The Middle East Channel

Iraq’s year of transition

As Afghanistan and Pakistan continue to take their lion’s share of attention from the American media and government, Iraq remains a nation in delicate transition–balancing between its potential to become a powerful, positive influence in the Middle East and its vulnerability to sectarian division and terrorist advances. On March 7, Iraq held its second parliamentary ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

As Afghanistan and Pakistan continue to take their lion’s share of attention from the American media and government, Iraq remains a nation in delicate transition–balancing between its potential to become a powerful, positive influence in the Middle East and its vulnerability to sectarian division and terrorist advances.

On March 7, Iraq held its second parliamentary elections since Saddam’s fall. Although many observers commented that the first election in 2005 was the country’s most important, the second election was equally significant. Thus, in these months after the elections, the political process in Iraq is crucial, and will determine which of these two paths the country will take.

Indeed, for most of its existence Iraq has been politically unbalanced. Power has been concentrated in the hands of the few, and the benefits of the state denied to the many. The liberation of Iraq in 2003 temporarily created a new, if fundamentally democratic, imbalance. Almost overnight, the Kurds and Shiite Arabs were enfranchised, while Sunni Arabs chose not to participate in the new political process.

The March 2010 elections have already redrawn that political map. The strong participation this time of Sunni Arabs, along with the ability of Ayad Allawi and the Iraqiya coalition to draw considerable support among the populaton, has created an even more plural environment. Now, the post-election coalition building will serve as a critical test of Iraq’s fragile democracy and will continue to affect more than just the country’s political future.

The successful formation of a new government and continued strides towards stability are crucial for the withdrawal of U.S. forces by the end of 2011. As was predicted by both the American military and Iraqi government officials, violence increased sharply with the elections, as political parties vied for advantage and insurgents sought to spread chaos. Now, during the long duration of the ballot count, recount and certification, Iraq remains vulnerable. And yet, it is still uncertain how quickly a new government will be formed.

In the first post-Sadaam election, voting was held on December 15, 2005. The prime minister was not nominated until April 21 and he only secured a parliamentary vote of confidence for his new cabinet on May 20–just within the 30-day time limit. It is questionable whether Iraq’s fledgling political system can tolerate a repeat of 2005, when thousands died. Worryingly, attacks from suspected terrorist organizations have already killed dozens of innocent people in the ten weeks since the election, including at least 125 in a series of bombings and shootings across Iraq last week.

Ayad Allawi, the winner of the recount, insists he has the first right to form a new government, but the union of current Prime Minster Maliki’s bloc with the Iraqi National Alliance, the third-place finisher, could sideline him and anger his coalition’s constituents. Suspicion between the country’s diverse groups remains a fact of life–therefore compromise is essential. Regardless who technically "wins" the election, no government can effectively govern Iraq unless an inclusive coalition is formed.

In this context, the U.S. should play a more active role to help the key political blocs reach a consensus so that the next federal government is inclusive and balanced. This is in America’s long-term interest and its allies in Iraq as well. It is not unrealistic to believe that Iraq could serve as a positive model for the Middle East region as a whole, as opposed to maintaining the negative force it had been for so long.

Iraq can take significant strides towards democratic governance if it adheres to the country’s constitution, decentralizes authority and institutes a transparent revenue sharing system. Moreover, Iraq’s geographical disposition gives it great geopolitical influence–sitting between Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Syria, Turkey and Iran makes Iraq a potential peace broker or powder keg, depending on which direction the country goes (the Kurdistan Region’s improved relations with Turkey has already been a positive indicator of how Iraq can align U.S. allies); and perhaps most importantly, Iraq has proven reserves of 115 billion barrels of oil and 3.17 trillion cubic meters of natural gas, making it a potential global player with a growing economy–if the right government takes office.

Iraq still needs U.S. assistance to help in fulfilling its potential. While Iraqi leaders and citizens will bear responsibility for formulating and implementing a common vision, there is plenty of room for guidance. As we have seen in the past, a vacuum left open to negative influences has proven to be an opening to those who have nefarious designs for Iraq. What cannot be overlooked is what the majority of eligible Iraqi voters want their country to be–a stable, prosperous, federal democracy.

We are already proving this in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Our Region is safe and secure; our society open and the economy based on a free market. In July 2009, the Kurdistan Region held free and fair elections, and in 2010’s elections, our turnout was again strong. We are continuing the process of improving transparency and good governance–nurturing a vibrant civil society and improving human rights conditions, while ensuring that our Region is safe for Iraq’s persecuted minorities. Our economy is booming and a growing number of international companies are investing here. The leaders of the Kurdistan Region are continuing to play a constructive role in Iraq’s political development, and with close to 60 seats in the new parliament in Iraq, will constitute a strong coalition partner. But with all of our progress, there is much work to be done and the Kurdistan Regional Government is committed to meeting the challenges that lie ahead. But we cannot do it alone–nor can Iraq.

Whatever the political outcomes for Iraq, the transition of power–both from one coalition government to the next, and as Iraq continues to take up its own security during U.S. redeployments–will be the true indicator whether we will succeed or fail in the next decade. The coming months will provide us an indication as to the direction the country will take. 2010 is Iraq’s year of transition.

For its interests in the Middle East to be protected, the United States must have a strategic vision of its relations with Iraq, including the Kurdistan Region. In the coming weeks our messy government formation will likely test Iraq’s constitutional process. It is therefore vital that the U.S. remain engaged with all parties in the country to ensure that a forward-looking government is formed, and a democratic and sustainable Iraq emerges.

Qubad Talabani is the Representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq to the United States. He is the publisher of www.qubadsblog.com

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