Center for American Progress

Hazy Iraq Benchmarks: Political Success Requires Implementation

Hazy Iraq Benchmarks: Political Success Requires Implementation

General Petraeus claims the “surge” is also fostering Iraqi political reconciliation, yet even by his own benchmarks this is fiction.

Petraeus claims “surge” is fostering Iraqi reconciliation, yet by his own benchmarks this is fiction, write Brian Katulis and Peter Juul.

U.S. Army General David Petraeus, testifying before Congress today, insists that political reconciliation in Iraq is proceeding alongside increased security in the country. “There has been agreement among the different political parties on a number of pieces important to reconciliation, if you will, and laws that represent reconciliation,” he told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. And at first glance, Iraq’s parliament recently passed laws would appear to meet three of the seven legislative benchmarks formulated last year by Congress to assess Iraq policy.

Conservative supporters of the military “surge” strategy in Iraq hail these laws as proof the United States is now succeeding politically as well as militarily in Iraq. Yet these three legislative benchmarks paper over fundamental differences among Iraqi Kurdish, Sunni Arab, and Shi’a Arab factions regarding what their country is today and should become in the near future.

The benchmarks formulated by Congress were supposed to be signposts to broad political reconciliation, not unenforceable legislation passed to meet arbitrary U.S. political markers. Yet supporters of the surge are conflating procedural parliamentary movement with genuine political reconciliation—just as war supporters did during the Iraqi elections of 2005.

Americans should not confuse the ability of the Iraqi parliament to meet procedural benchmarks with the profound inability of the country’s many competing factions to make real political progress toward reconciliation. A reasonable look at the three pieces of legislation passed in Iraq recently—on de-Baathification, provincial autonomy, and amnesty for insurgents—exposes deep sectarian and secular fissures that the surge has done little to resolve.

The Fundamental Conflict in Iraq

The main problem with benchmarks is that success is now defined by the passage of certain legislation to achieve these benchmarks rather than the resolution of the basic conflict over Iraq’s national identity that these benchmarks were supposed to foster. All major ethno-sectarian groups in Iraq have their own (sometimes very different) vision of what Iraq is and should be.

Kurds see a highly federalized Iraq, with a significant degree of autonomy for their own region that includes the capacity to sign oil exploration and production contracts. Shi’a Arabs generally agree on using their electoral supremacy to ensure security for their long-oppressed religious sect, but the two main parties—the Sadrists and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq–have strong disagreements over federalism. ISCI is a strong proponent of highly autonomous super-regions, while the Sadrists favor a unified Iraqi state with a strong central government.

Sunni Arabs are even more fractured. The local tribes in the Sunni regions of the country seek increased autonomy within the current political structure, while the Sunni insurgency seeks the return of a Sunni-dominated national political system. The local tribes are the backbone of the so called sahwa movement, which has calmed much of Iraq’s west and center by attacking Al Qaeda in Iraq with American military and financial help. Many sahwamovement members are also members of insurgent groups such as the Islamic Army or 1920 Revolution Brigade, and have been using the resources and legitimacy conferred by cooperation with the United States to bolster their local power.

These various ethnic conflicts are embedded today in Iraq’s political structures and institutions, and it is these political structures and institutions that prevent further progress toward national reconciliation. The mechanism usually used to resolve national identity conflicts—a constitution—was precipitously adopted in Iraq in 2005 and has since served to exacerbate rather than ameliorate Iraq’s national identity conflict. In part this was a function of a poor American political strategy that pushed strongly for a constitution, but it ultimately reflected Iraq’s burgeoning ethno-sectarian conflicts.

In addition to ethno-sectarian division, Iraq’s politics are further fractured by disagreements between “centralizers” and “de-centralizers.” This debate also centers on Iraq’s fundamental political identity: Should Iraq be a highly federalized state, or should it have a powerful central government? Positions on this issue cross sectarian lines: ISCI, the Kurds, and sahwafactions in Anbar all favor devolution of power from the national government to regional or provincial levels, while Tawafuq, the Sadrists, Fadhila, and Allawi’s secular list all favor a strong central government. Viewing Iraqi politics purely through a sectarian lens therefore obscures intra-sectarian disputes about Iraqi identity that complicate efforts toward national reconciliation.

