Commentary Magazine


Topic: Ayad Allawi

Iraqis at the Polls

I arrived in London yesterday as Iraqis here began early voting ahead of Wednesday polls, and ever more photos of Iraqi expatriates voting around the world now mark Facebook. Given the videos of campaigning inside Iraq, as well as the chatter from Iraqis there, it certainly seems that Iraqis will embrace new national elections with enthusiasm, and as a chance to resolve critical questions which Iraq’s political class has so far kicked down the road. There are many issues to be resolved.

First and foremost, is the position of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, about whom the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins recently penned a study worth reading, even if some of his assumptions are questionable and despite the fact that he appears to have allowed American officials both to exaggerate and whitewash their roles. Maliki—like pretty much all of his political rivals—is flawed. Many of the aspersions his rivals throw at him perhaps reflect their own projection. Maliki is no autocrat—he has not the power to be one at present and few autocrats worry about losing at the polls. That said, Iraqis fear that after a third term he could push Iraq in that direction by further reshaping the civil service in his image.

Ayad Allawi remains more popular among military analysts in Washington and royal family members in Jordan and Saudi Arabia than he is in Iraq, largely because he spends so much time abroad. And it is unclear whether Ammar al-Hakim’s grouping will remain immune to forces that might seek to co-opt its members after the election. That said, any change in power might benefit Iraq simply by setting a precedent. If Maliki is unable to form a new coalition—more on that later—then hopefully any successor will be wise enough to allow Maliki to retire in peace rather than engage in political retaliation.

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I arrived in London yesterday as Iraqis here began early voting ahead of Wednesday polls, and ever more photos of Iraqi expatriates voting around the world now mark Facebook. Given the videos of campaigning inside Iraq, as well as the chatter from Iraqis there, it certainly seems that Iraqis will embrace new national elections with enthusiasm, and as a chance to resolve critical questions which Iraq’s political class has so far kicked down the road. There are many issues to be resolved.

First and foremost, is the position of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, about whom the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins recently penned a study worth reading, even if some of his assumptions are questionable and despite the fact that he appears to have allowed American officials both to exaggerate and whitewash their roles. Maliki—like pretty much all of his political rivals—is flawed. Many of the aspersions his rivals throw at him perhaps reflect their own projection. Maliki is no autocrat—he has not the power to be one at present and few autocrats worry about losing at the polls. That said, Iraqis fear that after a third term he could push Iraq in that direction by further reshaping the civil service in his image.

Ayad Allawi remains more popular among military analysts in Washington and royal family members in Jordan and Saudi Arabia than he is in Iraq, largely because he spends so much time abroad. And it is unclear whether Ammar al-Hakim’s grouping will remain immune to forces that might seek to co-opt its members after the election. That said, any change in power might benefit Iraq simply by setting a precedent. If Maliki is unable to form a new coalition—more on that later—then hopefully any successor will be wise enough to allow Maliki to retire in peace rather than engage in political retaliation.

The second issue which the elections should resolve is the question of the presidency. Jalal Talabani, Iraq’s president, remains paralyzed, impaired cognitively, and barely able to speak. Kurdish officials have released only two sets of photographs since he suffered a debilitating stroke in December 2012, and his family refuses him visitors or to release videos. Those who suggest Talabani is recuperating well have become the second coming of Saddam’s former Information Minister Muhammed Saeed “There are no Americans in Baghdad” al-Sahaf.

The only certainty from this new election is that it will usher in a new presidency. I have written before about the Masud Barzani option. Visiting Baghdad last month, I also heard rumors that Barzani’s uncle, Hoshyar Zebari, could fill the position, thereby creating a vacancy in the foreign ministry. While many Americans may hope that former Kurdish prime minister and Iraqi Minister of Planning Barham Salih could fit the bill for president, Barham has to overcome two hurdles working against him: First is that the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the party he represents, has steadily hemorrhaged voter support. Many Iraqis would rightly question why the plum post of the presidency should go to the third-place finisher. Iraq, after all, isn’t like the European Union, where failed national politicians get plum posts as consolation prizes.

