Strategic Alliances Remain Elusive in Iraq

The George W. Bush administration has ballyhooed recent legislation passed by the Iraqi parliament as a sign that its troop escalation strategy has indeed created space for political reconciliation.

But observers say a closer look at the legislation in the context of the grander Iraqi quagmire suggests that the chances of passage of the laws being the major and meaningful step forward in the political process presented by the administration and its allies is unlikely.

The laws remain controversial in Iraqi politics, and their implementation presents incredibly difficult challenges – an indication of the fact that the weak central government, while taking baby steps, faces tough odds with the difficult political realities on the ground.

"We’ve heard a great deal about the political climate in Iraq," said Jason Gluck, a rule of law advisor at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), a nonpartisan think-tank founded and funded by the U.S. Congress.

"It would be an understatement to say that there are some significant challenges ahead for the Iraqis," said Gluck, who then called the vote on the legislation "a rare political success."

The three laws – a provincial powers law, amnesty for some Iraqi prisoners, and a budget for 2008 – were passed as a package. The bundling may have been the crucial step to get the laws through the parliament, known as the Council of Representatives.

The three major sects of Iraqi society – Kurds, Sunni Arabs, and Shia Arabs – are further broken down into political party subsets within the parliament. But each of the three laws represented an appeal to at least one group that would then fear losing its desired legislation by voting against the package.

"The alliances we are seeing are tactical rather than strategic," said Rend al-Rahim, a senior fellow at USIP and the founder of an Iraqi exile group based in Washington, D.C. "We didn’t see any strategic alliances on what I would consider the major issues."

Still, the vote itself should not be taken lightly, as reaching a quorum in the Iraqi legislative chamber is so rare an occurrence.

The laws now have to be ratified or approved by the Iraqi executive branch’s Presidency Council – Kurdish president Jalal Talabani and Sunni and Shia vice presidents elected by the Council of Representatives – and go through the administrative step of actually being put on the books.

The Bush administration and like-minded Iraq war cheerleaders heralded the advances as a major step forward in achieving the "benchmarks" that the occupying U.S. power had demanded of the Iraqi government.

"Last week," wrote Fred Barnes in the neoconservative magazine The Weekly Standard, "the Iraqi parliament passed three laws that amounted to a political surge to achieve reconciliation. Taken together, the laws are likely to bring minority Sunnis fully into the political process they had earlier boycotted and to produce a new class of political leaders."

But Sunni-Shia reconciliation still looks to be far off – particularly Barnes’ claim of full integration into Iraqi national politics – as the passage of the "benchmark" laws is not tantamount to society-wide sectarian reconciliation.

Take, for example, the Sunni Awakening – or Sahwa movement – that has taken tens of thousands of former-insurgent Sunni militia fighters and placed them on the U.S. dole in exchange for help driving out al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Though doubtless important to the indisputable reduction of violence – perhaps more important than the additional U.S. forces associated with the "surge" – the Awakening groups are very tenuously positioned as tactical allies of the Iraqi central government and U.S. forces.

Important parts of both the budget and the provincial powers law could potentially help to bring the Sahwa fighters into the political discourse, but those parts are clouded by doubt and uncertainty about their implementation.

The provincial powers act contained a provision that sets provincial elections for the fall, but the Awakening groups in Anbar province insist that this is not soon enough. They have demanded that the Iraqi Islamic Party – a Sunni party that participated in the 2005 elections – vacate their positions within 30 days or face armed resistance.

Furthermore, because of the difficulty of setting up provincial elections, the law that provides those elections must be set up six to nine months before. That would mean that the provincial powers law needs to be enacted immediately and implemented without any major snags in order for elections to take place on time by even the central government’s standard.

And while the provincial elections will be an important step for bringing the Sunni groups in the political fold, it is unlikely that they will be satisfied with being relegated to that role in the wake of their effective assistance in quelling violence.

"I was quite astonished that some people – very senior advisors to the [Shia] prime minister [Nouri al-Maliki] – said ‘they’re going to have provincial elections and they’re going to be happy to rule their own little provinces,’" said Rahim. "Well, when you heard from the Sahwa people, that wasn’t their idea at all. They wanted to get into the politics of Baghdad – national politics."

Rahim said that the idea was floated of giving the Sahwa groups some cabinet positions, but that would mean that others would need to evacuate those slots – an unlikely step given the political realities in Iraq.

About the Sunni-Shia distrust, Rahim said, "This still exists. Let’s not fool ourselves."

Another important upcoming step for the Iraqi authorities will be the implementation of the amnesty law that offers to commute the sentences of some of the 26,000 or so people in Iraqi prisons. The law would release those – mostly Sunnis – who have not been convicted of any crime and were jailed by what Sunnis allege were abuses of power by Shia authorities.

But the amnesty law is not completely clear and implementation will be difficult. The law, for example, does not mention a timetable for the release of the prisoners. Gluck insisted that this needed to occur in the next four months and would be useless if the time-frame was more like 12 months.

Looking to the future, another big challenge for the Iraqi government on the path to reconciliation will be to implement a de-Ba’athification law passed in early February that could potentially return 38,000 members of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s party to take their government jobs.

But Gluck pointed to more problems actually carrying out the spirit of the laws, saying that these positions have already been filled and that the Iraqi government has not shown the ability to create new jobs.

"The impact of the de-Ba’athification law – and by extension these other three laws as well – will be in the ability of the government to effectuate them and to do so positively," said Gluck. "If they are unable to do so it will have a net negative effect because it will just emphasize the failure of the national government to accomplish anything and will lower confidence of the average Iraqi in their government."

"As is always the case," concluded Gluck, "the devil will be in the implementation."

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Author: Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib writes for Inter Press Service.