Memo to the Community on Iraq

To: Interested Parties

Today’s Iraqi elections mark the start of a new phase in the country’s transition to its first permanent government since Saddam Hussein was removed from power in 2003.

With Americans heading into the holiday season, events in Iraq may begin to temporarily slip off their radar screen. But the debate regarding U.S. policy in Iraq and our attention to events on the ground there must continue.

As President Bush winds down his most recent public relations offensive to convince Americans that his administration has a “victory strategy” for Iraq, Americans’ views remain fundamentally unchanged on U.S. policy in Iraq. A majority of Americans continues to disapprove of President Bush’s Iraq policies and lacks confidence in his leadership of our efforts in Iraq.

An Election Day relatively free from violence represents only the first step in a perilous process of helping Iraqis establish a democratic and independent government. Here are ten issues to monitor in Iraq’s elections and transition to a permanent government:

1. Election Disputes and Possible Post-Election Violence between Political Parties

With extensive security procedures in place, Iraq will likely experience a period of relative calm on Election Day as it did in January and October. But the country enters a particularly sensitive stage in the election’s immediate aftermath, as tabulating ballots will take a few weeks.

A worrisome wave of violence between political groups in the pre-election period, including the ongoing sectarian tensions among Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis, as well as intra-Kurdish and intra-Shiite attacks and clashes, raises serious concerns about whether Iraqi political groups may turn to violence after the election as a means to settle political differences and possible election disputes.

In any country making a transition to democracy, the chances for electoral fraud are real. Questions arose about the October constitutional referendum’s results, including allegations of ballot-box stuffing in Nineveh province. But most Iraqi political groups did not press these issues too strongly, in part because of the deal that opened the door for further revisions to the constitution at a later date.

In these elections, competing political groups are not as likely to gloss over disputes concerning electoral irregularities as easily as they did after the October constitutional referendum. The stakes are exponentially higher because political parties are competing for seats in a national assembly that will sit for a four-year term.

With Sunnis now part of the political process and participating in strong numbers, the danger of disputes emerging in the immediate post-election period are higher than in the aftermath of the January elections for the transitional national assembly. Though Iraq has procedures on paper to resolve electoral disputes and Iraqi non-governmental organizations will monitor the process, no major international election monitoring presence will be in the country. Respect for the rule of law remains weak.

All of this adds up to a potentially combustible environment in the immediate post-election aftermath, with the period between balloting and the formation of a final government representing perhaps the most sensitive juncture in Iraq’s political transition to date.

2. Level of Insurgent Attacks

The ongoing attacks from Iraqi insurgents, as well as violence perpetrated by foreign terrorists, present a separate and distinct challenge to the new Iraqi government apart from the potential for violence between Iraqi political movements.

President Bush has argued that advancing Iraq’s democracy is a key element to defeating the insurgency and terrorists. But President Bush should not confuse the process of advancing democracy with the challenges of defeating terrorist networks. Recent events in Afghanistan, which has experienced a surge of violence in its post-election period, suggest that in the short run, successful democratic political processes will not reduce terrorism or lead to greater stability. Though there are signs that the political process in Iraq has divided the insurgency, a danger still exists that certain Iraqi groups may resort to violence if they feel marginalized by the political process.

3. Negotiations for Forming a Coalition Government

Once votes are tabulated and any possible election disputes are resolved, the political parties and lists that fared well in the elections will begin forming a new government. Negotiations for forming the transitional government earlier this year took nearly three months – and this was without most Iraqi Sunnis as part of the process.

The electoral outcome will shape the power dynamics in these discussions. Some analysts predict a decline in the fortunes of the United Iraqi Alliance, the dominant Shiite party that has led Iraq’s transitional government, because of growing public disenchantment with security, basic services, and allegations of corruption. Others predict that Sunni participation in these elections, with the Iraqi Accordance Front representing the most prominent Sunni political group, will lead to a decline in the number of seats held by traditional Kurdish parties.

With more than two hundred political parties competing for the 275-seat assembly, negotiations for the permanent government will be much more complicated than they were after the January transitional elections.

How the negotiations are managed and conducted will set the tone for Iraq’s national politics for years to come and help determine whether Iraq slides further into civil war or moves towards national reconciliation and greater stability.

4. Civilian Control of the Iraqi Security Forces

A fourth issue to monitor closely in Iraq’s transition to a permanent government is civilian control of the Iraqi security forces and increasing questions about whether Iraqi security forces show allegiance to the Iraqi government or to different political groups.

A number of incidents raise concerns about the Iraqi national government’s ability to gain control of security forces, let alone the armed ethnic and sectarian militias that continue to exist. For example, in the pre-election period, Iraqi security forces consisting mostly of Shiites openly rallied for the leading Shiite political group in Ramadi, a Sunni stronghold.

In recent months, numerous reports have emerged indicating that Iraqi militias are operating as “death squads” in the Iraqi security forces. Some of these forces may have been trained by the United States. Not only are there potential problems of infiltration of Iraqi security forces by ethnic and sectarian militias, there is an additional problem of ethnic and sectarian militias who control large sections of the country, without any allegiance to a unified Iraqi government. In addition to an estimated 100,000 Kurdish pesh merga forces, numerous Shiite militias exist, including the Mahdi Army, which led an insurgency against U.S. forces in 2004.

