Beyond Security: Challenges for Iraq’s New Government

Beyond Security: Challenges for Iraq’s New Government

Iraq’s first permanent government faces a host of challenges in the months ahead, from fighting corruption to supplying water and electricity to amending Iraq’s constitution.

May 25, 2006 2:27 pm (EST)

Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

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With Iraq’s first permanent government nearly in place, a number of significant challenges remain alongside the overarching need to improve security. Chief among them is curbing corruption, which has infiltrated many of Iraq’s main ministries. Another priority is providing basic services like heating oil, electricity, and potable water. Iraqi leaders will also meet to amend the constitution, something experts say is likely to be difficult—and perhaps fruitless—given the distrust among Iraq’s ethnic and religious groups as well as the cumbersome process required to amend the text. "The next six months will be truly critical for Iraq," U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad told the Associated Press.

What’s the most contentious issue?

Amending the constitution, experts say. Iraq’s parliament will have up to four months—beginning May 3, when parliament first convened—to make amendments to the constitution. That is allowed under an agreement reached last fall to prevent Sunnis from pulling out of the constitution-drafting process; the deal enabled negotiators to defer final answers to tough issues like revenue sharing, regional power-sharing, and de-Baathification. Experts say the divisions within Iraq’s ethnic and religious communities, as highlighted by the drawn-out process to pick a cabinet, portend highly contentious negotiations ahead. "It’s going to be a very messy process," says Phebe Marr, senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Others say the procedures in place for amending the constitution will not allow for any major adjustments to the document. "Given the high bar to overcome, it’s going to be the most anodyne kind of things," says Gregory Gause, a Middle East expert at the University of Vermont. "And it only will happen if Washington carries water for the Sunnis."

According to Article 140 of the constitution, parliament must form a committee to propose a package of constitutional amendments. The parliament must then vote on the amendments as a package, not individually, and requires a simple majority. If passed, the bloc of amendments needs to win approval from the public in a nationwide poll, similar to the contentious and close referendum held on the constitution last October. "[The system’s] structured so that the constitution will not develop significant changes," says Nathan Brown, an expert on Islamic law at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

All of which raises concerns that some Sunni factions, should they fail to achieve their objectives on issues like revenue sharing, may pull out of the political process. Some experts suggest that meaningful change should come through the legislative process, not through amendments. Brown points to roughly eighty areas where the constitution allows for enabling laws to "fill in the blanks." Marr says these gaps may favor Sunnis. "If you can move gradually, maybe that’s a better way to go," she says. However, Brown says that passing major legislation in parliament will be nearly impossible for Sunnis without the backing of Kurds.

What are the main disagreements over the constitution?

Most disagreements stem from the text’s ambiguous wording, which is open to interpretation, experts say. "The constitution is like Swiss cheese," Marr says. Minority Sunnis voted overwhelmingly to reject the document last October, but say they were promised that key clauses of the text could be amended after the formation of a government regarding a range of issues. Among the issues still to be addressed are:

  • Federalism. The division of power between the federal and regional governments concerns many Sunnis, who fear the de-centralization of Iraq would weaken their wealth and influence. The constitution enshrines a number of powers to the regions, and leaves open the possibility for Shiites to form a nine-province "mega-region" in the south and for Kurds to expand the autonomy they have enjoyed since the establishment of a U.S. and British-protected no-fly zone in 1991. Leslie Gelb, CFR president emeritus and a proponent of Iraqi federalism, envisions three semiautonomous states whereby each region would be responsible for its own domestic laws and internal security, while Baghdad would oversee defense, foreign policy, and oil revenues.
  • Revenue sharing. The constitution is vague on how to distribute the billions of dollars in oil revenues, a concern for Sunnis who mostly reside in Iraq’s resource-poor center. Article 110 calls for these revenues to be "distributed fairly in a manner compatible with the demographical distribution," but it is less clear if that refers to future oil fields or only to existing ones. The biggest beneficiary of this arrangement is Shiites who reside in Iraq’s oil-rich southern regions, not Kurds, whose oil fields in the north are old and nearly tapped. Some experts say the Kurds would benefit more from an equitable revenue-sharing agreement, whereby they would reap 20 percent—roughly their portion of the population—of all oil revenues. Similarly, Gelb suggests the constitution should be amended to guarantee the Sunnis get a 20 percent share of the revenues.
  • De-Baathification. The constitution bars former high-ranking members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party from a number of government posts. The result, writes the Eurasia Group’s Ian Bremmer in the Korea Herald, is that "de-Baathification has excluded thousands of Iraqis from the country’s political and economic life." Sunnis are looking to reverse these rules. Ahmed Chalabi, who heads the de-Baathification committee, told the Arabic-language al-Arabiya network in early May he would consider abolishing the committee, which was established by the Coalition Provisional Authority in 2003. Prime Minister Maliki served briefly as deputy chair to the committee and was a forceful proponent of Shiite demands in the initial drafting of the constitution.

