Making (Some) Progress in Iraq
Good news is rare in Iraq. But after months of bitter feuding, Iraq’s Parliament has finally approved a budget, outlined the scope of provincial powers, set an Oct. 1 date for provincial elections and voted a general amnesty for detainees.But what really happened? Juan Cole explains:
Al-Zaman (The Times of Baghdad) reports in Arabic that there was not actually a vote, but rather the laws were passed as a package by consensus. The consensus reflected a political deal among the major parties rather than a recorded vote of a majority of the MPs. Al-Zaman calls the method of the vote "unconstitutional." (They are protesting the lack of a recorded individual voice vote; it may be they also object to the bundling of the three separate laws together, which made MPs vote up and down, yes or no). Many MPs had interests in some of the laws but opposed a third, and therefore had to choose between betraying their interests or accepting legislation they really opposed. Al-Zaman quotes MP Salih Mutlak (a secular, ex-Baathist Sunni who is in the opposition) and MPs of the Sadr Movement as expressing fierce opposition to amnesty for prisoners, one of the three measures adopted.And about those provincial elections.
This undemocratic and unconstitutional way of passing through legislation that the Americans insist be approved, in the teeth of opposition from a majority of MPs, was ironically employed in passing the constitution itself. Some version of it was passed without an individual voice vote in late August of 2005 (after the deadline set by the Transitional Administrative Law) and then the US embassy went on tinkering with the text right up until the October 15 referendum! It is ironic that when the Americans make their influence felt most strongly in the Iraqi government, that government acts least democratically.
The budget that the parliament sort of passed, on its sixth try, awarded the Kurdistan Regional Government 17% of the $40 billion central government budget, with the proviso that this proportion be revisited in 2009 after a census, to be completed by the end of December, 2008. (Many Arab delegates do not believe the Kurds constitute so large a proportion of the total population of Iraq).
The setting of a date for provincial elections is extremely important. I have argued that elections in the Sunni Arab-dominated provinces are a necessity for calming Iraq. Diyala, for instance, is 60% Sunni Arab but is ruled by the pro-Iranian Shiite party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. The Sunni Arabs largely boycotted the provincial elections of January, 2005 (the turnout in al-Anbar was 2%). Thus, virtually none of the governments in the center-north and west of the country has much real legitimacy. It will be easier for the US to turn over security duties to elected provincial authorities who have the backing of significant numbers of Sunni Arabs, and so the elections could pave the way to a US drawdown in those provinces.If the Sadrists even suspect the elections were fixed the dormant civil war would immediately become active. There is probably no one person in Iraq with more support than al-Sadr.
One reason that the provincial elections have been delayed is that there are fears in Baghdad that the Sadr Movement of Muqtada al-Sadr will sweep to power in the Shiite south. It from all accounts has gained in popularity as the current dominant provincial party there, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, has become much less popular. (ISCI has been trying to run many of the southern Shiite provinces, but has not been able to provide security and services at the level desired by local people). Presumably one reason for bundling the law of the provinces with the amnesty law was to make Sadrist MPs vote for the package. They did not want to grant amnesty to Sunni Arab prisoners, but only by supporting this step could they get a date certain for provincial elections, which they think they will largely win.
Since the Sadrists want a quick US withdrawal, for them to sweep to power in many of the provinces (possibly including in Baghad province), could strengthen this demand.
One of my Shiite Iraq friends, from Najaf, thinks that there are no circumstances under which ISCI would turn the southern provinces over to the Sadrists, and that the vote will therefore be fixed.