunni Arab leaders—has initiated a process of review to determine if the constitution needs amendment.

The composition of the Iraqi government is basically sectarian, and key players within the government too often act in their sectarian interest. Iraq’s Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish leaders frequently fail to demonstrate the political will to act in Iraq’s national interest, and too many Iraqi ministries lack the capacity to govern effectively. The result is an even weaker central government than the constitution provides.

There is widespread Iraqi, American, and international agreement on the key issues confronting the Iraqi government: national reconciliation, including the negotiation of a “political deal” among Iraq’s sectarian groups on Constitution review, de-Baathification, oil revenue sharing, provincial elections, the future of Kirkuk, and amnesty; security, particularly curbing militias and reducing the violence in Baghdad; and governance, including the provision of basic services and the rollback of pervasive corruption. Because Iraqi leaders view issues through a sectarian prism, we will summarize the differing perspectives of Iraq’s main sectarian groups.

Sectarian Viewpoints

The Shia, the majority of Iraq’s population, have gained power for the first time in more than 1,300 years. Above all, many Shia are interested in preserving that power. However, fissures have emerged within the broad Shia coalition, known as the United Iraqi Alliance. Shia factions are struggling for power—over regions, ministries, and Iraq as a whole. The difficulties in holding together a broad and fractious coalition have led several observers in Baghdad to comment that Shia leaders are held “hostage to extremes.” Within the coalition as a whole, there is a reluctance to reach a political accommodation with the Sunnis or to disarm Shiite militias.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has demonstrated an understanding of the key issues facing Iraq, notably the need for national reconciliation and security in Baghdad. Yet strains have emerged between Maliki’s government and the United States. Maliki has publicly rejected a U.S. timetable to achieve certain benchmarks, ordered the removal of blockades around Sadr City, sought more control over Iraqi security forces, and resisted U.S. requests to move forward on reconciliation or on disbanding Shiite militias.

Sistani, Sadr, Hakim

The U.S. deals primarily with the Iraqi government, but the most powerful Shia figures in Iraq do not hold national office. Of the following three vital power brokers in the Shia community, the United States is unable to talk directly with one (Grand Ayatollah Ali al- Sistani) and does not talk to another (Moqtada al-Sadr).

GRAND AYATOLLAH ALI AL-SISTANI: Sistani is the leading Shiite cleric in Iraq. Despite staying out of day-to-day politics, he has been the most influential leader in the country: all major Shia leaders have sought his approval or guidance. Sistani has encouraged a unified Shia bloc with moderated aims within a unified Iraq. Sistani’s influence may be waning, as his words have not succeeded in preventing intra-Shia violence or retaliation against Sunnis.

ABDUL AZIZ AL-HAKIM: Hakim is a cleric and the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the largest and most organized Shia political party. It seeks the creation of an autonomous Shia region comprising nine provinces in the south. Hakim has consistently protected and advanced his party’s position. SCIRI has close ties with Iran.

MOQTADA AL-SADR: Sadr has a large following among impoverished Shia, particularly in Baghdad. He has joined Maliki’s governing coalition, but his Mahdi Army has clashed with the Badr Brigades, as well as with Iraqi, U.S., and U.K. forces. Sadr claims to be an Iraqi nationalist. Several observers remarked to us that Sadr was following the model of Hezbollah in Lebanon: building a political party that controls basic services within the government and an armed militia outside of the government.

Sunni Arabs feel displaced because of the loss of their traditional position of power in Iraq. They are torn, unsure whether to seek their aims through political participation or through violent insurgency. They remain angry about U.S. decisions to dissolve Iraqi security forces and to pursue the “de-Baathification” of Iraq’s government and society. Sunnis are confronted by paradoxes: they have opposed the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq but need those forces to protect them against Shia militias; they chafe at being governed by a majority Shia administration but reject a federal, decentralized Iraq and do not see a Sunni autonomous region as feasible for themselves.