A greater obstacle for Barham is the animosity which Hero Ibrahim Ahmad, Jalal Talabani’s wife and the keeper of PUK finances, has for him. Simply put, she hates him and would do anything she can to scuttle any promotion for him. That is too bad, because if Hoshyar Zebari takes the presidency, Barham would make an excellent foreign minister. Hero is too small-minded to care, but short-sightedness has always been the Kurds’ No. 1 enemy. That said, many Iraqis question why the Kurds should automatically consider the presidency reserved for them. If the Kurds do succeed in taking the presidency, then it confirms the Lebanese confessional model in Iraq, a model that does not have a strong track record of preserving peace.

Many other issues remain unresolved which I will write about after the election: The situation in Kirkuk remains volatile, even as most across the political, ethnic, and sectarian spectrum acknowledge that Governor Najmaldin Karim has done an excellent job. The question of oil and, more broadly, relations between the central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government remains unresolved. Sectarianism continues to eat away at Iraqi society, and al-Qaeda’s rise will challenge a third Maliki term or a new premier. All major Iraqi political figures utilize their sons and immediate family members to engage in what at best would appear to be a conflict of interest and at worst is blatant corruption.

Unless Maliki wins a majority outright rather than a plurality, Iraq is in for a rough ride. Should Maliki not top fifty percent of the vote, Iraqis can expect it to takes months if not more than a year to put together a new government. The bidding and brinkmanship will make previous Iraqi caucuses pale in comparison because the opposition will calculate that they either rid themselves of Maliki at this junction, or they live with him forever. Iraq’s Kurds will use that brinkmanship to up the ante on autonomy, unresolved issues relating to Kirkuk and other disputed areas, and power in Baghdad. Some sectarian parties—and not only those in Anbar and Mosul—might calculate that they can utilize violence to bolster their position at the negotiating table or, conversely, to undercut their opponents. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran will not hesitate to interfere for sectarian reasons and to support their respective proxies.

Let us hope that Iraqis—all Iraqis—have on Wednesday a successful election not marred by violence. But once the polls close and the ballots are pointed, the real struggle will begin. America no longer occupies Iraq, but it is essential to remain engaged in what will become a long period of diplomatic need.

UPDATE: The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan late this afternoon Iraqi time released its first video of President Jalal Talabani since his stroke. While it depicts him as wheelchair bound and without speaking, it clearly shows him moving his arms. Still, he does not appear in any condition to exercise his functions as president.

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Don’t Confuse Power Consolidation with Dictatorship in Iraq

Since the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been steadily consolidating power. Political opponents cry foul, and raise the specter of dictatorship. Iraq may have tons of problems but, for the time being, dictatorship is not among them. True, Maliki is consolidating power, but any competent leader in Iraq would. Creating a functional, accountable government requires it.

The Iraqi constitution was an achievement, but it set Iraq down the path to paralyzed, dysfunctional government. Here’s how it works: The Iraqi people elect a parliament, the parliament chooses a president, the president chooses the prime minister, the prime minister appoints his cabinet, and then the Iraqi parliament ratifies the whole package. In practice, this sounds like checks-and-balances. In reality, the parliamentary blocs refuse to ratify the government unless they each get an allotment of ministries. Pundits used to complain that nothing could be worse than Israel’s system of cobbling together governments, but the situation in Iraq is worse. Compounding the problem is that many of the party slates are fractious. Party leaders cannot strike deals without risking fracturing their slate; politicians can flee their party after the election causing party numbers always to be in flux. It’s in vogue to describe Ayad Allawi, for example, as a secularist, but he populates his list with an untenable mix of unrepentant Sunni Islamists who would be equally at home in al-Qaeda as they are in Allawi’s Iraqiya Party, and “ex” Baathists who would be equally at home in Saddam’s palace as they would be in Allawi’s Jordanian villa or British state house.