What are the other main issues facing Iraq’s new government?

  • Jump-starting the economy. Iraq’s economy continues to be hobbled by rampant unemployment, sluggish growth, and insufficient oil revenue. Unemployment remains between 25 percent and 40 percent. Nearly the entire economy is tied to the oil industry, which makes up 98 percent of the country’s $21 billion in total annual exports, according to the Brookings Institution’s Iraq Index. "There’s no getting around the fact that Iraq has the second-largest oil reserves in the world," says Stuart Bowen, the U.S. inspector general for Iraq’s reconstruction, "and that should spell eventual prosperity for that economy." The lack of jobs—and security—has fueled a massive exodus of middle-class Iraqis, reports the New York Times. Lieutenant General Peter Chiarelli, the number two U.S. commander in Iraq, recently told reporters that reviving the economy will improve Iraq’s security situation by taking "the angry young men off the street."
  • Tackling corruption. Bowen calls corruption "the second insurgency." Corruption has cost the Iraqi economy hundreds of millions of dollars, particularly in lost oil revenues, he says. Graft is rampant in the ministries of defense and interior as well. Some of the corruption is petty—smuggling cars and gasoline, paying bribes for better university grades, negotiating "customs fees" at border crossings-but much of it is substantive. The Defense Ministry spent nearly $1 billion on suspect arms purchases, reports the Los Angeles Times. Kalev Sepp, an assistant professor of defense analysis at the Monterey Naval Postgraduate School, who was in Iraq much of last year, says corruption is dealing a blow to efforts to reform Iraq’s legal system. Around $15,000 paid to local officials will get almost anybody out of jail, he says. "It doesn’t matter the crime."

"One hopes the combination of new blood at the top, international financial institutions, and American pressure will get people to do the right thing," says Gregory Gause.

Part of the problem is a lack of oversight, Sepp says. Only the ministries of defense and interior have international advisers. Sepp says many ministers have rejected the offer of outside advice as interference, likely in the interest of protecting their own profiteering. Maliki has said rooting out corruption will be one of his government’s top priorities. Of the roughly 3,000 corruption cases before Iraq’s Commission on Public Integrity, only 780 have gone to court; of those, just a dozen have reached a verdict, the Los Angeles Times reports. "You’ve got to get a handle on the big corruption," Gause says. "One hopes the combination of new blood at the top, international financial institutions, and American pressure will get people to do the right thing and rat out the bad guys." Sepp says tougher sentences, including the death penalty, may be required to curb Iraqis from accepting bribes, pointing to other countries like Indonesia and China that have employed similar tactics.

  • Forming a constitutional court. The Supreme Federal Court will serve as Iraq’s top legal authority. Composed of an unspecified number of judges and experts in sharia—or Islamic law—the court will interpret the constitution and adjudicate disputes that arise between the federal and regional authorities. Candidates to the court must win two-thirds approval from parliament. "Because the court is significantly powerful, I would expect the political battle over it to be particularly severe," Brown says. The court’s biggest challenges will be what role Islam will play and its interpretation of Iraq’s personal-status law, treated vaguely in the constitution, particularly on issues of marriage, divorce, and inheritance. The constitution has a provision that allows Iraqis to be governed by the laws of their ethnic and religious group, but, for example, does not specify which body of law would govern mixed marriages. "What if you have a Sunni married to a Shiite?" Brown asks. "Who would be applying this law?"
  • Improving basic services. Essential to Iraq’s security is the availability of potable water, reliable electricity, and proper sewage treatment, experts say. Water in Baghdad runs just one hour per day, electricity lasts only four hours, and the streets are awash in sewage. Insurgents even reportedly use garbage heaps to hide their roadside bombs. Part of the problem is disruptions in power supply, due to sabotage and poor security. "The demand for electricity greatly outstrips the supply right now," Bowen says. Lax oversight of both foreign and local contractors in charge of reconstruction is also seen as problematic. "A lot of contractors don’t fear what audits show because they have no impact whether they get paid or get bonuses," says Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), a leading congressional critic of U.S. reconstruction efforts. The lack of basic services three years after the fall of Saddam has angered locals, experts say. Maliki, as part of his thirty-four-point plan outlined to parliament, has promised to restore these essential services by cutting down on corruption, placing more competent managers in charge of the key ministries, and improving security.

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