Baghdad - I have made four trips to Iraq since May 2007. I
have walked through I markets in Baghdad escorted by U.S. soldiers, visited the
outposts where they live with their Iraqi army partners, talked with school children
playing soccer in the street, seen newly renovated housing in war-torn
neighborhoods, and eaten in the homes of local and tribal leaders who have
helped our soldiers fight Al Qaeda in Iraq. This morning, a weekday in July
2008, I am doing something I have never done before: visiting the headquarters
of a small Iraqi political party to learn about its campaign for the upcoming
provincial and national elections.
The visit was not on the original itinerary of the group of military analysts
with whom I am traveling. The party's leader, a member of parliament whom we
met several days ago, invited us to his headquarters, our schedule permitting.
We have cancelled a morning's worth of meetings in order to see something new.
And so I step out of a Humvee onto a quiet, semi-residential street in
central Baghdad, lined with trees that shade us from the bright sun. The only
U.S. military personnel in sight are our escorts. We Americans are
incongruously dressed in the body armor and helmets required outside the Green
Zone, while our host, who comes out to greet us, is wearing a fine suit. We
look as ridiculous in our protective gear as we would if we dressed like this
to walk into a foreign embassy just off 16th Street in Washington.
The member of parliament--whom I choose not to name; he survived an
assassination attempt years ago that killed members of his family--escorts us
into the building. His party is secular and nonsectarian. There were 70
founding members at its first meeting, he says, before the 2005 elections.
Today the party has over 10,000 members and headquarters in most of Iraq's
major cities. Our friend holds his party's single seat in the Council of
Representatives, a body of 275 legislators, in which the dominant forces are
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Dawa party, Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim's Islamic
Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), and the Sadrist Trend.
Our host gives us a brief tour of the headquarters. It is strikingly
familiar, reminiscent of hundreds of town and county election headquarters in
the United States. A widescreen television in the large conference room
displays news continuously. A freshly photocopied stack of flyers sits in an
anteroom, explaining the party's position on the strategic agreement between
Iraq and the United States that is the subject of intense debate throughout the
country. Party officials responsible for different districts of Baghdad plan to
distribute the flyers door to door over the weekend, assisted by staff and
volunteers. They are preparing another round of flyers for next week. Nearby,
young men and women sit at a bank of computers writing and designing the
party's newspaper and laying out the advertisements that pay for its
production. The color photographs in today's edition highlight a recent event
sponsored by the party's youth committee: an awards ceremony for school
children who have gotten top grades this academic year.
Our tour of the various sections, from the youth committee
to the women's committee, lasts ten minutes. Then our host whispers that it's
time for chai. We sit down to drink tea in the party's formal conference room,
perched on the gold-hued couches that Iraqi officials think are elegant. Extra
chairs are brought in from all over the building in order to seat the 30 party
members who have come to discuss politics with us. Roughly half of them are in
their twenties, like the bright and earnest recent college graduates one finds
working for any U.S. election campaign. The young men are awkwardly dressed in
suits; a few of them, daringly, do not wear the customary moustache--a bold
statement of their post-Saddam outlook.
I am one of seven women in the room, which is a record number for me in
Iraq, whether with Iraqis or with U.S. forces. The older women, well dressed in
suits and headscarves, are senior officials in the party. The young women's
outfits vary, and show a range of interpretations of traditional Muslim dress.
Most wear headscarves. One beautiful young woman has covered her hair with a
chic, regal, purple scarf glinting with beads, coordinated perfectly with her
colorful, tailored long skirt. The headscarf brings out her perfectly made-up
eyes. Her image is modern and elegant, whereas her equally modern companion
dresses more casually--a pair of jeans, a blouse, and a translucent pink
headscarf. Another twenty-something, in a lace-trimmed blouse and long skirt,
shakes her uncovered hair, which is long and highlighted.
We sip our tea and discuss the upcoming provincial elections. The party
leader proudly takes out a folder containing the results of last week's poll,
which the party commissioned from an independent firm. He has very high name
recognition, strong favorable ratings, and low unfavorable ratings. If these
continue until Iraq's national elections in 2009, he thinks he will retain his
seat in parliament, and the party may gain a few more.
We are guests, so we ask our questions first. We discuss the party and its
campaign, national issues such as foreign investment in Iraq, and foreign
affairs including the Iranian nuclear program. We ask what they tell people
when they go door to door: Why should anyone join and vote for their party? One
older woman answers, We are religious people, but we are not a religious party.
Any Iraqi can join, regardless of sect. We stand for all Iraqis. She says this
gravely, and it does not seem a platitude.
