Politics in Iraq

Stephen DeAngelis

December 2, 2009

New York Times‘ op-ed columnist Thomas Friedman wrote: “Watching Iraqi politics is like watching a tightrope artist crossing a dangerous cavern. At every step it looks as though he is going to fall into the abyss, and yet, somehow, he continues to wobble forward. Nothing is easy when trying to transform a country brutalized by three decades of cruel dictatorship. It is one step, one election, one new law, at a time. Each is a struggle. Each is crucial” [“Eyes on the Prize,” 24 October 2009]. In a recent post [Hope for Kirkuk?], I talked about the importance of election legislation recently passed by the Iraqi parliament. I noted that it was a hopeful sign. Unfortunately, Iraq is once again wobbling toward to the abyss because the election law was vetoed by one Iraq’s two vice presidents [“Veto of Iraq’s Election Law Could Force Vote Delay,” by Rod Nordland and Riyadh Mohammed, New York Times, 19 November 2009]. They report:

“Iraq was thrown into a fresh political crisis … after a vice president vetoed a newly passed election law, delaying the vote, setting off fresh sectarian wrangling and possibly complicating plans to withdraw American troops. In a move that caught American officials by surprise, one of two vice presidents, Tariq al-Hashemi, said … that he had vetoed the new election law the night before; he had threatened a veto but the Americans did not expect him to follow through. Shortly afterward, the chief executive of Iraq’s United Nations-supported electoral commission said in an interview for the first time that the elections would have to be delayed. The veto touched off a political explosion. Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, condemned it as constitutionally questionable, while President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, warned that delaying the elections risked creating a constitutional vacuum during which the Iraqi government would lose its legitimacy.”

In my post about Kirkuk mentioned above, I noted that both Kurds and Sunnis had concerns about the election legislation and Mr. Hashemi’s veto reflects the Sunni position. Nordland and Mohammed continue:

“‘Parliament could amend this law in a day,’ Mr. Hashemi said. ‘We have no time to lose.’ But with Kurdish leaders also objecting to provisions of the law, a much more protracted debate in Parliament is likely. Kurdish leaders also want a greater share of parliamentary seats and on Tuesday had threatened to boycott the elections unless their demand was met. The United States has consistently pushed national elections both as an important step toward reconciling still yawning Iraqi political divisions and as a prerequisite for withdrawing American troops. A postponement could affect the schedule, since American military officials had said they would begin a major drawdown a month or two after elections originally set for Jan. 18. … The United States has about 120,000 troops in Iraq, a number that President Obama has pledged to reduce to 50,000 by next August, a major logistical undertaking.”

Although powersharing between competing factions is critical if Iraq is remain a unified state, powersharing arrangements can also impede progress. As Nordland and Mohammed note, “Iraq’s Presidency Council is made up of both of Iraq’s vice presidents, one a Sunni, the other a Shiite, and the president, who is a Kurd. Under Iraq’s Constitution, all three must approve any law passed by Parliament.” The sticking point for Sunni politicians is that they believe the law as passed doesn’t provide enough representation for Iraqis who have fled the country (almost all of whom are Sunnis). Nordland and Mohammed continue:

“Ibrahaim al-Sumydaie, a political analyst here, said he believed that Mr. Hashemi’s veto was motivated at least in part by political ambitions; he has been expected to announce that he will join an electoral coalition with two politicians who have large constituencies among Iraqis who live abroad. Baha al-Araji, head of Parliament’s legal committee, suggested that Mr. Hashemi was backing a Baathist agenda, since backers of Saddam Hussein’s government oppose the elections. … Iraqi officials suggested that the veto would not survive a constitutional challenge. ‘This veto is absolutely illegal and unconstitutional,’ said Tariq Harb, a prominent Iraqi constitutional lawyer. Mr. Maliki, in a strongly worded statement issued by his office, called the veto ‘a dangerous challenge to the political and democratic system.’ He added that the veto ‘was not based on a solid constitutional foundation and did not pay any attention to the national good.’ Ali al-Moussawi, an adviser to the prime minister, said Mr. Hashemi’s veto was unconstitutional because all decisions by the Presidency Council have to be unanimous. He expressed hope that the vice president would reverse his veto to avoid a challenge in Iraq’s highest court. Mr. Maliki cannot override the veto under Iraq’s Constitution, but it could be appealed to the court, or possibly to Parliament. It is unclear how independent Iraq’s judiciary is.”

Friedman believes that keeping Iraq on track is more important than succeeding in Afghanistan. He writes: “Transform Iraq and it will impact the whole Arab-Muslim world. Change Afghanistan and you just change Afghanistan.” He concludes:

“If this election comes off, it will still be held with U.S. combat troops on hand. The even bigger prize and test will be four years hence, if Iraq can hold an election in which multiethnic coalitions based on differing ideas of governance — not sectarianism — vie for power, and the reins are passed from one government to another without any U.S. military involvement. That would be the first time in modern Arab history where true multisectarian coalitions contest power, and cede power, without foreign interference. That would shake up the whole region.”

