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A great day for Iraq, less so for the United States

A great day for Iraq, less so for the United States

By Kori Schake

The Iraqi Parliament has passed a law that will allow elections to proceed in January, and on terms that will make Iraqi politicians more accountable to Iraqi voters and foster continued stabilization of the Iraqi political landscape. This is a huge step forward in the democratization of Iraq; what a pity our own government sees it largely in terms of facilitating our withdrawal from the country.

The United Nations had said last Thursday was the deadline for a law to be passed if elections were to remain on schedule. Many Iraq watchers feared once the deadline had been breached, no law would be forthcoming and elections indefinitely postponed. Some even argued Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was seeking to derail an election law to remain in power in a “soft coup.”  But the Parliament acted and Faraj al-Haidari, the head of Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission, has now confirmed to the Associated Press that the election will be held within a week of the original Jan. 16 date (the Constitution requires only that national elections be held in January).

Two thorny issues required solutions before the law could be passed: how to account for changing demographics in Kirkuk, and whether voters would cast ballots for parties or individuals. Both came to solutions that strengthen democracy in Iraq.

Kirkuk is a northern city from which Kurdish residents were purged during Saddam Hussein’s rule. They have returned in large numbers since. Kurdish leaders explain the influx as displaced people returning to their homes.  Others, especially local Turkmen and Arabs, suspect Kurds are “creating facts on the ground” for an eventual claim on Kirkuk’s oil, should they secede from Iraq. There has not been a census to establish voter roles, increasing suspicions. But Iraqi legislators found a principled compromise: Kirkuk will be treated just like all other places, with a review only in the event of a large voter increase. There will be no seats assigned to sectarian communities (a proposition that had figured prominently in the negotiations). Both Kurds and Arabs are claiming victory, which has to be a good sign.

Many successful democracies have “closed list” elections, where voters cast their ballots for a political party rather than a candidate. Germany, for example, has a two ballot system, the first for an individual candidate, the second for a party to which additional seats will be allotted. But in countries with ethnic or sectarian divides, such as Iraq, this structure of voting deepens divisions rather than encouraging candidates to broaden their political appeal.

The Iraqi Parliament chose open lists so voters choose candidates rather than parties. Significant credit for this outcome goes to Grand Ayatollah Sistani, Iraq’s central religious figure, who supported this tighter accountability. His beneficial shaping of the Iraqi political landscape from its margins stands in stark contrast to the dictatorship of Ayatollahs in Iran. Iraqi voters can decide whether party standard bearers merit office, weakening parties and rewarding good governance at the local level. An open list will likely extend the time of government formation, but it is crucial in helping Iraq’s nascent democracy get beyond sectarian voting blocs an into a more fluid and policy-based governing coalition.

When I was in Iraq a few weeks ago, it was striking how proud Iraqis are to have held free and fair elections, especially the Jan. 2009 provincial elections in which incumbents were tossed out in large numbers. Nearly all mention the contrast to Iran’s elections last summer and Afghanistan’s this fall. Passage of the election law and the positive political dynamic that has Iraqis opting in to political wrangling as the means of addressing their disputes bodes very well for Iraq’s future.

What is less clear is whether the Obama administration understands the value of a long-term strategic partnership with a democratic Iraq that will be the lodestar of representative government in the Middle East. On the basis statements made by the president and Ambassador Hill, I believe they do not. Instead of playing the end game of our military presence in Iraq in ways that stabilize Iraq and make us a valuable long-term partner, the administration seems only to see the value of getting out of Iraq.

President Obama said, “This agreement advances the political progress that can bring lasting peace and unity to Iraq and allow for the orderly and responsible transition of American combat troops out of Iraq by next September.” Ambassador Hill went even further in emphasizing the importance of the election law for our timetable. “What is important is that with the election law, we are very much on schedule for the drawdown,” Hill said. This denigrates the importance of Iraq’s achievement for Iraqis.

Emphasizing the president’s timeline for drawdown does not stabilize Iraq’s political landscape. It was important for Iraqis that we meet our obligations in the Security Agreement President Bush signed in 2008. Withdrawing from the cities last June confirmed for Iraqis we respect their sovereignty and abide by our obligations to them. But the bombings of the Iraqi Foreign Ministry in August, and the bombings of the Iraqi Interior and Justice Ministries in October have given many Iraqis pause to reconsider whether their security forces can handle the threats the enemies of a successful Iraq pose. Now is a time to reassure Iraqis we will support them as they want to be supported, and will be a partner in their long term success.

The September 2010 end of combat operations is an American deadline, committed to by President Obama but not obligated in any agreement with Iraqis. Conditions in Iraq should be the basis for determining the pace of our drawdown, but the president’s comments today reinforce yet again his is a timeline not a conditions-based withdrawal. In a delicate political season for Iraqis, our government should be reinforcing Iraq’s success, not subordinating it to the president’s political convenience.

AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images