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Iraqi Elections Proceed Despite Threats of Violence

March 4, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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With more killings in the run-up to Sunday's Iraqi elections, Jim Lehrer gets two perspectives on governance in Iraq from Feisal Istrabadi, former deputy ambassador to the United Nations, and Brian Katulis, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

JIM LEHRER: Two perspectives now on Sunday’s election.

Feisal Istrabadi has served as Iraq’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations. He is now a visiting law professor at Indiana University. Brian Katulis was on the National Security Council staff in the Clinton administration. He is now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank.

First, what’s your best guess as to what’s behind the bombs and who’s doing it?

FEISAL ISTRABADI, former deputy Iraqi ambassador to United Nations: Well, this has always occurred in Iraq whenever we have had significant events. We have had — whether it’s elections or the referendum on the permanent constitution, et cetera, there are interested voices or individuals interested in Iraq and outside Iraq, unfortunately, in disrupting the process.

The government always says it’s al-Qaida and the Baathists. Whether that’s the case or whether there’s also a national — an internal insurgency aside, that is to say, a domestic insurgency not necessarily related to the others, is not clear to me.

I think there may be elements of that. Things like the de-Baathification might, for instance, provoke Sunnis — sort of rank-and-file Sunnis to — to contemplate going into an insurgency mode. It’s not clear, I don’t think.

JIM LEHRER: What would you add to that? Is there a message being sent to people not to vote or vote a certain way, or is it that — is it that sophisticated?

BRIAN KATULIS, senior fellow, Center for American Progress: Well, I think that there are some people who want to take Prime Minister Maliki and make him look like a weak incumbent.

And I think’s a lot of speculation about these attacks. But one thing I think we need to…

JIM LEHRER: You mean weak — so weak he can’t keep the country secure; he can’t stop the bombing.

BRIAN KATULIS: He can’t control the security. He’s named his coalition State of Law.

BRIAN KATULIS: And he wants to demonstrate that he’s in control of the situation.

JIM LEHRER: His political coalition, yes.

BRIAN KATULIS: Exactly. And his political coalition is named for that reason.

And I think we have seen a substantial decline in violence in Iraq compared to 2006. But what’s missing, I think, has been political reconciliation. A lot of the factions that had major differences over how to share power in Iraq still have those major differences.

And I think there’s a lot of speculation about who’s behind each individual attack. I suspect we won’t see a return to the levels of violence that we saw in 2006. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see more violence between the elections and then, importantly, in the post-election period, which I think is a very uncertain period for Iraq.


Well, in general, what — what’s at stake in this election? How do you see it?

FEISAL ISTRABADI: I wish I were as sanguine as — as my colleague about the possibility of returning to 2006 and 2000 levels of violence. I think that is at stake.

JIM LEHRER: You think it’s possible?

FEISAL ISTRABADI: I do think it’s possible, on a — maybe as high as 50/50. I think that the odds of it recurring increased when — it being the violence — increased when the de-Baathification order came through, because the message that was sent to the Sunni of Iraq — look, there are Shia in power or in the corridors of power in Iraq today who were powerful and influential members of the previous regime. That is…

JIM LEHRER: Saddam Hussein. They worked for Saddam Hussein.

FEISAL ISTRABADI: That’s correct.

They’re very close to the levers of power today, some of them. The message that went out with the de-Baathification order that your prior piece discussed is that, if you’re a Sunni, the fact that — I mean, the sitting minister of defense was de-Baathified. The current minister of defense was de-Baathified. Current members of parliament were barred from running for office.

The message is, if you’re a Sunni, your loyalty is always under scrutiny. Your having participated in the political process today and your desire to participate tomorrow doesn’t immunize you from having your loyalty tested.

And what we have ended up with is a system very similar to Iran’s, in which the — the government decides who its — quote, unquote — “legitimate opposition” can be.

JIM LEHRER: And you don’t think the election — or do you think the election could possibly cleanse this situation in such a way that could prevent violence?

BRIAN KATULIS: I’m not certain this that this election will bridge these divides, in and of itself.

I think this election is the ultimate stress test of Iraq’s political system.

JIM LEHRER: The ultimate stress test?

BRIAN KATULIS: Yes. Just like a cardiologist puts a patient on a treadmill and checks his vital signs, I actually think this election, and, importantly, the post-election period, how the leaders deal with the coalition-building and others, it tests how viable Iraq’s political system is.

