What to Expect in Iraq After the December 15 Elections

Posted in Iraq | 14-Dec-05 | Author: Erich Marquardt and Adam Wolfe

Iraqi soldiers patrol the road near a polling centre in Baghdad's Sadr city, a day before Iraq's historical parliamentary elections, December 14, 2005.

As Iraq prepares to elect its first permanent, post-Saddam Hussein government on December 15, 2005, the political class is preparing for the regionalization, and potential fracturing, of the state. Sectarian violence, a constitution that favors federalism over the functioning of the state, and pressures on the U.S. to begin withdrawing military forces are colluding together to ensure Iraq's fragmented future will not come without violent dispute.

The semi-autonomous Kurdish region moved one step closer toward removing the prefix on its autonomy when it began an oil-drilling project with a Norwegian energy company without federal approval. Shi'a political leaders have formed a power-sharing agreement among themselves while also giving at least tacit support to the escalating violence committed against the Sunni Arab population, as well as against secular-minded Shi'a, by Shi'a militias and government ministries aligned with the militias. The Sunni Arab population is likely to vote in much greater numbers, and see their representation increase, but they are unlikely to achieve success in preventing the Kurdish and Shi'a regions from undermining the role of the central government.

In the United States, domestic pressure on Washington to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq has forced the Bush administration to lay out its plan for success -- essentially a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops and a transfer of responsibilities to Iraqi security forces. [See: "U.S. Faces Pressure to Pull Troops from Iraq"]

At the surface level, Iraq's elections on December 15 will usher in a new era for the Middle East. Beneath the surface, the seeds for Iraq's fragmentation into regional blocs have already been laid. It appears unlikely that a newly elected government, chained to a constitution that only vaguely discusses how the government should function, will be able to hold Iraq together in the long term.

The Constitution and the Elections

The constitution approved in October 2005 does little to address the actual functioning of the new government. However, it does spell out in great detail the rules for forming new regions within the federal system. The creation of powerful regions -- for example, within the newly-formed regions not even the Iraqi Army would be allowed to travel without the permission of the regional parliament -- combined with a weakly defined central government, sets the table for the domination of Iraq's political future by regional blocs. [See: "The Implications of Iraq's Proposed Constitution"]

It took three months after the January 30, 2005 elections for the newly-elected officials to form an interim government. This was when Sunni Arab politicians were virtually shut out of the process, the sectarian violence was at a lower grade and a timetable was in place that would put the government out of operation after less than a year. There are few reasons to believe that the negotiations to form the permanent government will be any less contentious. Any delay would shift power to the regional governments. Even if a government emerges rather quickly after the results are determined, the first acts of the central government will be to spell out exactly how it is to function, limiting the initial effectiveness of the central government and further shifting power to the regional governments.

It is nearly certain that Sunni Arab representation will increase in the new government. Whereas in the January 2005 elections Iraq was treated as a single voting district, this week's elections will be run with each of the 18 provinces representing a voting district. A total of 230 seats will be allocated based on the population of each district, while 45 seats will be distributed according to a party's share of the national and overseas vote. While Sunni Arab turnout was poor in the January elections, it appears that the trend toward increased Sunni Arab participation in the October referendum will continue into this election.

The representation of religious Shi'a is likely to decrease slightly in the new parliament, though the United Iraqi Alliance (U.I.A.) -- a platform composed of religious Shi'a factions -- can still be expected to gain more seats than any other party. One factor for this shift is the increase in Sunni Arab participation; another factor is the perception that the current, U.I.A.-dominated government has not made sufficient progress in rebuilding Iraq. This may shift some of the Shi'a votes to secular candidates like the former prime minister, Ayad Allawi, or even the former Pentagon favorite, Ahmad Chalabi.

