Jul 12, 2006 -


Upcoming Event

The Iraqi Constitution Eight Months Later

Wednesday, July 12 -
The Brookings Institution
Falk Auditorium

1775 Massachusetts Ave., NW
Washington, DC

The Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings held a policy luncheon on July 12, 2006 with two leading Iraq experts who discussed the prospects for the new government and the status of the constitution in Iraq.

The discussion started with policy suggestions for the new Iraqi Prime Minister, Nuri al-Maliki. One of the speakers pointed out that it was important not only to observe developments in Iraq, but also understand why these developments have occurred. The speaker argued that the most significant task for the new government was resolving the issue of amendments to the August 2005 constitution. Possible changes are certain to be divisive and there are few alternatives that allow moving forward in a manner acceptable to all parties in Iraqi politics.

In such a context, the speaker emphasized, time is critical. Having experienced relative stability in the north, the Kurds are not willing to wait much longer on their issues. They favor autonomy and would like to have formal control over the city of Kirkuk. The Shi’ah Arabs are also anxious for change. They sense that the south is lagging behind the north. They therefore want to develop the southern regions without waiting for calm to prevail in Baghdad. Meanwhile, the Sunni Arabs have been promised that the constitution will be revisited and that the government will re-examine de-Ba’thification, and they want this promised delivered. The previous government, the Iraqi Transitional Government of Ibrahim al-Ja’fari, had one major achievement: the encouragement of Sunni Arab participation in the political process. Sunni Arab involvement in the December 2005 parliamentary elections should not be interpreted as though the Sunni Arabs felt defeated. On the contrary, having realized that non-participation had weakened their stance, the Sunni Arabs took part in the elections in order to consolidate their position. This implies that Sunni Arab political participation will not necessarily reduce the level of violence in Iraq.

According to the speakers, the new government of Nuri al-Maliki also faces the challenge of dealing with militias. Clearly, one of the requirements for defeating the insurgency in Iraq is the development of capable and credible Iraqi security forces. Yet, today the security forces are filled with former militia members with questionable loyalty to the state. There is, therefore, little reason for celebrating that the fact that army and police numbers now exceed 200,000. These forces are not all loyal to the state of Iraq and changing this reality is not an easy task.

During the discussion, the analogy of a “house on fire” was used to describe the spreading sectarian violence. For three years, insurgent groups loyal to Saddam and al-Qa’ida have been attempting to set Iraq ablaze by provoking sectarian strife. These groups may have succeeded in igniting that larger conflict that they sought. There is now a danger of the fledgling political process being consumed by the fire that has been set. The Iraqi government is unable in the short-term to control the daily, inter-communal violence that has erupted. It therefore appears that the attempts at polarization for a civil war have so far been successful. Unfortunately, the strength and depth of Iraqi institutions has not been sufficient to withstand the widening conflict and these institutions remain fragile.

Another priority for the Iraqi government, as one of the speakers pointed out, should be combatting the industrial mafias that have burgeoned in Iraq. These are not merely small gangs, but large groups of organized criminals that thrive on Iraq’s chaos. In addition, the many refugee camps that have been set up following the recent rise in sectarian violence provide ample opportunities and breeding grounds for crime.

Although the situation is not very promising, the Iraqi government has certain tools at its disposal. For instance, it enjoys the full backing of the United States. The Sunni Arabs are still partially supportive of the political process and have more expectations from Prime Minister Maliki than they had from his predecessor Iraqi Transitional Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja’fari. Maliki has a strong team, including his deputies such as Barham Salih. Although the next six months will be a testing period for his coalition government, if he survives he will likely be relatively free from political danger for the next four years. In addition, Maliki has control over state funds and the speakers recommended that he use that leverage to the maximum.

These strengths are, nonetheless, counterbalanced by the weaknesses inherent in the Iraqi government and its institutions, namely rampant corruption and weak support teams. Moreover, there are political restrictions on the Prime Minister such as his inability to dismiss any minister for corruption or poor performance. The reason for this is that all ministers owe their posts to being members of political parties that are in the coalition government, they do not depend upon the Prime Minister for their job tenure. The cabinet, however, remains the Prime Minister’s most important tool and therefore needs fundamental transformation.

One of the speakers discussed two strategies for stopping the violence. The first was a policy of “linkage”, which would simultaneously pursue political progress while combating the violence. Although radical insurgents and foreign fighters would surely do everything possible to derail the political process, the advantage of this policy is that moderate Sunni Arabs can bring to the negotiating table their ability to reduce violence as a bargaining chip, hopefully thereby allowing them to win some concessions for a structural political realignment from the Kurds and the Shi’ah and simultaneously bring about some degree of stability. The alternative strategy is for the Maliki government to focus on decreasing the violence before pursuing a political, structural solution. The principle problem with this “de-linkage” strategy is that it is very similar to that strategy that has been used until now. Eight months ago, the violence was at a manageable level, yet a political solution could not be found. The notion that the violence must end before a political solution can be found is appealing to many but is implausible.

Participants discussed the varying roles that Iraq’s neighbors could play in any solution and agreed that there was some untapped potential. Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, for example, could each play a role in promoting progress in Iraq because a failed state on their borders is obviously not in their interests. Although the participants were not very optimistic about developments in Iraq, they expressed a guarded hope that the new government might be able to reverse the current damaging trends.