TOPICS > Politics

Iraq Sees Security Gains, but Political Progress Lags

August 6, 2008 at 6:45 PM EDT
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The recent U.S. troop surge in Iraq helped reduce violence in the country, giving Iraqi lawmakers time to sort out long-held political and sectarian divisions. A journalist and a regional expert discuss lingering political stalemates in Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: When President Bush sent an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Iraq last year, the aim was to improve security and thereby give Iraqi politicians enough breathing space to work out their political and sectarian differences.

The last of these additional troops left Iraq late last month after making major progress on their first mission: reducing the violence.

But political reconciliation has not followed as hoped. Today the Iraqi parliament announced it had failed once again to meet a key benchmark: enacting a new provincial election law. The lawmakers then adjourned for their five-week summer break.

And for more on the two threads of the unfolding story in Iraq, we turn to Nancy Youssef, Pentagon correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers. She was their Baghdad bureau chief from 2004 to 2007 and has visited frequently since then. And she just got back from Iraq this week.

And Joost Hiltermann, deputy program director for the Middle East at the International Crisis Group, he’s also an adviser to the United Nations. He was last in Iraq at the end of June.

Welcome to you both. Nancy, let’s start with the encouraging news. How different did Baghdad feel to you in this recent visit than, say, last March?

NANCY YOUSSEF, McClatchy Newspapers: Well, it was certainly safer. And Iraqis were out and venturing out at night. And you’d see young men gathering on the bridge and drinking out in public, revelers celebrating weddings out in public.

But all of it was within the confined walls — walled-off communities in which they live. And while people were embracing the change, they were still not sure whether it was sustainable or not. So there was a sense of sort of testing the waters and enjoying it for now.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, when you say “walled-off communities,” do you mean ethnically homogeneous communities?

NANCY YOUSSEF: Well, because there are so many walls dividing each neighborhood from one another, so while people are out later, by 9 o’clock, they’re back in their homes, and they don’t go outside of their neighborhoods, because there’s a wall separating one neighborhood from the next.

And it’s seemingly better, in that people are going out, but it’s not the Baghdad as they knew it. It’s a better community within where they live, but not one where they feel yet that they can go out and really enjoy the security situation long term.

MARGARET WARNER: And then how do you — what tells you that they wonder if it’s sustainable? Did they tell you this?

NANCY YOUSSEF: They sure did. They said, “You know, we don’t see who’s going to keep it going? Will it be the Iraqi security forces or will it be the U.S. Army?” Lacking political reconciliation, they don’t see the system in place that can keep it going.

And also part of it was that it happened so suddenly, that after the Basra offensive, things turned around so quickly. So I think there’s a real fear that it could disappear just as quickly. One order from Muqtada al-Sadr telling his Mahdi Army forces to go back in the street and everything changes.

Parliament fails to pass poll law

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Joost Hiltermann, let's talk about the not-such-encouraging news, and that is the Iraqi parliament again today kicking the can down the road, adjourning without passing this election law. How big a deal is this?

JOOST HILTERMANN, International Crisis Group: Well, it's pretty big, because, at the ground level in the governorates, people are very eager to have elections. They want to get rid of the current parties that are ruling, and they want to go ahead with these elections as soon as possible.

They were started talking about them at least a year ago. But the law is not going forward; it's stuck. And so people are bound to get frustrated over time.

MARGARET WARNER: And when you say "stuck," I mean, is the deadlock over this disputed city, disputed between the Kurds and the Arabs, that is Kirkuk?

JOOST HILTERMANN: Yes, the Kirkuk issue is what is holding everything up right now.

The Kurds have said all along that Kirkuk is part of Kurdistan historically. They want to incorporate it into the Kurdistan region legally. And they have made very clear, explicitly they say it, if the Iraqi government does not allow us to have a referendum in Kirkuk to determine the status of that territory, then we will not cooperate on other legislation. And this electoral law is just one prime example of that.

MARGARET WARNER: And, of course, Kirkuk has a lot of oil wealth.

JOOST HILTERMANN: It has 13 percent of Iraq's proven reserves, so it's fabulously wealthy in that sense. And for the Kurds, it's very important, not only historically -- they see Kirkuk as theirs -- but the oil wealth would make their chances for independence, of course, much more significant.

MARGARET WARNER: And is it the party of Prime Minister Maliki or the Shiites? Who's standing in the way of the Kurds having this referendum?

JOOST HILTERMANN: Well, it's pretty much Arab versus Kurd. It is a fairly stark division between ethnic groups.

And the Kurds are a minority in Iraq. And so they cannot force the implementation of the constitution on this issue of disputed territories, so they get very frustrated.