These party members are hardly naive, despite their optimism. They have
experienced politically driven and sectarian violence. The headquarters is
surrounded by low, concrete barriers to protect it from vehicle bombs. After
the party signed a lease for its first headquarters in Baghdad in 2005, the
homeowner reneged on the agreement for fear that his property would be bombed,
so the party moved.
I ask the young people why they have joined the party, and whether they hope
to have careers in politics. One young man, who has been to college, explains
that many young Iraqis have not had a proper education. He has joined the party
and its youth committee to help improve Iraqi education, recruit good teachers,
and ensure that all young people can not only read and write, but also acquire
the skills that they will need to pursue their careers in a high-tech world.
This is important, he insists, not only for the young people themselves, but
also for the future of Iraq's economy, which must be able to compete in the global
market. Another young man will not pursue a career exclusively in politics, but
believes that when he enters the business world his political connections will
come in handy.
The young woman with highlighted hair is frankly ambitious. She intends to
have a political career and hopes to be a high party official someday--so she
can better help the people, she adds as an afterthought. The older woman seated
next to the party leader smiles wryly at this comment and cleans her spectacles
so no one will notice her expression. She is evidently the high official that
the young woman aspires to replace.
This could be the future of Iraq. These people have a strong vision of what
their country can become, and are working to bring it to fruition in their
lifetimes. They are not alone. In fact, 502 political parties have registered
to participate in the provincial elections that officials anticipate will be
held in December. Iraq's electoral commission, which determines whether parties
are legitimate, rejected only 17 applications.
Five hundred parties are a lot. Forty registered in Basra alone, and if each
runs a full slate of candidates (provincial councils have around 30 members),
the ballot will look like a phone book. The proliferation of parties is not
entirely desirable. Were they to join together in legislative and electoral
coalitions, they might compete more directly with the larger parties. Iraqi
politics tends to be noisy, chaotic, and unpredictable.
But the key point is, it is politics. Over the past year, the struggle for
power in Iraq has shifted from military conflict to political competition.
Iraq's leaders--Sunni, Shia, Turkmen, and Kurd--are thinking ever less about
how to use armed might to seize or retain control of all or part of the country
and ever more about winning votes. For all its drawbacks, the proliferation of
political parties is an enormous advance toward stable, nonsectarian, or at
least cross-sectarian politics.
Until now, Iraqi politics has been dominated by clerical parties attempting
to function as monolithic blocs. An alliance between the ISCI and Maliki's Dawa
party dominated Shia politics, challenged only by the Sadrist Trend. The Iraq
Islamic party (IIP) represented Iraq's Sunni Arabs. The two Kurdish parties
functioned largely as a bloc. The resulting parliamentary politics was simple,
because there were really only three moving parts. It was also dysfunctional,
because the Arab parties reflected the most hardline sectarian views of a
minority of their constituents much more than the moderate views of the
majority. The breaking of this sectarian political logjam would be an epochal
event in Iraq, and it appears to be well underway.
The prime minister's decision to clear Basra of militias in March, followed
by operations to clear Sadr City and Amara, has transformed the Iraqi political
environment no less than the security environment. Iraqi forces, supported by
the coalition, shattered the Sadrist and Iranian-controlled leadership of
Moktada al-Sadr's Mahdi army, of the criminal Shia gangs Iranian agents were
cynically paying and using, and even of the Special Groups more tightly
controlled by Iran. Iraqi and coalition forces killed hundreds of militia
fighters and leaders, and thousands more fled, many leaving Iraq.
Iranian-backed militias initially fought very hard in Basra and Sadr City, but
then broke completely. By the time Iraqi forces moved into Amara, the remaining
Shia militants had no stomach for a fight.
Maliki ordered the Basra operation on his own, against the advice of coalition
commanders. The initial operation, inadequately planned and prepared, looked
very ugly. The coalition rushed assistance to Basra in the form of planning
staff, intelligence and air assets, and military advisers--but no combat
formations. The Iraqi military also rushed reinforcements to the city,
including the Quick Reaction Force of the 1st Iraqi Army Division based in
Anbar. That formation, with a high proportion of Sunnis, marched into combat
against Shia militias in an overwhelmingly Shia city--and were received as
liberators. And after the initial setbacks, the Iraqi soldiers fought hard. The
process was repeated in Sadr City, although coalition forces initially did play
a significant role in direct combat in order to stop the rocket attacks on the
Green Zone. Once that was accomplished, the Iraqis cleared the rest of Sadr
City on their own, with the same mix of enablers the coalition had provided in
Basra (albeit on a larger scale).
