by Eric Martin
As expected, the Iraqi parliament failed to pass a provincial elections law, thus pushing the elections themselves back to some point in 2009 (hopefully). The reason that the Iraqi legislature is having such a tough time agreeing on an election law is that the disagreements over the parameters of the law represent the larger, as yet unreconciled, political conflicts - the conflicts that the Surge was supposed to help solve as its central mission, a mission that has thus far been a failure.
The Bush administration has been pushing for this new round of provincial elections for good reason: many of the former Sunni insurgents that have joined the Awakenings framework (and their constituents) boycotted the prior rounds of elections and so they lack a political voice on the local level (and national). In fact, in some majority Sunni regions, Shiites hold the elected offices, which exacerbates the sense of alienation from, and anxiety about, the Iraq's political system in the post-Baath era. The Awakenings groups are demanding a share of political power (and the patronage rights that affords) in exchange for their continued buy-in to the non-violent process. So the question arises, what now? Will the Sunnis' forbearance continue? Will the Iraqi government share?
Marc Lynch, who was previously optimistic that various factions would agree on a reasonably acceptable, just election law is giving in to pessimism. Or as I would argue, the grim reality:
The anger among the Awakenings movements is already palpable. The New York Times quotes Ali Hatem Suleiman saying that “We are running out of patience,” and Sheik Hamid al-Hayis saying “This is a slap on the face of Iraq... we couldn’t make a big change in the government structure. That pushed us to work to make change in the provincial council. But even that we can’t touch.” Dr. iRack, just back from Iraq, reports that the notoriously outspoken Ali Hatem "is deadly serious about returning to war against all the Islamic parties (Sunni and Shia) if the Awakening groups are not given the power they think they deserve."
Leaders of the Awakenings have been warning that they are "losing patience" and "the next few months will be decisive" so many times that I suspect some people have stopped taking them seriously. As with the evident nonchalance about the prospects of the major Sunni insurgency factions flipping back to the other side, this seems to rest on a notion that they have nowhere else to go and that there is neither the ability nor the desire to go back to the insurgency ("we don't need to accommodate those hoodlums," pace General Keane). This strikes me as a very dangerous bit of best-case scenario thinking, of a kind which hurt American efforts in the past and has continued to mar the analysis of surge cheerleaders throughout. There are all kinds of warning lights blinking, from both the Awakenings and from the insurgency factions whose members make up many of their cadres outside of Anbar...
As Lynch points out, it's not just the failure to pass an elections law that is pushing the Awakenings crowd to the brink: (a) the Maliki government has been reluctant to integrate Awakenings militia members into the Iraqi Security Forces (or other civil functions); (b) rejectionist Sunni insurgents have been attacking Awakenings members relentlessly; (c) Iraqi government forces have actually begun targeting Awakenings members as well; and (d) Awakenings members are complaining that the US is not providing them with enough funding and military support. This is serious.
While the Awakenings push, coupled with the Surge, might have bought some time and space, the clock is running out. Now the Bush administration is going to have to reckon with its strategy of building up power nodes outside of the Iraqi government. The hope all along has been that the Maliki government would integrate these outsider Sunni elements, but the Maliki government doesn't appear to have any such intention (what a shock!). And the various parties can't agree on an elections law to help broach part of that divide. The Surge didn't change that. The same political fault lines that existed between Sunnis and Shiites pre-Surge remain, and they will generate violent conflict in the future absent some dramatic change of heart on the part of the Shiite power structure. This is true even if some cheerleaders rashly declare that the Sunni-Shiite conflict is "over."
The other major issue that the regional elections law was supposed to address was the means for determining the status of Kirkuk. The failure to agree on a political mechanism to settle the question of whether or not Kirkuk will be incorporated into Kurdistan has led the Kurds to threaten to annex Kirkuk outside of the legal framework. Tensions are flaring, violence is on the uptick and the Kurds are moving troops in and around the region. Again, the Surge has not helped the various parties to reach an acceptable accord on this contentious issue. Absent a political solution, violence will determine the outcome.
Which brings the discussion back to the argument many of us were making prior to the Surge. The logic of the Surge - that all the Iraqi people needed was a reduction in violence in order to reach an acceptable political accommodation on a whole host of vital issues - was backwards. Iraqis were not unable to achieve the necessary political accords because there was violence, there was violence because Iraqis were not able to achieve the necessary political accords.