We have a myth of our surge of U.S. forces in 2007 and 2008. Clearly, that helped lead to a decline in violence. But the other part of the rationale for the surge, let’s help Iraqis bridge these divides, I would argue today, the key factions are still as divided.

JIM LEHRER: The Baathist — the Baathist issue aside, what — what — what are the issues? What are people going to the polls to vote for or against?

FEISAL ISTRABADI: Well, I — that’s a — that’s a — that’s a really good question.

And the problem is that the Iraqi political elites now — we’re in our second election in the permanent constitution phase — this is the second election. And most scholars will tell you that it’s the second election that matters most, because that’s the one — as my colleague has just pointed out, that’s the one that tests whether institutions have started to take root, more so than the first election.

But the political elites in Iraq have never engendered a debate on the issues. Rather, they have manipulated their constituencies towards sectarian — towards ethno-confessional divides.

JIM LEHRER: Ethno-confessional, meaning Shias and Sunnis…


JIM LEHRER: … and Kurds.


JIM LEHRER: And, if you’re one of those, then that’s how you vote? That’s how you’re supposed to vote?


And what I think the individuals behind de-Baathification have — order of five, six weeks ago, have attempted to do is to equate Baathist equals Sunni equals nationalists, because the — the nationalists seem to be doing better, particularly the list of Iyad Allawi seem to be doing better in the polls that than they did in the last set of elections.

JIM LEHRER: So, there’s no really serious work yet that makes a Sunni and Shia and a Kurd sit down together and say we have got things — more things that — that unite us than separate us? They’re not to that stage yet in the democracy?

BRIAN KATULIS: You have, I think, at a superficial level some of the election coalitions that are contesting this, trying to present themselves as such.

But, at their core, I think some of the fundamental demands, one demand, for instance, constitutional reform, in 2005, the Iraqis wrote a constitution that had many gaps, that didn’t define very basic questions, the identity of this country, whether it’s Arab or Kurd. How do we share power?

A promise was made to Sunni factions in particular of constitutional reform. Here we are, five years later, and there’s been no reform to the constitution. Five years later, we haven’t addressed the Arab-Kurdish divide in places like Kirkuk and disputed territories in northern Iraq.

So, a lot of those fundamental questions of what is Iraq still remain unanswered today.

JIM LEHRER: But what about the fundamental issue or the fundamental fact that there are 6,000 people who are running in these parliamentary elections? There are 80 some parties. I mean, is that not — quote — “democracy in action”?

FEISAL ISTRABADI: It’s a form of democracy. What I would say is that constitutional democracy has not set in. But, certainly, a kind of majoritarian democracy has. And I have to say…

JIM LEHRER: In other words, anybody can run, except the exception you made of, of course, the Baathists.


JIM LEHRER: But anybody who’s got it — who can get a few people together can go and run for the parliament, right?

FEISAL ISTRABADI: Well, they don’t even need a few people together.

JIM LEHRER: You can just do it…

FEISAL ISTRABADI: There are a lot of individuals who are running, in fact.

JIM LEHRER: Right. Yes.

FEISAL ISTRABADI: And what I have to say is this. In my more optimistic moments — and I’m not an optimist by nature — I try to be a realist. I’m often accused of being a pessimist.

But, in my more optimistic moments, my optimism has nothing whatsoever to do with the political elites in Iraq as a class. It has more to do with the people of Iraq, who I think are truly attempting to…

JIM LEHRER: To make it work?

FEISAL ISTRABADI: … to make it work and to embrace genuine democracy, but I think just deserve a better quality of political elite.

JIM LEHRER: In a word, do you agree with that? The problem is with the elite, not with the folks?


And I think, from a U.S. policy perspective, just simply staying there, as some people have suggested, with large numbers of troops, aren’t going to bridge those divides. I think the real hope I see is an Iraqi people which has suffered. It’s suffered for decades under Saddam Hussein. And they want better leadership. And, to date, I don’t think they have had it.

JIM LEHRER: But they’re going to have to rise up and say, enough of this.

BRIAN KATULIS: Absolutely. And you saw glimmers of this in the provincial elections last year, where people were voting for different types of candidates. And that’s my hope, is that new faces emerge in the Iraqi leadership.

JIM LEHRER: OK. Well, we will see what happens.

Gentlemen, thank you both very much.