Even if the U.I.A. is able to gain up to 120 seats in the new parliament, it would be difficult for the party to form a government because a two-thirds majority is needed. The strains within the U.I.A. could boil over in the negotiating process. Supporters of Shi'a leader Moqtada al-Sadr joined the U.I.A. in what appears to have been a compromise to garner al-Sadr's support for the constitution in October. [See: "Iraq's Future Still in Doubt as Elections Approach"]

However, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq's (S.C.I.R.I.) feud with al-Sadr dates far back, to the days when al-Sadr's father was a relevant power figure. Such infighting could create an opening for a secular party to form a coalition government, but it is more likely to just delay the formation of a U.I.A.-Kurdish coalition government.

Even after a government is formed, and its procedural processes defined, it will still be difficult for the central government to gain control of the Shi'a and Kurdish regions. For instance, Article 122 of the constitution guarantees that the regional powers cannot be diminished by the central government.

Kurds Drill for Oil without Baghdad

Last year, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (K.D.P.), which controls a portion of the Kurdish region in the north, signed a deal with Norway's DNO ASA to drill for oil near Zakho. On uncertain legal ground, drilling for the project began on December 9, 2005. The central government reacted with surprise and indignation as it claimed the K.D.P. did not consult with Baghdad before signing the deal.

The Kurds claim that all new oil projects fall under the jurisdiction of the regional government in which the project will exist. Baghdad points to a clause in the constitution that says the regional governments must act in consultation with the central government when signing any new oil deals. The Kurdish region will not share any proceeds from the new project with the central government, as the constitution does not appear to require it to do so.

The prime minister of the Kurdish northern region, Nechirvan Barzani, clearly stated the Kurdish position on the subject: "There is no way Kurdistan would accept that the central government will control our resources." This oil project is the latest example of how the Kurdish region is preparing to distance, and possibly separate, itself from the central government. Other than because of U.S. pressure and larger geostrategic concerns, the main reason that the Kurdish region has not severed ties with Baghdad has to do with the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. In negotiating the Transitional Administrative Law, the Kurds established a strong legal case for control of Kirkuk; indeed, the new constitution all but guarantees that Kirkuk will join the Kurdish region by simple majority no later than 2007.

Once control of Kirkuk is established, there will be fewer reasons for the Kurds to remain part of the greater Iraqi state. Leading up to this possible point of separation, it can be expected that the Kurdish region will act to firm up its claim to autonomy through similar tactics as the DNO oil deal.

The DNO deal and other agreements in the works have inflamed Sunni Arab fears that Iraq is headed toward fragmentation or regionalization, developments that would leave them with the resource-poor central region. While there is to be a constitutional committee to suggest changes to the constitution that would only require a simple majority in the parliament to pass, there is little chance that the Kurdish and Shi'a members would allow the laws governing oil projects to be rewritten.

Without such a change, the regions in which new oil projects will be founded -- the Kurdish north and Shi'a south -- will gain in power as their coffers fill with new revenue from such projects. The central government can only expect revenue from currently existing projects, while the region in which the project is built can control any revenue from future projects.

Increased Violence

Iraq is more dangerous now for Iraqis than it was two years ago. According to Kanan Makiya in the New York Times, the Iraqi daily casualty rate was 26 in early 2004; by the fall of 2005, it had reached 64. Most of this increase can be contributed to sectarian violence as Sunni Arab insurgents attack the Shi'a population, and Shi'a militias respond in kind. Even the transitional government's forces appear to be contributing to the sectarian violence. For instance, an Interior Ministry-run prison was raided in November 2005, and 173 prisoners were discovered, most of whom had been tortured. The prisoners were primarily Sunni Arabs. The Interior Ministry is run by Bayan Jabr, a former Badr Corps commander.

If the negotiations to form a government prove to be rancorous within the U.I.A., it could lead to further violence between al-Sadr's militia and S.C.I.R.I.'s Badr Corps. Secular Shi'a have already become the targets of religious Shi'a militias. Allawi claims that the attack against him earlier this month was perpetrated by al-Sadr's supporters. The level of violence has led to the interim government banning non-Iraqi, Sunni Arabs from visiting Iraq in the run up to the elections. There will also be a ban on auto traffic on December 15, as there was during the previous elections, in order to prevent the use of car bombs by the insurgents.

