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Beyond Iraq's Election Day Success

Interviewee: Brett H. McGurk, International Affairs Fellow in Residence, Council on Foreign Relations
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
March 9, 2010

Iraq's March 7 parliamentary elections were a success "organized entirely by the Iraqis and the Iraq security forces," says Brett McGurk, a CFR international affairs fellow who served in Iraq for the National Security Council. McGurk says the work of security forces, in particular, was impressive but that a risk of violence persists. "It's going to be a very dynamic and tenuous ninety days ahead of us," he says. With preliminary election results coming soon, McGurk sees the chief political questions as whether the traditional Shiite alliance can outperform the more nationalist alliance led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and whether the Kurdish alliance holds.

What's your sense of how the Iraqi elections went Sunday?

The general opinion is that they were successful. The violence was moderately low. The turnout appears to have been about 60 to 65 percent. That would be lower than the December 2005 elections but higher than the provisional elections last year. What is most significant about these elections in comparison to December 2005 is that in December 2005 there were 160,000 U.S. troops in the country. We were deployed in the cities. We were helping provide perimeter security.

This time, there are 95,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. We're on base; we're not in the cities. This election was organized entirely by the Iraqis and the Iraq security forces. And it looks as if they did it fairly successfully.

But now the hard part comes. We know from December 2005 that you can't look to the past to predict the future, but you can learn from it. The real violence after that election started about nine weeks later with the al-Askari mosque attack in Samarra on February 22, 2006. So it's going to be a very dynamic and tenuous ninety days ahead of us. Our ambassador and military commander are encouraged that the sitting government will serve in a caretaker capacity while the politics gets worked out, and we're going to try to make sure that the Iraqis can do that.

Talk a bit about the Iraqi security forces. How are they doing these days?

It's a mixed picture, but they are doing quite well. When the United States undertook the surge in 2007, the focus was building up the Iraqi capacity so that when we pulled back they'd be able to fill the gap. We had a capacity gap for the years in this conflict before the surge. The true test came in the spring of 2008 in which Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki decided to go into Basra. He moved a division's worth of force from Anbar province all across Iraq into Basra, a city of seven million people. That was really quite extraordinary.

The elections were a big test. Can the Iraqi security forces secure the country for these elections on their own, with U.S. forces pretty much on base? It appears that they've succeeded.

Since then, the Iraqi forces have had a level of confidence that even outstrips the best expectations going into the surge. It allowed us, in June 2009, to pull all U.S. forces out of Iraqi cities. That's part of the agreement signed with Maliki in the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). The Iraqis have done quite well in securing the cities. There are still problems, but overall it's a pretty good picture. The elections were a big test. Can the Iraqi security forces secure the country for these elections on their own, with U.S. forces pretty much on base? It appears that they've succeeded.

Prior to the election, most of the pundits were saying they thought Maliki would emerge as prime minister again. You don't think that's necessarily a foregone conclusion?

I don't. Let me break it down a little bit because it's really interesting. What makes it so interesting is that it's "a horse race," and we don't know who is going to win. You have Maliki, who is the sitting prime minister and has the power of incumbency. He's running on a message that succeeded for him in the local elections last year, and he thinks that's the message that can work: law, order, and national security.

Running against him, however, is the main Shiite alliance, now called the Iraqi National Alliance. The two main parts of that alliance are the Muqtada al-Sadr followers and the Hakim bloc, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. These organizations are networked throughout the south in mosques. They're well funded; they are organized. Sadr City in Baghdad alone has three million people, that's 10 percent of the Iraqi population. If the Sadrists can draw the level of votes that they've been able to in the past, when they are actively running, then Maliki's going to be in trouble.

The big question is if the INA does not do very well, [if it] comes in second or third. I think that will be a real fundamental change. The INA is the main Shiite alliance running against Maliki. Maliki broke from that alliance because he said that "This broad Shiite coalition isn't good for Iraq and it's not good for me. I want to run as a nationalist." If the INA does not win, it's a real break from Iraqi politics. Because since 2005, the main Shiite coalition has basically dominated Baghdad politics.

Finally, the other coalition competing against Maliki is the Iraqiya list headed by Ayad Allawi, who has pulled together some prominent Sunnis. And it looks like he's going to do quite well. Whether he has the organization, though, to garner the number of votes that, say, Maliki or the INA can, remains to be seen. Allawi has always underperformed in every election, so it looks like he is very popular but he's not always able to generate the organization and getting people to the polls. It looks like he might have done better this time, and we'll have to watch it.

But is there a natural alliance between Allawi and Maliki?

No. They are fierce rivals, but politics makes strange bedfellows, so what's going to happen once the results come out is that you're going to see jockeying. If Maliki and Allawi come out one and two, they're both going to try to reach out to the Sunnis and the Kurds and the other parties. It would be tough for them to form an alliance, because they both want to be prime minister. But if they could, you could have a true, really broad-based unity government form. That would be a good thing.

Let's talk about the Kurds. They have been dominated by two parties, led by Massoud Barzani, the president of Kurdistan, and Jalal Talabani, the president of Iraq. But now there's a third group. What do you make of this?