5. Division of Powers between Iraq’s National, Regional, and Local Governments

Once formed, one of the immediate tasks for Iraq’s new national government will be to address important questions related to the separation of powers between national, regional, and local governments. For many Sunnis, the concept of federalism currently written into the constitution is a code word for Shiite dominance. More work is required to define further the nature of Iraq’s federalism and help the Iraqi public understand what impact this system of government will have on their lives. Defining these powers and responsibilities, as well as resolving the issue of sharing oil revenues between the different levels of government, is vitally important in the task of improving life for ordinary Iraqis, who continue to suffer from a lack of governance and basic services.

6. Additional Revisions to Iraq’s Constitution to Guarantee Personal Freedoms

In addition to the unsettled questions about the division of powers and revenue sharing between the different levels of government, a number of other key questions remain unresolved in the constitution on issues that will determine whether Iraq becomes a full democracy that protects the rights of women and religious minorities.

Though President Bush has hailed Iraq as the “only constitutional democracy” in the Arab world, numerous democracy and human rights advocates have raised concerns about the nature of Iraq’s constitution.

Several Iraqi women’s rights organizations have lobbied for changes to ensure that women receive equal status under the law, particularly in matters related to personal status and family law. In addition, a number of human rights and religious freedom organizations have raised concerns about whether the current Iraqi constitution protects religious freedoms and have advocated for revisions.

7. Governance and Administrative Reforms in the National Ministries

Another important issue that will impact Iraq’s political transition and the sustainability of Iraqi security forces is the need for governance and administrative reforms in the Iraqi national ministries.

Several U.S. military commanders have pointed to the need for administrative reform and institutional development in Iraq’s defense and interior ministries in order for Iraqi security forces to be able to stand on their own. Ideally, the defense and interior ministries should have the capacity to provide logistical and administrative support to the Iraqi security forces, making sure soldiers and policemen are paid on time and receive merit-based promotions. But recent reports point to troubling instances of corruption, cronyism, and mismanagement in these two key ministries, as well as problems in other key ministries.

8. Status of Iraq’s Economic Reconstruction

Another issue that will affect Iraq’s political transition is the status of its economic reconstruction program, which has been hampered by continuing violence and corruption. Oil production, important for raising revenues to fund the Iraqi government, still remains below pre-war levels. Double digit unemployment continues to plague Iraq and electricity generation continues to lag. Iraq’s transition to an independent, permanent government has a better chance to succeed if economic development improves and international donors fulfill their commitments.

9. Actions by Iraq’s Neighbors

Countries bordering Iraq will have a significant impact on Iraq’s political transition – and their cooperation is vital for enhancing Iraq’s security. Iraq’s neighbors play a key role in helping make sure Iraq’s borders are secure, and they offer the greatest potential for helping Iraq’s economic development by increasing cross-border trading.

In the coming weeks, the actions taken by countries like Syria, which has allegedly allowed foreign fighters to enter Iraq from its borders, will impact whether Iraq’s new government will be able to stand on its own. Iran, which has played a major role in Iraq since the U.S.-led coalition invaded in 2003, will continue to try to influence events in Iraq on multiple tracks.

10. U.S. Plans for Drawing Down its Military Presence in Iraq

Finally, another key issue that will impact whether Iraq’s political transition succeeds or fails is the U.S. plan for drawing down its military presence in Iraq.

Strong majorities of the Iraqi public have opposed the presence of U.S. forces – two-thirds oppose the presence of coalition forces in Iraq, according to one poll sponsored by ABC News, and confirmed in another poll conducted by Oxford Research International.

The large presence of U.S. military forces in Iraq remains a main cause of instability in the country. Strategic redeployment or gradual drawdown of U.S. military forces will take away much of the fuel that fires the insurgency and the foreign terrorists who have conducted attacks in Iraq. As top U.S. military commanders in Iraq have argued, the United States must reduce its “military footprint” in Iraq and the region in order to create more stability.


Iraq faces a long and precarious road ahead in its transition to a permanent government and requires support from the international community and the United States. But to be successful, Iraq requires the right kind of support. For the past two and a half years, the United States has clung to a failed strategy that has placed too much focus on military solutions for problems that do not have military solutions. President Bush’s latest series of speeches on his victory strategy for Iraq is little more than a desperate public relations attempt to make up for past mistakes. The Bush administration’s “victory strategy for Iraq” amounts to little more than a restatement of President Bush’s failed policies. The United States needs to change the course in order to help Iraq succeed in its political transition and to make Americans more safe. The United States must recalibrate the types of power it uses to help Iraq’s government, shifting the emphasis away from an approach that relies too heavily on the military, and doing more to use the diplomatic, political, and economic power of the United States to support Iraq’s political transition.

Brian Katulis is Director of Democracy and Public Diplomacy on the National Security Team at the Center for American Progress. Lawrence Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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Lawrence J. Korb

Senior Fellow

 (Brian Katulis)

Brian Katulis

Former Senior Fellow