The one bright spot in regards to ending the insurgency has been Sunni Arab political participation. This has driven a wedge between Sunni Arab political leaders and the Islamist-oriented militants reportedly led by, or linked to, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. However, Sunni politicians have repeatedly made it clear that political participation does not mean an end to support for the insurgency. The Sunni participants at the Arab League conference in November 2005 in Cairo forced the Kurds and Shi'a to endorse this belief. Therefore, while the elections may limit al-Zarqawi's support in Iraq, it is unlikely to put a dent in the Ba'athist insurgency.

Plans for a Phased Withdrawal of U.S. Troops

After the December 15 elections, expect the United States to pursue plans for a phased withdrawal of American troops. While Iraq is certainly far from being stabilized, and the country's new security forces are not yet able to assert themselves against insurgents effectively, the current level of U.S. troops in Iraq remains unsustainable both militarily and politically.

Militarily, the all-volunteer force of the United States is not suited to handle large-scale missions for extended periods of time. In order to handle this mission, Washington has relied heavily on the Army's Reserves and National Guard units, and this has had an effect on the U.S. military's ability to recruit new soldiers since all new recruits know that they will likely serve a tour of duty in Iraq -- a commitment many potential recruits are unwilling to make. Both the Reserves and the Active Duty forces are behind their recruiting goals for 2005. These series of issues make Washington's present troop commitment to Iraq unsustainable over the long term.

Politically, the Bush administration received American support for the war largely based on the belief that it would not result in a drain on American resources. For instance, in the days leading to the March 2003 invasion, Bush administration officials were quick to argue that the intervention would not be overly exhausting on the American military; indeed, domestic support for the intervention relied on this very notion. When Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki told Congress in February 2003 that the occupation would require several hundred thousand troops, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz objected, saying that Shinseki's suggestion of troop numbers was "wildly off the mark."

However, partly as a result of the lack of troop presence after the invasion, various insurgent groups continue to make life in Iraq very unstable. Their success in killing over 2,150 U.S. soldiers to date has eroded domestic American support for the war, and calls have grown for the U.S. to pursue a phased withdrawal strategy. As PINR argued on July 15, 2005, "if operations in Iraq continue along their current progression, Washington will be forced to pull its troops out. The United States does not have the troop strength or the political will to conduct its current scope of operations for years to come."

While American support for the war has been eroding since the start of the insurgency in mid to late 2003, the recent statements made by U.S. Congressman John Murtha have hastened public criticism of the intervention. Murtha, a U.S. Marine veteran who is considered to have respectable military credentials, released a statement on November 17, 2005 in which he called the U.S. intervention in Iraq a "flawed policy wrapped in illusion." Murtha argued, "Our military has done everything that has been asked of them, the U.S. can not accomplish anything further in Iraq militarily. It is time to bring them home." Murtha's blunt statements opened the floodgates for more congressional criticism of the U.S. intervention, ensuring that it is only a matter of time before the Bush administration initiates a phased withdrawal policy.

Additionally, along with the reduction in domestic support for the ongoing intervention, the insurgency in Iraq and the U.S. troop commitment there makes it harder for the United States to retain a credible, latent threat capability with other states. The draw on resources caused by the Iraq intervention makes it less likely that Washington would be willing to engage in an intervention elsewhere, such as in Iran, Syria or North Korea.

These countries have noted U.S. difficulties in Iraq, and this partly explains their current foreign policies and willingness to take actions counter to U.S. interests. For instance, had the U.S. intervention in Iraq gone as planned, it would have been difficult for Iran to continue its current bold nuclear initiatives; indeed, as part of such a scenario, Iran would border a newly-created democratic state with a secular government, an Iraqi military being trained and rebuilt by the world's remaining superpower, and thousands of troops from the world's most potent military situated just across the border.

As PINR warned in June 2003, only three months after the initial invasion, the failure to create stability in Iraq "may very well lead to a strategic advantage and diplomatic edge for countries such as Iran when dealing with U.S. advances. Washington's threats will ring more hollow when backed by the faltering example of a festering Iraq. This is the last development that Washington wants on the world geopolitical stage as it goes ahead with its policy of active engagement in the Middle East."