As a result, legislation to meet specific benchmarks on the margins of the fundamental national identity conflict will not result in a sustainable political solution. The three pieces of legislation passed by the Iraqi parliament recently are all cases in point.

The first of these laws, de-Baathification reform, was to remedy injustices and excesses perceived in the removal of ex-Baathists from public life after the fall of Saddam Hussein. The two remaining laws, one on provincial powers and another on amnesty for some insurgents detained over the course of the five-year Iraq war, were passed with Iraq’s 2008 budget in February as part of a package deal that came only after parliament’s speaker threatened to dissolve the legislature.

Most of these laws have yet to be meaningfully implemented by the Iraqi government. On its own, the passage of legislation does not constitute meeting a benchmark; implementation of each law is perhaps more critical than the legislation itself. Indeed, implementation of these three legislative benchmarks languish today—caught up in the larger sectarian struggles that plague the ruling government of prime minister Nouri al-Maliki and the country at large.


The “Accountability and Justice Law” reforming de-Baathification procedures was passed unanimously by the Iraqi parliament on January 12, 2008, with only 143 members present. Sunni and secular parties headed by ex-Baathists such as Saleh Mutlak and Iyad Allawi refused to vote on the law, considering it “vague,” “unrealistic,” and “difficult to apply.” Reflecting these concerns, Sunni Arab Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi refused to sign the law.

The Iraqi government, however, said the law was “considered approved” on February 3 despite Hashimi’s maneuver. The new de-Baathification law was therefore passed with significant Sunni Arab opposition, an indication that the law itself is not promoting political reconciliation.

In fact, the Accountability and Justice Law has several components that will likely impede reconciliation. First, the law keeps in place indefinitely Ahmed Chalabi’s controversial de-Baathification commission, changing only its name. Second, Chalabi, who remains in charge of implementing de-Baathification, said the new law would force out many ex-Baathists previously cleared by his commission. Third, any pensions for former Baathist officials require that they identify themselves as such within 60 days to claim a pension—something many ex-Baathists say is a death sentence.

Making matters worse, mid-level Baathists are now excluded from holding jobs in the judicial system as well as the Ministries of Defense, Interior, and Finance. In the Interior Ministry alone, 7,000 ex-Baathists are likely to lose their jobs, according to Chalabi. Further, Chalabi states that “a considerable number in the Defense Ministry could lose their jobs.” As the International Center for Transitional Justice put it, the new law “essentially preserves the previous De-Ba’athification system and extends its reach to a number of organizations not previously affected, including the Iraqi judiciary.” In short, the new de-Baathification law has alienated many Sunnis and not served as an instrument of political reconciliation.

Provincial Powers and Amnesty

The passage of the provincial powers and amnesty laws in a package with Iraq’s 2008 budget reveals the extraordinary complexity of Iraqi politics. The legislative package’s success reflected the complex political dynamics of sectarianism and disputes over federalism. Long overshadowed by Iraq’s sectarian divide, the political conflict between centralizers and de-centralizers reinserted itself in February 2008.

Kurdish lawmakers had demanded 17 percent of the budget go to the Kurdistan region, and that the national defense budget pay for their peshmerga militia. Unsurprisingly, Sunni and Shi’a Arab parties objected until the budget was rolled into a package featuring two provisions important to both the Sadrists and Tawafuq: amnesty for detainees currently in Iraqi jails and a provincial powers law that paves the way for a new round of provincial elections.

In exchange for support from the main Sunni and Shi’a Arab centralizer blocs for inclusion of their budget demands in the package, the Kurds agreed to support centralizer-favored provincial powers and amnesty laws. Each law was voted on separately before being voted on as a package. Even then, the votes were contentious: The provincial powers law passed only after parliament Speaker Mahmoud Mashhadani cast a tie-breaking vote.