These surprising successes--which resulted from Maliki's initiative and
occurred over initial coalition objections--have raised Maliki's stature in
Iraq to a level never before seen. The change is palpable. Talking to Sunni
sheikhs recently, I found a new tolerance for Maliki, whom they now see as
someone who is at least sometimes willing to take on his own constituency for
the good of the country. Many Sunni Arab leaders remain angry about Maliki's
advisers' sectarian tendencies, but for the first time in my experience, Sunni
Arabs are distinguishing between the prime minister and those around him.
Maliki himself--and even some of those "evil advisers"--learned
interesting lessons from Basra. Hardline Shias in government have long feared
the re-creation of a Sunni-dominated Iraqi army that could become, at least in
their minds, a sectarian coup force. That is one of the chief reasons for early
Shia efforts to seize control of the Ministry of the Interior, which oversees
the National Police and the provincial Iraqi Police: Since the Shia believed
they were preparing for sectarian civil war, it made sense to develop an
independent Shia paramilitary force. But when the chips were down in Basra, it
was not the interior ministry or the police that came to Maliki's rescue, but
the Iraqi army--in the person of Defense Minister Abdul Qadr, a Sunni, and the
Anbar-based Quick Reaction Force, which reinforced the city. Maliki and some of
his advisers have taken note of that fact, and relationships even within the
most senior governmental ranks have been shifting.
The destruction of the Sadrist Trend not only as a paramilitary force, but
also as a cohesive political force, has also had profound consequences. Sadr
himself did not stir from Iran while his loyalists were being hammered by Iraqi
and coalition forces. Many of his movement's leaders were captured, killed, or
driven off. The government's declaration that no political party would be
allowed to compete in the elections without disarming its militia has broken up
the Sadrist Trend as a political movement as well. Sadrist leaders who remain
in Iraq are running as independents or joining other parties. Some say that
they will re-form a Sadrist political movement after the elections, but it will
almost certainly be a far weaker force than the one that gripped Baghdad with
fear for so long.
Among Iraq's Sunni Arabs, tension with the central government remains high,
but electoral politics are beginning to overshadow that tension. In Anbar, the
leaders of the Awakening movement that helped defeat Al Qaeda in Iraq have
formed a powerful political party. They mean to defeat the Iraq Islamic party
and become the voice of Anbar. The IIP is responding to the challenge in
various ways--some legitimate, and some less so. Everyone in Iraq thinks that
one party or another will try to rig or steal the elections. Everyone I talked
to said it would be best if there were an American soldier standing by every
ballot box. They're probably right on both counts. But no one suggested that
they did not intend to abide by the results of the elections. Of course, every
party is confident that it will win.
Iraq's ethno-sectarian wounds have not healed--one might best say that they
are starting to scab over. Tensions remain high along the Arab-Kurdish fault
line in Ninewa, Kirkuk, and Diyala Provinces. Sectarian tensions are also high
between Sunni and Shia Arabs in Diyala and in and around Baghdad. Nor are the
Iraqi security forces quite as ready to take full responsibility for keeping
the precarious peace as some of Iraq's leaders suppose. Flush with success and eager
to appear strong and independent as elections approach, some of Iraq's leaders
exaggerate their own capabilities, something that complicates our negotiations
for a strategic partnership, among other things.
But even the most extreme of these hubristic Shia advisers strongly favor a
partnership with the United States. "Iraq is flying west," one of
them told me over a dinner of rice, kabobs, and masghouf (a fish dish).
The debate over the details of the military arrangements for 2009 has
overshadowed a much more important point, he said, echoing the comments of the
young people at the party headquarters we visited: Iraq wants American help of
every kind. The security arrangements must be seen within the context of this
larger partnership, he added. Like American politicians, of course, he and the
rest of Iraq's leaders have to figure out how to sell any specific agreement to
the parliament--and to the voters. That makes negotiations difficult, but it is
also the strongest possible sign of hope in Iraq.
The whole purpose of the surge was to transform the
conflict over power in Iraq from a military to a political struggle. We and the
Iraqis have accomplished that goal--for now. But the most critical period in
the birth of a new Iraq lies ahead. America can stand beside this fractious and
sometimes violent young state whose people are now passionate about democracy.
Or we can abandon them to their enemies, to their own fears and insecurities,
and to the fragility of their months-old efforts at real reconciliation. It is
a weighty choice, but not a hard one for anyone who has seen the vision of a
possible future Iraq.