Geopolitical Effects of a U.S. Withdrawal

If the United States removes the bulk of its forces from Iraq, it will lose more control over the political situation in the country. The contending power factions will see a U.S. withdrawal as a signal to secure their interests. This could result in more violence as the different power groups jockey for power in the absence of a firm U.S. commitment to the country.

Additionally, with reduced U.S. oversight in the cities of Iraq, militant groups that consider themselves part of the Islamic revolutionary movement may have more opportunity to plan attacks against U.S. and related targets. The recent attacks in Aqaba and Amman may be the preludes to more Islamist military operations in the region that emanate from Iraq. Just as Afghanistan provided sanctuary for Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network, Iraq already provides sanctuary -- due to the lack of central government oversight -- to various militant groups; a withdrawal of U.S. troops may advance this development. [See: "Intelligence Brief: Amman Attacks"]

On the other hand, a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops could also weaken Islamist militants operating in Iraq. A reduction of U.S. troops would be met by an increase in influence by Iraq's various power groups -- Kurdish militias in the north, Ba'athist irregulars in the center, and Shi'a militias in the south -- who may themselves crack down on Islamists operating in the country. A phased withdrawal could also take some of the wind out of the Islamists' sails, making their anti-American ideology less attractive to segments of the Iraqi population who will see a U.S. withdrawal as a step in the right direction.

A U.S. withdrawal would also give Iran more ability to involve itself in southern Iraq and create alliances with the Shi'a majority there. The removal of Saddam Hussein's secular establishment and the empowerment of the Iraqi Shi'a were developments welcomed by Iran, and Tehran will no doubt look to exploit its newfound influence in the country. Indeed, there is always the concern that Iran hopes to one day incorporate, either officially or unofficially, southern Iraq and its rich oilfields into the Iranian state, a development that would greatly increase Iran's power in the region. Nevertheless, even without this development, Iran stands to gain the most from the empowerment of the Shi'a in southern Iran.

The U.S. opposes Iran's increased influence in Iraq, which is part of the reason why the United States will preserve its influence in the country. American military bases on Iraqi territory will serve as a signal to Iran, and to the region as a whole, that the United States still retains the ability to involve itself militarily in the region's affairs. A permanent loss of influence in Iraq would mark a near complete failure of the objectives involved in Washington's intervention.

While a retreat of U.S. forces to Iraq's periphery will increase the United States' latent threat capability, it will not restore the U.S. to the levels of power seen before the 2003 Iraq invasion. The developments that unfolded in Iraq assure countries such as Iran that while the U.S. may resort to military means in future conflicts, it is unlikely that the U.S. will send in a large ground force to overthrow and then rebuild a government.


The December 15 elections will do little to halt the trend toward the regionalization, and potential fragmentation, of Iraq. The Kurdish north and religious Shi'a in the south seem inclined to force the disintegration of Iraq's central government by shifting power to the regions that they control. The constitution that the government will be based on was written in a way that will hasten this drift toward regionalism. Indeed, in the constitution there is very little to be said about how the central government should function, but much written about the powers accrued to the regional parliaments. Without significant changes made to the constitution, an unlikely prospect at this juncture, Iraq's central government will not have the power to hold the state together.

For the United States, growing talks of withdrawal will result in the reduction of the U.S. troop commitment to the country. Any reduction in U.S. forces could cause more sectarian violence as each power group would struggle to secure its interests in the ensuing power vacuum. In doing so, each power group will simply become more factionalized, thus contributing to the regionalization and fragmentation of the country.

Indeed, the most pressing question that remains is whether Iraq's fragmentation will come as part of a civil war or as the end product of a gradual drift toward increased regional power.

The Power and Interest News Report (PINR) is an independent organization that utilizes open source intelligence to provide conflict analysis services in the context of international relations. PINR approaches a subject based upon the powers and interests involved, leaving the moral judgments to the reader. This report may not be reproduced, reprinted or broadcast without the written permission of inquiries@pinr.com. All comments should be directed to content@pinr.com.