While the Kurds obtained their budget demands, the centralizers got their way on the provincial powers and amnesty laws. Rather than facilitating devolution, the provincial powers law affirms the superiority of the national government over the provinces. It allows the Iraqi parliament to legislate on local matters, and financially ties the province to the national government. Furthermore, it allows parliament to remove governors and dissolve provincial councils, while allowing the national government to remove senior local officials. Finally, the provincial powers law paves the way for provincial elections in October.

While important, the provincial powers law has the potential to further exacerbate intra-sectarian divisions between de-centralizers and centralizers. The big loser is ISCI, which stands to lose ground to the Sadrists in local elections. Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi of ISCI vetoed the law, but recently withdrew it in exchange for reassurances from the Sadrists that amendments to the law would be considered. This is reminiscent of pledges made to Sunni Arab parties in late 2005 that amendments would be considered in exchange for their support of the constitution, amendments that have yet to be realized.

Tawafuq and the Sadrists were the big winners of the provincial powers law. Tawafuq, by keeping provincial governments on a tight national leash, manages to blunt gains the sahwa movement may achieve in upcoming provincial elections. The law favors the national government—where Tawafuq will continue to hold power until December 2009—in its relations with provincial government. For the Sadrists, the provincial powers law was a double victory. It paves the way for a likely Sadrist takeover of local governments, while increasing the power of the central government.

Despite this victory for the centralizer bloc, it may foreshadow increased intra-sectarian violence. Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia and ISCI-controlled local security forces have already fought pitched battles for control across southern Iraq. Sahwamembers in Anbar have threatened to take power there by force if provincial elections were not held promptly. An increase in intra-sectarian conflict is as likely as a revival of cross-sectarian violence.

The amnesty law is more likely to facilitate reconciliation. Both Sunnis (who make up a disproportionate number of the detainee population) and Sadrists (who believe they are being targeted by the Maliki government) supported amnesty legislation. In short, the law provides amnesty to all detainees in Iraqi jails who have not been charged with a large number of crimes such as terrorism, kidnapping, and forging official documents. (It does not address Iraqis held in coalition jails.) Despite judicial capacity problems, 26,596 detainees have been released as of April 6. While the amnesty law appears to currently be facilitating reconciliation, any blockage of further releases may jeopardize this early positive indication. Moreover, the law fails to address the status of the nearly 23,000 prisoners in held by the U.S.-led coalition.

The Fundamental Conflict in Iraq Remains the Problem

After closer inspection, recent Iraqi legislation is far more problematic than the simple narrative of political progress peddled by war supporters in the United States. The de-Baathification law relies far too much on the capacity of the Iraqi government to interpret and implement laws in a spirit of reconciliation and sectarian generosity—a capacity experience shows the Maliki government does not possess. More likely is that the officials charged with implementation will interpret and implement them through their own sectarian lens, possibly making reconciliation and real political progress even more difficult.

The provincial powers law is even more problematic. It is but one contentious step on the legislative road to provincial elections. Other steps that are bound to be equally contentious must be taken before elections can occur.

More importantly, provincial elections have the potential to exacerbate intra-sectarian Sunni and Shi’a conflicts between major political parties. This development would further fragment Iraqi politics and make it much harder to reach a stable political solution.

The American people should be wary of conservative claims that the Iraqi government is now delivering political progress. Even the most charitable interpretation of events suggests that U.S. congressional benchmarks are only partially met. Implementation of laws will be critical, for it is implementation that will affect the core conflict in Iraq—a conflict over Iraq’s fundamental national identity. The United States needs to work to resolve this core conflict rather than devoting its political and diplomatic resources to procedural benchmarks that address this issue at the margins.

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 (Brian Katulis)

Brian Katulis

Former Former Senior Fellow

Peter Juul

Former Former Senior Policy Analyst