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Serwer: Iraqis Beginning to Show Signs of Political Compromise

Interviewee: Daniel P. Serwer, Vice President, Center for Post-Conflict Peace and Stability Operations, U.S. Institute of Peace
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
March 14, 2008

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Daniel P. Serwer, the executive director of the 2006 Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group, says along with the improved security situation, there have also been some encouraging signs of political compromise among Iraqi politicians. Serwer says it is significant that all politicians now accept the Iraqi constitution. “You measure progress in Iraq in small steps and one of those small steps is the moment at which the constitution becomes a point of reference,” he says. Serwer also points to rising interest among Sunnis and Shiites in participating in politics at the provincial level.

You’ve made five trips to Iraq since 2004. You were most recently there in January when you met with a number of Iraqi political figures and U.S. military and diplomatic officials. What is your general outlook at this point about the future of Iraq?

The security situation has improved despite some regression recently. It’s definitely improved from what it was. But it’s not as if we’re past violence in Iraq —it’s quite the contrary. The political situation, which had appeared entirely frozen for some time, is now looking much more fluid. There have been some positive steps, in particular the passage of some important laws by the parliament before it went on vacation. What they did was put together a package of laws, each one of more interest to one of the groups than to the others, and they were able to get them passed.

Was this a major development?

There are lots of caveats that you have to add whenever you talk about progress in Iraq. I think that it is progress when the parliament sits down and reaches a compromise that enables it to pass a budget, pass an amnesty law, and pass a law on what is called “provincial powers,” the powers of the provinces, even though that law was vetoed by the presidency. It’s still a sign of ability to reach a political compromise. In some ways the process is more interesting than the outcome.

The process was one of political compromise and we haven’t seen a lot of that. In addition, it was a process in which the constitution was taken by all sides as a key point of reference. You measure progress in Iraq in small steps and one of those small steps is the moment at which the constitution becomes a point of reference. There are a lot of people who have fundamental objections to this constitutional regime, but they are all now referring to it as justification for what they do. That is a positive sign.

There are supposed to be provincial elections before the end of the year, right?

Before October 1 is the goal. That will require quite a bit of difficult preparation, but the United Nations and the Iraqi government seem to think it can be done by October 1. It’s going to be very important because one of the things I found on my most recent trip is that the provincial level of government, which under Saddam Hussein barely existed, has become more and more important in Iraq. There is quite a bit of revenue flowing into the provincial councils and from the provincial councils to the local reconstruction projects.

The provincial elections are very important because all of a sudden the Iraqis are seeing a lot of power flowing through the provincial councils. People who boycotted the last provincial elections are now very, very interested in participating in provincial elections. That includes both Sunnis, who in the past rejected the constitution, and the Shiites, especially the supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr, who boycotted the last election. You have a new way of distributing power and patronage that has enlarged the pie and that’s a very good thing because it enables more people to come into the tent.

If they are held, what impact will these elections have on the prime minister? The national parliament is not up for election, right?

Provincial elections will choose members of the provincial councils. The parliament is not at stake in these elections but it is an opportunity for the national political parties to test their strength at the polls. We found in Baghdad from talking to people that almost everybody is looking forward to this test of political strength.

Iraq under Saddam had this reputation of being a very secular Arab state. People said that there was an Iraqi nationalism that was distinct from Shiite and Sunnis, etc. When I first started interviewing people at the beginning of this war, they kept assuring me, don’t worry about Sunni-Shiite friction. Is there any move back to Iraqi nationalism or has it never really disappeared?

There’s a move back to it but I don’t think it ever really did disappear. But it’s certainly not the primary identity of Kurds. Kurdish identity is primary for Kurds, not the Iraqi identity. But there is between Sunni and Shiite, the Arabic-speaking Iraqis, quite a strong sense of common identity, which has grown stronger over the last year or so for a variety of reasons. One is growing hostility towards Kurdish territorial claims. They are convinced that the Kurds want more than Kirkuk and there is a kind of nationalist Arab reaction to that.

There is also considerable feeling, both from Sunni and Shiite [Iraqis], that Iran has overstepped its bounds and has too much influence in Iraq. And there’s a considerable feeling that Saudi Arabia hasn’t been as helpful to Iraq as it should have been. What you’re getting is not so much a full-blown Iraqi nationalism as Arab-Iraqi nationalism. There is a considerable feeling that sectarianism has failed to serve the people well, that the government is not only weak but incompetent, and therefore the citizens have to take things into their own hands again. These provincial elections provide an avenue for that to happen. It’s not that sectarianism has disappeared in Iraq. Let me assure you that when you strip people of the protection of the state, they retreat to carrying an ethnic identity as the best protection.