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Since the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been steadily consolidating power. Political opponents cry foul, and raise the specter of dictatorship. Iraq may have tons of problems but, for the time being, dictatorship is not among them. True, Maliki is consolidating power, but any competent leader in Iraq would. Creating a functional, accountable government requires it.

The Iraqi constitution was an achievement, but it set Iraq down the path to paralyzed, dysfunctional government. Here’s how it works: The Iraqi people elect a parliament, the parliament chooses a president, the president chooses the prime minister, the prime minister appoints his cabinet, and then the Iraqi parliament ratifies the whole package. In practice, this sounds like checks-and-balances. In reality, the parliamentary blocs refuse to ratify the government unless they each get an allotment of ministries. Pundits used to complain that nothing could be worse than Israel’s system of cobbling together governments, but the situation in Iraq is worse. Compounding the problem is that many of the party slates are fractious. Party leaders cannot strike deals without risking fracturing their slate; politicians can flee their party after the election causing party numbers always to be in flux. It’s in vogue to describe Ayad Allawi, for example, as a secularist, but he populates his list with an untenable mix of unrepentant Sunni Islamists who would be equally at home in al-Qaeda as they are in Allawi’s Iraqiya Party, and “ex” Baathists who would be equally at home in Saddam’s palace as they would be in Allawi’s Jordanian villa or British state house.

Maliki is between a rock and a hard place. The constitutional system the Americans helped craft has given him a cabinet akin to an American one in which Karl Rove would work aside Al Sharpton, and Doug Feith and Samantha Power share a cubicle. To accuse Maliki of being a dictator for consolidating power and trying to implement an agenda is like accusing Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, or Barack Obama of doing the same.

So what has Maliki done? Maliki, like Allawi and As-Sadr, created a shadow circle of advisers to whom he turns to craft policy; the ministers generally just collect their pensions. True, he has moved to arrest other Iraqi politicians like Tareq al-Hashemi. But, just because Maliki targeted Hashemi doesn’t mean that Hashemi wasn’t guilty. INTERPOL certainly believed the evidence against Hashemi as, frankly, do even many of Hashemi’s supporters.

Maliki successfully did what Allawi was unable to: form a government. Maliki is far from perfect and, like many other Iraqi candidates, has a serious corruption problem within his government. Allawi is the sour grapes candidate, however, and spreads money—mysteriously donated to him by Jordanians, Saudis, and others outside Iraq— around Washington and Europe to sow uncertainty. That Masud Barzani calls Maliki a dictator is risible, as Barzani remains the most autocratic figure in Iraq, basically Saddam without the mustache. That’s another story, however.

Now it’s time for Maliki to sink or swim. He should have his chance to succeed, and then he should be held accountable to the voters. The proper position of the United States would be to ensure the sanctity of the elections, the timing of which should be set in stone.

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Forming a Government in Iraq

Good to see that the de-Baathification campaign has been dropped in Iraq, at least for now. The effort to disqualify parliamentary candidates for supposed Baathist backgrounds was a truly poisonous effort engineered by Iran and executed by the opportunistic Ahmed Chalabi to rig the outcome of the Iraqi election. If it had succeeded in taking away votes from Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiyya slate, the result could have been a major backlash among Sunnis.

Since I have recently been critical of the Obama administration and U.S. diplomatic representatives in Baghdad for not doing more to resolve the post-election crisis, it is only fair to give credit where it is due and note that a behind-the-scenes American effort contributed to this important step forward. But there is much more that needs to be done.

The election results still aren’t certified. Only when that happens will the true jockeying to form a government begin. One of the key questions will be whether Nouri al-Maliki or his chief rival, Ayad Allawi, will get first chance to form a government. Going strictly by the election results, Allawi should get first shot. But Maliki has formed a post-election alliance between his State of Law slate and the Iraqi National Alliance, a group of sectarian Shiites close to Iran that finished a distant third in the balloting. An Iraqi judicial ruling would thus seem to suggest that the newly formed all-Shiite coalition should get first shot at government-formation, even though this would seem to run counter to the intentions of Iraqi voters who gave Allawi’s secular, nationalist slate the most seats.