Hashimi and Dhari

The influence of Sunni Arab politicians in the government is questionable. The leadership of the Sunni Arab insurgency is murky, but the following two key Sunni Arab figures have broad support.

tariq al-hashimi: Hashimi is one of two vice presidents of Iraq and the head of the Iraqi Islamic Party, the largest Sunni Muslim bloc in parliament. Hashimi opposes the formation of autonomous regions and has advocated the distribution of oil revenues based on population, a reversal of de-Baathification, and the removal of Shiite militia fighters from the Iraqi security forces. Shiite death squads have recently killed three of his siblings.

sheik harith al-dhari: Dhari is the head of the Muslim Scholars Association, the most influential Sunni organization in Iraq. Dhari has condemned the American occupation and spoken out against the Iraqi government. His organization has ties both to the Sunni Arab insurgency and to Sunnis within the Iraqi government. A warrant was recently issued for his arrest for inciting violence and terrorism, an act that sparked bitter Sunni protests across Iraq.

Iraqi Kurds have succeeded in presenting a united front of two main political blocs—the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The Kurds have secured a largely autonomous Kurdish region in the north, and have achieved a prominent role for Kurds within the national government. Barzani leads the Kurdish regional government, and Talabani is president of Iraq.

Leading Kurdish politicians told us they preferred to be within a democratic, federal Iraqi state because an independent Kurdistan would be surrounded by hostile neighbors. However, a majority of Kurds favor independence. The Kurds have their own security forces—the peshmerga—which number roughly 100,000. They believe they could accommodate themselves to either a unified or a fractured Iraq.

Barzani and Talabani

Kurdish politics has been dominated for years by two figures who have long-standing ties in movements for Kurdish independence and self-government.

MASSOUD BARZANI: Barzani is the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the President of the Kurdish regional government. Barzani has cooperated with his longtime rival, Jalal Talabani, in securing an empowered, autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq. Barzani has ordered the lowering of Iraqi flags and raising of Kurdish flags in Kurdish-controlled areas.

JALAL TALABANI: Talabani is the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the President of Iraq. Whereas Barzani has focused his efforts in Kurdistan, Talabani has secured power in Baghdad, and several important PUK government ministers are loyal to him. Talabani strongly supports autonomy for Kurdistan. He has also sought to bring real power to the office of the presidency.

Key Issues

NATIONAL RECONCILIATION. Prime Minister Maliki outlined a commendable program of national reconciliation soon after he entered office. However, the Iraqi government has not taken action on the key elements of national reconciliation: revising de-Baathification, which prevents many Sunni Arabs from participating in governance and society; providing amnesty for those who have fought against the government; sharing the country’s oil revenues; demobilizing militias; amending the constitution; and settling the future of Kirkuk.

One core issue is federalism. The Iraqi Constitution, which created a largely autonomous Kurdistan region, allows other such regions to be established later, perhaps including a “Shi’astan” comprising nine southern provinces. This highly decentralized structure is favored by the Kurds and many Shia (particularly supporters of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim), but it is anathema to Sunnis. First, Sunni Arabs are generally Iraqi nationalists, albeit within the context of an Iraq they believe they should govern. Second, because Iraq’s energy resources are in the Kurdish and Shia regions, there is no economically feasible “Sunni region.” Particularly contentious is a provision in the constitution that shares revenues nationally from current oil reserves, while allowing revenues from reserves discovered in the future to go to the regions.

The Sunnis did not actively participate in the constitution-drafting process, and acceded to entering the government only on the condition that the constitution be amended. In September, the parliament agreed to initiate a constitutional review commission slated to complete its work within one year; it delayed considering the question of forming a federalized region in southern Iraq for eighteen months.

Another key unresolved issue is the future of Kirkuk, an oil-rich city in northern Iraq that is home to substantial numbers of Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmen. The Kurds insisted that the constitution require a popular referendum by December 2007 to determine whether Kirkuk can formally join the Kurdish administered region, an outcome that Arabs and Turkmen in Kirkuk staunchly oppose. The risks of further violence sparked by a Kirkuk referendum are great.

Iraq’s leaders often claim that they do not want a division of the country, but we found that key Shia and Kurdish leaders have little commitment to national reconciliation. One prominent Shia leader told us pointedly that the current government has the support of 80 percent of the population, notably excluding Sunni Arabs. Kurds have fought for independence for decades, and when our Study Group visited Iraq, the leader of the Kurdish region ordered the lowering of Iraqi flags and the raising of Kurdish flags. One senior American general commented that the Iraqis “still do not know what kind of country they want to have.” Yet many of Iraq’s most powerful and well-positioned leaders are not working toward a united Iraq.

