Concerns over delays in the formation of a new Iraqi government and the prospects for meeting President Obama’s announced timeline for withdrawal are clouding views of a more urgent matter: The United States might be about to lose an opportunity for success in Iraq by tolerating a highly sectarian, politicized move to overturn Iraq’s election results. Washington must act swiftly to defend the integrity of the electoral process and support Iraqi leaders’ tentative efforts to rein in the «de-Baathification» commission that threatens to undermine the entire democratic process.
Iraq’s electoral system, like our own, allows candidates to challenge results, and courts have granted some candidates’ requests for recounts. We should take these recounts in context. The 2008 U.S. Senate election in Minnesota took eight months to resolve. Iraqis voted six weeks ago. The delay in certification is hardly egregious. Until those recounts are concluded, Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission cannot certify the March election results. Without certified results, there is no Council of Representatives seated that could elect a president, who would then ask the leader of the largest political bloc to form a government. While the election results must be certified quickly, allowing the legal processes to work themselves out properly is also important, particularly in a young democracy.
Unless the security situation spirals rapidly out of control, the number of U.S. troops in Iraq will be down to 50,000 by September. Only three things would merit reconsideration of the U.S. drawdown to that point: the collapse of the Iraqi Security Forces or their use in a violent political conflict, eruption of a Kurd-Arab conflict or remobilization of Shiite and/or Sunni militias to fight. None of those is likely to happen in the next four months, but if one or all did occur, they would require reevaluating the overall U.S. strategy in Iraq, not just whether to hold to our withdrawal timeline.
Yet even in those unlikely scenarios, the security situation would not necessarily be aided by swift formation of government. On the contrary, a government rapidly cobbled together is more likely to exclude key players or gloss over fundamental discussions, increasing the longer-term likelihood of renewed violence. A government that includes, for example, Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiya List, the Kurdish bloc and the Shiite Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), which is traditionally aligned with the Kurds, would probably be inclusive, stable and inclined toward long-term partnership with the United States. Negotiations for such a government could well be protracted. Those political negotiations might also be more productive for a resolution of the Kurd-Arab issue than years of U.N.-brokered discussions. Both Iraq and U.S. interests would be served by allowing such discussions to play out.
Meanwhile, it is essential to differentiate between the legally sanctioned and internationally monitored mechanisms for Iraqi candidates to challenge election results and the operations of the Accountability and Justice Commission, which reviews candidates’ past ties to the outlawed Baath Party.
Before the election, the AJC sought to ban more than 500 candidates it claimed were Baathists. Iraqi courts disqualified some but allowed each to be replaced by members of the electoral lists to which they belonged (akin to allowing the Democratic Party to replace a disqualified Democratic candidate).
Prime Minister Maliki’s State of Law List requested that the AJC seek to retroactively disqualify parliamentary candidates it claims were affiliated with the Baath Party — and annul all votes cast for them. At the commission’s recommendation, an Iraqi court moved on Monday to exclude 52 candidates, two of whom won seats — one with Allawi’s Iraqiya list, whose lead over Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law List is just two seats. The AJC has put forward more names, including eight who won seats with Allawi’s Iraqiya list.
If upheld, these decisions would give Maliki’s bloc more seats than Allawi’s. If Maliki’s list gained four seats, it could potentially form a government with the other major Shiite bloc, the Iraqi National Alliance, excluding both the Kurds and Sunnis. That result — surely disastrous for U.S. interests — would position Maliki as a potential authoritarian ruler, empower the anti-American Sadrists and their Iranian-backed militias and alienate Sunnis while marginalizing the Kurds. If Sunni seats are transferred to Maliki’s Shiite list this way, Sunni Arabs would justifiably feel that Shiites had stolen the election.
Unlike preelection rulings to ban candidates, Monday’s decision excludes votes already cast. Thousands of Iraqis stand to be disenfranchised even though they cast their ballots correctly and those ballots were counted. Worse, this decision would set a precedent for the AJC to selectively exclude individuals until a government is formed.
Washington should strongly support Iraqi leaders such as Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi and Allawi, who have strongly opposed the AJC’s illegal effort to manipulate the results. The United States must encourage Iraq’s Presidency Council to adhere to the electoral laws and reject the AJC’s manipulation. The United States must also ensure that legal processes and court decisions about the elections are not unduly influenced by political or violent intimidation. Above all, the United States must oppose any effort to exclude votes properly cast and counted.
U.S. officials must state clearly that Iraq’s government should be formed by Iraqis in Iraq and encourage Iraqis to form a government that ensures real power-sharing and continued political accommodation — rather than cobbling together a government without any genuine political settlement.
Staying silent is not the same as remaining neutral. This does not mean that Washington should choose a party or prime minister, but the United States must protect the electoral process from politicians (and external actors) seeking to manipulate its outcome.
Frederick W. Kagan, director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute and Kimberly Kagan, president of the Institute for the Study of War.