And that's why they use any kind of law that happens to be on the table as a way of putting pressure on the government to enforce the constitution.

Frustration with lawmakers

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Nancy, did you sense or did you hear people express the same frustration with the current leadership that Joost is talking about?

NANCY YOUSSEF: Absolutely. I think there's a sense that the government that was elected was for the Iraq of 2005. They were elected along sectarian lines, when people didn't know their names, when it was really sectarian-based politics.

And now as the security situation has improved, there's a move towards issue-based politics. And I think that's the friction that you're seeing, that it's a government that was elected for 2005 governance trying to operate under a 2008 system.

And it doesn't quite fit. And I think that's where the friction lies and why it's been so hard to resolve some of these key issues. They came in under a different agenda.

MARGARET WARNER: Joost Hiltermann, explain to us whether, on a deeper level, do the politicians who are currently arguing over this, do they have an incentive to get it done or do the incentives run the other way?

JOOST HILTERMANN: Well, they may well run the other way, because many of the politicians now in power in Baghdad -- but especially in the governorates -- don't want to give up power. And they fear that, through these provincial elections, they may have to cede quite a bit of power, because the fact of the matter is, in January of 2005, the last round of provincial elections, a lot of people didn't participate.

The Sadr movement didn't participate as such. The Sunni Arabs didn't have political parties at the time, also boycotted the elections, didn't participate. And so now they are quite eager to get into the game.

And if they do, then the ruling parties can only lose the ground that they won disproportionately in January 2005, and they lose even more, because they haven't actually delivered any real services to people.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Nancy, before we go, you also were out with the Iraqi military. You were imbedded with a unit. How do the average Iraqi soldiers or their commanders feel about all this? How secure do they feel the situation is?

NANCY YOUSSEF: Well, you know, on the surface, they are very cocky. They say, you know, we did something that no one else was able to do. We rid the Basra, the oil-rich city of Basra, of the militia. We empowered the Iraqis. We brought back Iraqi nationalism.

But just below it, they're very nervous, because they know that, if the Mahdi Army comes back, they might not be able to stand up against them. They really represent Iraqi nationalism. They see that, if they do their jobs well, then maybe the American forces will leave, that the end of occupation rests with them. And so there's a lot of pride and a lot of fear running through the units.

Problems still lie beneath surface

MARGARET WARNER: So, Joost Hiltermann, for how long can this stalemate exist or persist and not have a deleterious effect on the relatively peaceful situation that Nancy's just described? I mean, can lawmakers just keep kicking this can down the road?

JOOST HILTERMANN: Well, I don't think very long, because the situation is not sustainable. Yes, we have real progress on the security front, but we have no political deals...

MARGARET WARNER: But, I mean, what would happen if they just keep postponing it?

JOOST HILTERMANN: Well, people will get frustrated. People will get very frustrated. The Kurds will start pushing. The Arabs will never give up Kirkuk to the Kurds. And so there is a stalemate there. And I don't see it resolving itself any time soon.

MARGARET WARNER: But do you think that people will then lose confidence in the electoral process and that violence will rise?

JOOST HILTERMANN: No, I'm not sure it will go that way. First of all, I think what is very important is to see what the United States will do and what kind of mediation it will offer.

The United Nations has also been very active, along with Ambassador Crocker, in mediating this.

So we could well see a compromise where the Kirkuk issue is taken out of the electoral law. The election then could go forward, and then the Kirkuk status issue can be postponed for later.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Nancy, in your travels around Baghdad, I don't know if you met any people, any young men or men who participated in the violence, but, I mean, do you have a sense of whether that's still right underneath the surface?

NANCY YOUSSEF: Absolutely. I had a chance to go to Sadr City, and they were really seething. I think what's happening now...

MARGARET WARNER: That's the real home base of Muqtada al-Sadr.

NANCY YOUSSEF: That's right.

MARGARET WARNER: That's a huge, very poor Shiite slum.

NANCY YOUSSEF: That's right. And the sense that I got was that people are laying low because they hope the provincial elections, at least for the Sadrists, will allow them to have power through the legitimate forces, the legitimate process.

If the provincial elections are delayed or if they don't happen any time soon, then there's more of a chance for them to say, "You know what? Let's go ahead and pick up our weapons and go back to that system."

And I think that's the real threat, even -- and on the Sunni side, it's the same thing. You have Sunni representatives who work through the Americans and now want a seat at government.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Nancy Youssef and Joost Hiltermann, we have to leave it there, but thank you both.


JOOST HILTERMANN: Thank you very much.