SECURITY. The security situation cannot improve unless leaders act in support of national reconciliation. Shiite leaders must make the decision to demobilize militias. Sunni Arabs must make the decision to seek their aims through a peaceful political process, not through violent revolt. The Iraqi government and Sunni Arab tribes must aggressively pursue al Qaeda.

Militias are currently seen as legitimate vehicles of political action. Shia political leaders make distinctions between the Sunni insurgency (which seeks to overthrow the government) and Shia militias (which are used to fight Sunnis, secure neighborhoods, and maximize power within the government). Though Prime Minister Maliki has said he will address the problem of militias, he has taken little meaningful action to curb their influence. He owes his office in large part to Sadr and has shown little willingness to take on him or his Mahdi Army.

Sunni Arabs have not made the strategic decision to abandon violent insurgency in favor of the political process. Sunni politicians within the government have a limited level of support and influence among their own population, and questionable influence over the insurgency. Insurgents wage a campaign of intimidation against Sunni leaders—assassinating the family members of those who do participate in the government. Too often, insurgents tolerate and cooperate with al Qaeda, as they share a mutual interest in attacking U.S. and Shia forces. However, Sunni Arab tribal leaders in Anbar province recently took the positive step of agreeing to pursue al Qaeda and foreign fighters in their midst, and have started to take action on those commitments.

Sunni politicians told us that the U.S. military has to take on the militias; Shia politicians told us that the U.S. military has to help them take out the Sunni insurgents and al Qaeda. Each side watches the other. Sunni insurgents will not lay down arms unless the Shia militias are disarmed. Shia militias will not disarm until the Sunni insurgency is destroyed. To put it simply: there are many armed groups within Iraq, and very little will to lay down arms.

GOVERNANCE. The Iraqi government is not effectively providing its people with basic services: electricity, drinking water, sewage, health care, and education. In many sectors, production is below or hovers around prewar levels. In Baghdad and other unstable areas, the situation is much worse. There are five major reasons for this problem.

First, the government sometimes provides services on a sectarian basis. For example, in one Sunni neighborhood of Shia-governed Baghdad, there is less than two hours of electricity each day and trash piles are waist-high. One American official told us that Baghdad is run like a “Shia dictatorship” because Sunnis boycotted provincial elections in 2005, and therefore are not represented in local government.

Second, security is lacking. Insurgents target key infrastructure. For instance, electricity transmission towers are downed by explosives, and then sniper attacks prevent repairs from being made.

Third, corruption is rampant. One senior Iraqi official estimated that official corruption costs Iraq $5–7 billion per year. Notable steps have been taken: Iraq has a functioning audit board and inspectors general in the ministries, and senior leaders including the Prime Minister have identified rooting out corruption as a national priority. But too many political leaders still pursue their personal, sectarian, or party interests. There are still no examples of senior officials who have been brought before a court of law and convicted on corruption charges.

Fourth, capacity is inadequate. Most of Iraq’s technocratic class was pushed out of the government as part of de-Baathification. Other skilled Iraqis have fled the country as violence has risen. Too often, Iraq’s elected representatives treat the ministries as political spoils. Many ministries can do little more than pay salaries, spending as little as 10–15 percent of their capital budget. They lack technical expertise and suffer from corruption, inefficiency, a banking system that does not permit the transfer of moneys, extensive red tape put in place in part to deter corruption, and a Ministry of Finance reluctant to disburse funds.

Fifth, the judiciary is weak. Much has been done to establish an Iraqi judiciary, including a supreme court, and Iraq has some dedicated judges. But criminal investigations are conducted by magistrates, and they are too few and inadequately trained to perform this function. Intimidation of the Iraqi judiciary has been ruthless. As one senior U.S. official said to us, “We can protect judges, but not their families, their extended families, their friends.” Many Iraqis feel that crime not only is unpunished, it is rewarded.

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