Odds are that Allawi, a secular Shiite whose primary base of support is among Sunnis, can’t form a government in any case because of Shiite opposition, but it would be good to at least let him try so as to lessen charge of post-election manipulation. There is also serious cause to doubt whether Maliki can engineer a coalition that will keep him in the prime minister’s office. He has made many enemies and few friends among fellow Iraqi politicos, and his new coalition partners, the Sadrists, are adamantly oppose to his continued rule. Odds are that a lesser-known, compromise candidate will ultimately emerge as prime minister — just as Maliki himself came from nowhere to be chosen as prime minister in 2006.

While all this is going on, U.S. troop reductions are slated to continue at a rapid pace, down to just 50,000 soldiers by the end of August, thus lessening American ability to influence the outcome. That, in turn, will place a premium on smart, skillful diplomacy during what promises to be a very trying summer. Iraq has cleared one important hurdle, but many more remain.

Good to see that the de-Baathification campaign has been dropped in Iraq, at least for now. The effort to disqualify parliamentary candidates for supposed Baathist backgrounds was a truly poisonous effort engineered by Iran and executed by the opportunistic Ahmed Chalabi to rig the outcome of the Iraqi election. If it had succeeded in taking away votes from Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiyya slate, the result could have been a major backlash among Sunnis.

Since I have recently been critical of the Obama administration and U.S. diplomatic representatives in Baghdad for not doing more to resolve the post-election crisis, it is only fair to give credit where it is due and note that a behind-the-scenes American effort contributed to this important step forward. But there is much more that needs to be done.

The election results still aren’t certified. Only when that happens will the true jockeying to form a government begin. One of the key questions will be whether Nouri al-Maliki or his chief rival, Ayad Allawi, will get first chance to form a government. Going strictly by the election results, Allawi should get first shot. But Maliki has formed a post-election alliance between his State of Law slate and the Iraqi National Alliance, a group of sectarian Shiites close to Iran that finished a distant third in the balloting. An Iraqi judicial ruling would thus seem to suggest that the newly formed all-Shiite coalition should get first shot at government-formation, even though this would seem to run counter to the intentions of Iraqi voters who gave Allawi’s secular, nationalist slate the most seats.

Odds are that Allawi, a secular Shiite whose primary base of support is among Sunnis, can’t form a government in any case because of Shiite opposition, but it would be good to at least let him try so as to lessen charge of post-election manipulation. There is also serious cause to doubt whether Maliki can engineer a coalition that will keep him in the prime minister’s office. He has made many enemies and few friends among fellow Iraqi politicos, and his new coalition partners, the Sadrists, are adamantly oppose to his continued rule. Odds are that a lesser-known, compromise candidate will ultimately emerge as prime minister — just as Maliki himself came from nowhere to be chosen as prime minister in 2006.

While all this is going on, U.S. troop reductions are slated to continue at a rapid pace, down to just 50,000 soldiers by the end of August, thus lessening American ability to influence the outcome. That, in turn, will place a premium on smart, skillful diplomacy during what promises to be a very trying summer. Iraq has cleared one important hurdle, but many more remain.

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Iraqi Elections — Good News

The Iraqi election looks, so far, to be generally good news. It went off without too much violence and it was managed by the Iraqis themselves with minimal American help. The preliminary results show that in the Shiite heartland of southern Iraq, Prime Minister Maliki’s State of Law Coalition appears to have outpolled the unholy alliance of ISCI and the Sadrists — the Iraqi National Alliance, which is widely viewed as the party closest to Iran. Meanwhile former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiya coalition, which appeals for Sunni and secular votes, appears to be in first place in Sunni areas and running a close second overall behind State of Law. If the results hold up, it would suggest that last year’s provincial elections were no fluke — Iraqi voters prefer nationalist candidates running on law-and-order platforms to religious candidates who are seen as too close to the Iranians. This is yet another big step forward in Iraq’s emergence as that most unlikely of creatures — a real Arab democracy, something that President Bush’s myriad of critics long dismissed as a neocon fantasy.

