Iraq’s Progress Report

Are Iraq’s politicians making any progress toward compromise and reconciliation, as American and Iraqi security forces risk so much and work so hard to improve that country’s security environment? This is perhaps the central question in the entire Iraq debate.

Without greater cooperation across Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish lines, Iraq’s dramatic progress is probably not sustainable. With such cooperation, however, it may be possible to make the country’s newfound, partial stability durable — and may point the way to a U.S. exit strategy that avoids a strategic defeat in this crucial part of the world.

As recent news indicated, there is at least some progress. Iraqi politicians have just passed a new law to reform the “de-Ba’athification” process. What does that mean? During Saddam’s day, if you wished a professional job in Iraq you basically had to join the Ba’athist Party. For most of the 1 million plus who did so, this was in effect a requirement and hardly implied direct involvement or even complicity in the crimes of the state.

Yet a decree issued by Paul Bremer in 2003 punished many former Ba’athists who were effectively innocent. Now Iraqis are trying to make any such punishment more selective, more limited and more fair. It is not yet finalized, and even once it is officially law, it will need to be carried out carefully. By some interpretations, it could be counterproductive, leading to the firing of more Sunnis from jobs in the security sector in particular.

But there seems a real desire of Iraq’s major sectarian groups to use this law to help smooth over tensions between them. Combined with a pension law passed last fall, it will if nothing else help many mid-level former Ba’athists get their retirement pay, and in the future it should give more Sunnis a stake in the new Iraq.

The reformed de-Ba’athification law is one of a half-dozen key political issues codified into American law last year by the president and the Congress as “benchmarks” that we expected Iraqi leadership to address. The other key matters so identified, all still requiring further attention, are hydrocarbon legislation (to ensure fairness in distributing oil revenue and developing future oil resources), a provincial powers act (clarifying the roles of Iraq’s 18 provinces vis-a-vis the central government), a provincial election law to facilitate the next round of local elections, a process for holding a referendum on the political future of the disputed northern oil city of Kirkuk (and for compensating individual property holders and sectarian groups who lose out in such a vote), and a more transparent and trustworthy process for purging sectarian extremists from government positions (probably more a matter of proper federal oversight than of new legislation per se).

These benchmarks are reasonable — that is, if not taken too literally, and not viewed as the be-all and end-all in Iraq. What really matters, of course, is that Iraqis view themselves as a single people working together to build a new nation and addressing their inevitable differences legislatively rather than violently. The benchmarks are important, but primarily as proxies for creating this new attitude of democratic governance — itself tougher to measure or demonstrate.

As such, even a short list of benchmarks needs to be a little longer and examine possible progress in other areas of Iraqi political life. To the above should be added creating sectarian balance within key Iraqi security organizations, ensuring sectarian balance within Iraq’s civilian agencies as well, strengthening Iraq’s court system to ensure speedy and fair trials as well as appeals, and taking interim steps toward providing resources for provincial governments (even as longer-term clarification of their future role is ironed out in the formal legislative process in Baghdad).

Down the road, along the lines of what Brookings scholar Ken Pollack has advocated, I would also favor reform of Iraq’s electoral system, to empower local voting districts directly and thereby weaken the role of the sectarian-dominated parties in gaining seats via the current proportional representation method.

So how are the Iraqis doing? An interim report card on Iraqi political progress in early 2008 might read something like this:

• De-Baathification reform (coupled with pension law passed late in 2007): Grade of B+. The law is almost finalized, though some key implementation matters must be resolved satisfactorily.

• Hydrocarbon legislation: incomplete to date, but with more problems than promise, so an interim grade of D. This is actually a set of several separate laws, gradually winding through committee, but without basic agreement among Kurd, Shia and Sunni Arab about how to resolve differences to date.

• Provincial powers act. Again, incomplete to date, with an interim grade of C-. There is some movement, quite slow, in parliamentary committees.

• Provincial election law. Again, incomplete, interim grade of C-. Even once the law is passed, it will be hard to convince Iraqi politicians who currently hold power to allow free elections.

• Kirkuk referendum: Incomplete, but in this case with an interim grade of D. The situation is very troubling, given the huge stakes involved for not only the immediate Kirkuk region, and relations between Kurds, Turkomen, and Sunni Arabs there, but more broadly for the precedents established for resolving disputed territorial and resource matters throughout Iraq.

• Purging of extremists from militias: B. While some Shia nationalists in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s office continue to promote sectarian interests excessively, there has been much progress in removing militia leaders from government leadership jobs (though in some cases it is possible one bad apple may be replaced by another. Only time will truly tell).

• Improving sectarian balance in security forces: C+. This has been difficult, and the Shia-dominated government has allowed Sunni volunteers to join the police and army only slowly and begrudgingly. But the process is accelerating, and 50,000 volunteers have been brought into the security forces over the last year or so.

• Improving sectarian balance in civilian agencies: C-. Some progress here but not as much, though again U.S. cajoling is helping things along.

• Improving Iraq’s court system: B-. While hardly exemplary, Iraq’s legal system now has more than 1,200 trained judges (who are better protected against violence than before), and many prisoners have now been released after initial review of their cases.

• Getting resources to the provinces (even in the absence of hydrocarbon laws): A-. There has been dramatic improvement here, on what might be the most important economic matter of all. It amounts to de facto sharing of oil resources. Even if not as good as binding, permanent law, it does reflect a much better attitude of intersectarian compromise among Iraq’s major political players.

• Electoral reform: Not happening yet, though the need for this has not yet been widely discussed or established among Iraq’s major players.

This list of criteria suggests passing grades on about a half-dozen and unclear results on two of the others. Three of them are static and fundamentally worrisome.

Overall, Iraq’s political system probably merits a grade of roughly C for its performance over the last 12 months. The bad news is there is lots of work to be done over the next 12 months and beyond. The good news is that the pace of progress is finally picking up.