The shake up for which Friedman hopes will only be accomplished if Iraqi citizens believe that peace and prosperity can only result from civil political dialogue and cooperation. The U.S. is certainly underwriting the peace part of the equation and has invested a trillion dollars so far in that effort. A peaceful future, however, must also be prosperous and America’s trillion dollars hasn’t been enough apparently to attract many U.S. businesses to invest in Iraq’s future [“Rebuilding Its Economy, Iraq Shuns U.S. Businesses,” by Rod Nordland, New York Times, 13 November 2009]. Nordland uses a recent trade fair as the background for his article. He writes:

“When the post-Saddam Iraqi government swept out its old commercial fairgrounds and invited companies from around the world, the United States was not much in evidence among the 32 nations represented. Of the 396 companies that exhibited their wares, ‘there are two or three American participants, but I can’t remember their names,’ said Hashem Mohammed Haten, director general of Iraq’s state fair company. … The trade fair is a telling indication of an uncomfortable truth: America’s war in Iraq has been good for business in Iraq — but not necessarily for American business. American companies are not seeing much lasting benefit from their country’s investment in Iraq. Some American businesses have calculated that the high security costs and fear of violence make Iraq a business no-go area. Even those who are interested and want to come are hampered by American companies’ reputation here for overcharging and shoddy workmanship, an outgrowth of the first years of the occupation, and a lasting and widespread anti-Americanism. While Iraq’s imports nearly doubled in 2008, to $43.5 billion from $25.67 billion in 2007, imports from American companies stayed flat at $2 billion over that period. Among investors, the United Arab Emirates leads the field, with $31 billion invested in Iraq, most of that in 2008, compared to only about $400 million from American companies when United States government reconstruction spending is excluded, according to Dunia Frontier Consultants, a emerging-market analyst. ‘Following this initial U.S.-dominated reconstruction phase, U.S. private investors have become negligible players in Iraq,’ Dunia said in a report.”

It’s a shame that U.S. contractors poisoned the well for other U.S. companies. As I have stated in previous posts, opportunities exist in Iraq. Nordland details some of those opportunities that have gone to non-American companies.

“Iraq is doling out its own oil-financed funds for capital projects, and American companies have so far received surprisingly little of it. Sports City, a billion-dollar complex of stadiums and housing in Basra planned for the Gulf Games in 2013, was awarded to an Iraqi general contractor, Al Jiburi Construction, over 60 other bidders, many of them American. … When the transportation ministry put up more than $30 billion in railroad expansion contracts recently, they went to Czech, British and Italian companies.”

As I’ve noted in previous posts, Turkey has been the largest beneficiary of increased trade with Iraq and it is followed by closely by Iran. About Turkey, Nordland reports:

“Turkey has gone from almost no legal trade with Iraq before the war to $10 billion in exports last year, five times as much as the United States. Turkey’s trade minister, Kursad Tuzmen, predicted that number would triple in the next couple years. Both Turkey and Iran had huge pavilions at the trade fair, crowded with businessmen discussing deals. So did France and Brazil, also not coalition countries. Last month, FedEx, which had been flying packages in and out of Iraq since 2004, announced it was suspending its operations. The reason is that Iraqi officials gave RusAir, a Russian airline, exclusive rights to cargo flights. FedEx was one of the very few American businesses that braved the risks of working not only on American bases but also in the Red Zone, back when it was particularly dangerous to do so. Now that the danger is much less, its business is being thwarted by an upstart Russian come-lately.”

Nordland reports that unnamed American officials insist that Iraq still presents opportunities for American companies willing to invest there. One “official pointed out that a recent Iraqi-American investment conference held in Washington stirred up enormous interest among American companies.” But as Nordland notes, “That interest has not translated into action yet.” Some analysts note that American businesses are at a disadvantage because they must deal with security concerns that regional firms don’t have to worry about.

“The high cost of security — a cost that most regional businesses don’t have — has dissuaded many American businesses from coming; some contracts spent as much as 25 percent of their budgets on security. Security isn’t the only impediment. Being seen as the occupier is just not good for business. Although the United States, legally speaking, has not been an occupying power since June 2004, when the Security Council formally ended occupation, many see it that way. Even Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, has described Americans as occupiers to curry electoral support. One European ambassador, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of his government’s policy, said his own country’s trade opportunities greatly increased in Iraq after it withdrew the last of its troops more than a year ago. ‘Being considered an occupier handicapped us extremely,’ he said. ‘The farther we are away from that the more our companies can be accepted on their own merits.'”

Only in the Kurdistan region of Iraq have Americans been seen more as liberators than occupiers. Even there, however, the Turks have found they have a distinct advantage. It is one reason that the Turks are so keen on settling internal differences with their Kurdish minority. Although Friedman is encouraging the U.S. to keep its “eye on the prize,” it’s even more important for the Iraqi’s to do so. The end game is theirs to win or lose.