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Iraq’s Elusive Political Reforms

Authors: Greg Bruno, and Robert McMahon, Managing Editor
Updated: September 5, 2007


Sharp debate has resumed in Washington on the impact of the U.S. troop buildup in Iraq, but there is little disagreement about Iraq’s lagging political process. The latest National Intelligence Estimate cites increasing divisions among Shiite factions and mounting criticism of the Shiite-led government by Sunni and Kurdish parties. And the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, finds that the Iraqi government has met just one of eight vital political benchmarks. Comptroller General David Walker, the GAO head, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on September 4: “The least progress has been made on the political front” and described the government as “dysfunctional” (AP). But a top Republican lawmaker said he would give more weight (WashPost) to next week’s progress reports by the commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker. Ultimately, policymakers are looking for signs that Iraqi security forces will be able to provide stability independently, but that still appears questionable, as this new Backgrounder details.

In recent speeches, President Bush has thrown his support behind Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and praised a tentative agreement on a unity government reached by Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish leaders on August 27. The proposal, if approved by the Iraqi parliament, would end laws banning former Baath party members from joining the government; establish provincial elections; bolster security; and regulate the oil industry. President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, said the leaders agreed (AFP) to “overcome the political and security crisis in Iraq.” Sunni leaders praised the deal, though some expressed doubts Maliki can make good on the promises. Others called it a stall tactic (al-Jazeera) to ease pressure from Washington.

The deal, coupled with Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr’s call for his Mahdi Army militia to halt operations for six months, could provide breathing space for political reform. But whether the deal signals a new dawn for Maliki—and Iraqi politics—is debatable. Christopher Preble, director of foreign policy studies at the libertarian CATO Institute, says, “It now seems certain that the Maliki government will not achieve most of its political benchmarks in the foreseeable future.” Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby, however, claims the political accord is a “breakthrough” of such magnitude that congressional Democrats may now be in trouble next November. But Peter W. Galbraith, a former U.S. diplomat who has advised Iraqi Kurdish officials, warns in the New York Review of Books that provincial elections “will make Iraq less governable while the process of constitutional revision could break the country apart.”

Deals aside, some observers are worried about the heightening calls for Maliki’s replacement. Journalist Michael Jansen notes that despite Maliki’s unpopularity at home and in the United States, replacing him with another factional figure would accomplish little. “There can be no real reconciliation until the sectarian system is abolished,” he writes in the Jordan Times. CFR Senior Fellow Max Boot says the U.S. experiences in Vietnam in the early 1960s should offer lessons for U.S. policymakers on political meddling. As Boot writes in the Wall Street Journal, U.S. officials sanctioned a coup in 1963 against Ngo Dinh Diem with the hopes of installing more effective leadership in Saigon. “In retrospect it’s obvious that, for all his faults, we should have stuck with Diem,” Boot concludes. “Today we should stick with Mr. Maliki, imperfect as he is.”

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