It seems it’s a major development that the Sunnis are going to enthusiastically take part in the elections when in 2005 they virtually boycotted them, right?

You’re right, it is an important development. You have a situation in Anbar province, which is kind of the center of Sunni Iraq, when the Awakenings [the pro-U.S. Sunni militias] feel unrepresented in the provincial council, which is controlled by the Iraqi Islamic Party. So all these guys who have been fighting al-Qaeda for the least year and a half, who feel that they have done a great deal of good and have ensured security in Anbar, want representation in the provincial council. They want provincial elections. It is a major change, both related to the Awakening movement, but [also] to the Sunni attitude toward the American presence which has been changing, because in the end the American presence has helped protect Sunnis. People are acutely aware of that and are much more hesitant today than three years ago in calling for a quick American withdrawal.

Let’s talk about the U.S. role now, because clearly our presidential campaigns will clearly focus on Iraq. It’s a very important question. The latest I’ve heard is that there is supposed to be a gradual withdrawal up until the summer, when there is supposed to be a “pause” at about 130,000 troops. What do you think is going to happen? Do the Iraqis want the Americans to stay for a considerable period of time?

It’s hard to talk about “the” Iraqis when you’re talking about American presence but if there is a general view, I think it goes something like this: “We don’t like having foreign troops on our soil, but we understand perfectly well that because the government and the security are as weak as they are, the U.S. presence is going to be necessary for awhile. What we want is a time horizon that we can expect the number of troops to decline and their role to change from daily combat to counterterrorism, to support for the Iraqi forces. We don’t want them killing Iraqis every day the way they are today.”

What about Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki? He gets pretty much panned across the political spectrum here. Do you think he will survive?

He survived an attempt to unseat him last summer and then again late last year. The prime minister and his people are feeling pretty good about having survived attempts to unseat him. There are growing signs that the Shiite-Kurdish alliance that put him in power and passed the constitution is fraying. There is no clear sign, however, of what an alternative majority in the parliament would look like. But until you have a majority that is disciplined enough and united enough to unseat him, he’s going to stay.

The Iraq Study Group, for which you worked, had recommended more intense regional diplomacy with the Syrians and the Iranians, among others, to help out in Iraq. That really hasn’t panned out has it? The Iranian talks have not really gone anywhere.

The administration is very reluctant to suggest that Iran is behaving better. On the other hand, the explosively formed penetrators [EFPs] that were of so much concern to us seemed to have declined in frequency. When you talk to the Iraqis—in particular the people in government who are close to the Iranians—they will say that they have been very blunt with the Iranians, telling them to stop fooling around in Iraq, and that the Iranians have been responsive. I don’t hear the Americans saying that. I hear them saying the opposite. I don’t have any independent sources on that so I can’t reach a judgment of my own. To me, talking with the neighbors is not enough. You have to be talking with them about something and it has to be about more than the neighbor’s own misbehavior.

The right thing to be talking about in my view is long-term stability in Iraq and how that is going to be achieved as the Americans draw down. Once you inject into the discussion with the neighbors a time horizon for American withdrawal you are much more likely to get a serious discussion going. The neighbors, as the Iraqis themselves, have taken advantage of the American presence to be irresponsible. None of them in the end will want Iraq to break up or to break down. Iran would be very threatened by fragmentation in Iraq. Iran has a population that is barely 50 percent Persian.

I’m just trying to get some sense of the correct pace of a drawdown. I guess that depends on the situation on the ground.

It depends on two things actually—on the situation on the ground and the situation in Washington, DC. There is a tendency to say “stay or get out.” In fact that’s not real. The president has made it clear that we are going down to 130,000. It’s pretty clear that from General David Petraeus’ and Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ remarks that the president will stop the drawdown at 130,000. The reason for going back to 130,000 is because we couldn’t sustain the surge, which had reached 170,000. The drawdown from the surge levels is not really a choice, it was a necessity. It looks now like we’ll be at 130,000 or something close to it in January 2009. At that point whoever becomes president of the United States is going to take another look at the situation. What they are going to discover is that there is a continuing need for an American presence on the ground. 

It will take a couple of years to get people out in an orderly fashion. Now at some point in those couple of years, you have to not only think about numbers but you have to think about what they can do. Because once you get below certain levels, they can no longer have people stationed in neighborhoods. You have to change the tasks. You have to change the military objectives because you just haven’t got enough people to do what they are doing right now.

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