January 30, 2005

Iraq: Elections, the Sunnis and the Insurgency

Iraqis went to the polls on Sunday, January 30. By most measures, it was a success, despite the death of several dozen people. Initial estimates of participation range around 60 percent. This marks the country's first free elections in almost five decades. Note the term "free." There have been referenda in Iraq before, even under Saddam Husayn, although these have always been sham exercises.

It will take a week to 10 days to tally the votes, but the conventional wisdom is that the United Iraqi Coalition (ballot choice 169) will emerge as the winner. This is the platform supported by Grand Ayatollah 'Ali Al-Sistani and headed by the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) 'Abd Al-'Aziz Al-Hakim. Although there was some concern on the part of the United States about the emergence of an Islamic government along the lines of the neighboring Islamic Republic of Iran, both Sistani and Hakim have made it clear that they have no intention of creating an Islamic state, and are committed to allow all religious groups in the country the freedom to worship as they please. The new government will almost certainly be Islamic in character and based on Islamic values, but it will not implement Islamic law. Of course, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has stated on more than one occasion that the United States would not tolerate the establishment of another Islamic Republic like Iran in the Persian Gulf. As long as there are nearly 150,000 American troops in the ground in Iraq, his statements do carry some weight.

What's next?

After the votes are counted, the winning coalitions/parties/slates will be told how many of the 275 national assembly seats they will receive. Once seated, the assembly will then elect a president, two vice presidents, then select a prime minister who will form a government. This is somewhat similar to the electoral system in Israel, except Israel now directly elects its prime minster. One of the key duties of this new government will be to provide for the drafting of a Constitution and the preparations for permanent elections in December 2005.

Will the government be considered legitimate?

I don't think there is any question of legitimacy in the eyes of the Shi'a and Kurds. Both groups enjoyed large turnouts for the election. The Sunni turnout was understandably lower - either because of the boycott called for by many Sunni clerics, or because of intimidation by the insurgents (most notably the Al-Qa'idah in Iraq group under Abu Musa'ib Az-Zarqawi). However, given the overall turnout, most of the Sunnis will likely accept the government as legitimate. On the other side, the Shi'a and Kurds will almost certainly include Sunni groups. They realize that any attempt to exclude or marginalize the Sunnis will result in continued or increased animosity between the Sunnis and majority Shi'a. For their part, the Sunnis will likely respond favorably to offers of participation in the new government, in other words, having it both ways. It reminds of me of California deputy governor Cruz Bustamante's "No on the recall, yes to Bustamante" position....

What does this mean for the insurgency?

At this point, it is difficult to estimate the effect the election results will have on the insurgency. There are two major factions of what we commonly call the Iraqi insurgency. These are the Az-Zarqawi group composed of mostly foreigners and possibly some Iraqi fundamentalist Islamists (or jihadis) on one hand, and disaffected former regime members (sometimes called the Ba'this) on the other. While there is a very slight chance that the former regime members might be convinced to quit the insurgency and become part of the new Iraq, I think it safe to assume that any effort to reach out to the Al-Qa'idah faction would certainly fail. The insurgents must be hunted down and either killed or captured. The key to this is actionable intelligence. That intelligence can only be supplied by the population of the areas in which the insurgents operate - primarily the Sunni triangle. When the Iraqi people are ready to commit themselves to the new government - and only then, will the insurgency be defeated.

What does this mean for American forces in Iraq?

In the near term, troop levels will likely remain at current levels or decrease slightly as the two battalions of the US Army's 82nd Airborne Division's "ready brigade" return to standby duty at Fort Bragg. These battalions were sent to augment American troops providing election security. Once additional Iraqi units are trained, or the level of violence decreases (for example, if the Sunnis commit to the new government), the process of withdrawing the coalition forces from Iraq can begin.

The US government has stated that it will honor any Iraqi government request to remove American forces from the country. The chances of that request at this time is almost nil. Anyone in power in Iraq realizes that until Iraq's security forces are more capable, American troops remain the final guarantor of Iraqi security.