There's a third group called Gouran, which means "change," running on this message of change, which worked so well in the U.S. election.

The party got about 25 percent of seats in the Kurdistan parliamentary elections earlier last year, and it looks like they are going to do quite well again. Now, the big question will be whether they immediately form an alliance with Talabani and Barzani when they go down to Baghdad to negotiate for places in the government. If they do, then Baghdad politics has not changed all that much.

Meaning, expect another Kurd to be president?

Well, you expect the Kurds to be together. They'll have about fifty-five seats or so. They'll be united; they'll act as a bloc even though you have the "change" list. Now if the "change" list is willing to break away and negotiate with the other parties, then you are going to have a real opening and a real fracture in Iraqi politics. It remains to be seen. The big question there is who is going to be president. The Sunni Arabs want the presidency, they've wanted it for a long time, but the Kurds want the presidency, and Talabani's been a very effective president for Iraq. And we don't know what's going to happen. The Sunnis will really fight for the presidency.

Now what does the president do? Does the presidency have much power?

It's a purely symbolic position. The Sunnis have had the speakership of the Parliament for four years. That's a really powerful position in Iraq. But the presidency is more symbolic. He's the head of the nation, whereas the prime minister is the head of state. But when push comes to shove and the Sunnis look at their self-interest, I think they might say maybe we should keep the speakership of the parliament, where the real power may lie.

Allawi is himself a Shiite, but he's got his alliance with Sunnis. Is that because he's running as a secularist?

He always says, "I'm an Iraqi, and I reach out to all parties." Maliki has tried to run on the same message, and he tried to reach out to some prominent Sunnis. He got some on his list but not as many as he would have hoped, and his roots are in a very religious Islamist Shiite group, the Dawa party. But that is Allawi's message. It's always been his message. He was unable to compete effectively in the 2005 era against the dominant Shiite religious parties, but there has been sea change in Iraqi politics. Iraqis are sick of the sectarianism.

Has Allawi always been the American favorite?

We don't have a favorite. First of all, we're very bad at picking favorites, and so we really try not to. There's a view that Allawi has the ability to bring together a broad-based national unity government. It'll have to be seen though. After 2005, he was involved in the government formation process. He didn't get a position that he liked. He wanted to be in charge of the security services. He didn't get the position. Then he left the country, basically, for a number of years.

How many seats were at stake?

There are 325 seats total and they're governed, like our House of Representatives, by province. So there are seventy seats in Baghdad, there are fourteen in Anbar, [and] fourteen or so in Basra.

So to really have a majority, you have to have a coalition.

Yes, no party is likely to win a majority of those 325 seats given the diverse array of parties. It's going to take three or four parties probably to form a government, and it even gets more complicated because the first step is to choose the president. There's a requirement that the president needs a two-thirds majority in parliament to be chosen. To add another complication, if on the first ballot, nobody gets two-thirds, the candidate wins by simple majority. Then the president, after he is chosen, formally assigns the bloc with the largest number of votes to name the prime minister.

So the president is crucial in picking the prime minister, in a way?

One of the key steps when this government forms is going to be engaging with the United States in anchoring and cementing [a] long-term partnership with the Iraqis.

There's about six steps. We have an election. Those votes will be formally certified in maybe two weeks. Two weeks after that the elected parliament will come to Baghdad. Their first job is to choose the president, and there is no time frame for that. Once the president is chosen, he then formally charges the bloc with the largest number of votes to name a prime minister and to produce a government program. And there is a vote of confidence on that government and the government platform. That's the formal process. But how it works in practice is the parliament will come to Baghdad, but then you are going to have a lot of jockeying and the government will probably form in a package in which you will know who the president is and who the prime minister should be working on the government program.

How long can that can take?

It can take months, and in 2005 it took six months, which was unfortunate, because we also had the Samarra mosque attack causing severe sectarian violence while the government was serving in a caretaker capacity.

Make a prediction: Who is going to be president? Who is going to end up prime minister?

What's so interesting with this election is I can't predict it. I'll say one important thing though, about the United States, because our national interests are really aligned. One of the key steps when this government forms is going to be engaging with the United States in anchoring and cementing [a] long-term partnership with the Iraqis. President Obama talked about it a little [recently] so did Hillary Clinton. That will be our relationship in the areas of culture, trade, and economics, but also security. And one of the first questions will be, "What happens at the end of 2011 when under the current security agreement, all U.S. forces have to leave Iraq?" One prediction I will make is that when the new prime minister gets into office in Baghdad and he looks around, he's going to say, "I really need some U.S. forces to stay, to help me with logistics and training and air power and things." So we're probably going to have to engage in a negotiation with that government about extending the SOFA in some capacity. It's probably too early to talk about that now, but that will be one of the main things on the agenda in 2011.

We didn't talk about these contentious issues like Kirkuk and Mosul. Is that going to be dependent upon these election results or are heavy negotiations ahead?

It's going to be heavy negotiations, and people have talked a long time about a national compact and getting all of these issues resolved once and for all. It's going to take years to get these issues resolved. What is key is setting up the political process, having a level of security and working these issues out politically and peacefully, but it's going to take a long time.

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