But it is hard to know what lies ahead. Predictably, there are claims of fraud being bandied about by losing candidates and there is sure to be much difficult camel trading ahead as the new government is being formed. The situation remains unsettled, so it is well worth listening to Ryan Crocker, the first-rate former ambassador and General Petraeus’s indispensible partner in implementing the surge and turning around the situation in 2007-2008. Here is what he has to say in a new interview with Foreign Policy about the impending drawdown of U.S. forces, which are scheduled to go from roughly 100,000 today to 50,000 by the end of August:

The agreement I helped negotiate had an intermediate timeline to have forces out of cities and towns by mid-2009, which was accomplished, and full withdrawal by 2011. The August 2010 date was not part of that agreement. I would have preferred to see us keep maximum flexibility with the Iraqis between now and 2011.

It makes me nervous. We’re going to have a prolonged period of government formation. It could take two or three months, [and] it’s likely to be a pretty turbulent process. I think [the government formation process], in and of itself, is not likely to be destabilizing, but it means that the major issues out there aren’t going to be addressed. Things like disputed internal boundaries, Kirkuk, the relationship between federal, regional, and provincial governments — all of that’s going to be on hold until you have a new government.

That means that things aren’t going to be much further along come August than they are right now. So I would be more comfortable, within the terms of the agreement we negotiated, with keeping a more robust force for a longer period of time.

Sage words from one of our very best diplomats. We can only hope that President Obama is listening.

The Iraqi election looks, so far, to be generally good news. It went off without too much violence and it was managed by the Iraqis themselves with minimal American help. The preliminary results show that in the Shiite heartland of southern Iraq, Prime Minister Maliki’s State of Law Coalition appears to have outpolled the unholy alliance of ISCI and the Sadrists — the Iraqi National Alliance, which is widely viewed as the party closest to Iran. Meanwhile former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiya coalition, which appeals for Sunni and secular votes, appears to be in first place in Sunni areas and running a close second overall behind State of Law. If the results hold up, it would suggest that last year’s provincial elections were no fluke — Iraqi voters prefer nationalist candidates running on law-and-order platforms to religious candidates who are seen as too close to the Iranians. This is yet another big step forward in Iraq’s emergence as that most unlikely of creatures — a real Arab democracy, something that President Bush’s myriad of critics long dismissed as a neocon fantasy.

But it is hard to know what lies ahead. Predictably, there are claims of fraud being bandied about by losing candidates and there is sure to be much difficult camel trading ahead as the new government is being formed. The situation remains unsettled, so it is well worth listening to Ryan Crocker, the first-rate former ambassador and General Petraeus’s indispensible partner in implementing the surge and turning around the situation in 2007-2008. Here is what he has to say in a new interview with Foreign Policy about the impending drawdown of U.S. forces, which are scheduled to go from roughly 100,000 today to 50,000 by the end of August:

The agreement I helped negotiate had an intermediate timeline to have forces out of cities and towns by mid-2009, which was accomplished, and full withdrawal by 2011. The August 2010 date was not part of that agreement. I would have preferred to see us keep maximum flexibility with the Iraqis between now and 2011.

It makes me nervous. We’re going to have a prolonged period of government formation. It could take two or three months, [and] it’s likely to be a pretty turbulent process. I think [the government formation process], in and of itself, is not likely to be destabilizing, but it means that the major issues out there aren’t going to be addressed. Things like disputed internal boundaries, Kirkuk, the relationship between federal, regional, and provincial governments — all of that’s going to be on hold until you have a new government.

That means that things aren’t going to be much further along come August than they are right now. So I would be more comfortable, within the terms of the agreement we negotiated, with keeping a more robust force for a longer period of time.

Sage words from one of our very best diplomats. We can only hope that President Obama is listening.

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