(Photo: The U.S. Army / Flickr)
Twenty million eligible voters are invited to participate in this weekend's parliamentary election in Iraq. The election, scheduled for Sunday March 7, will take place amid an wave of increased violence and political tension in Iraq. But even with the possibilities of a total political meltdown, or even a military coup, the US should not delay or cancel its withdrawal plans.
Unlike in the United States, where Americans vote for both the executive and legislative branches, Iraqis only vote for their Parliament. The Parliament, also known as the Council of Representatives, then establishes both chambers of the executive branch: the Presidential Council and the Cabinet. This weekend's election is seen as critical for Iraq's future because it will determine Iraq's legislators, president and prime minister for the next five years.
The election will feature around 6,200 candidates, representing over 600 political parties, competing for the Parliament's 325 seats. However, most parties are not running as individual parties, but rather as allied groups of parties in political "coalitions." Thus, there are only a few dozen competing coalitions from which voters can choose in each of Iraq's 18 provinces. According to Iraqi laws, the coalition with the highest votes receives the power to determine the prime minister and form the government.
Recent polls from Iraq suggest that there are only three coalitions that are likely to win the top spot: the State of Law Coalition led by the current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki; the Iraqi National Alliance led by al-Hakim and the Sadrists; and the al-Iraqiya Coalition led by secular nationalists from the opposition, including former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi and Dr. Saleh al-Mutlaq, who was recently banned from the elections. Mr. al-Mutlaq, along with another 510 political candidates, were banned last month by the infamous de-Baathification commission led by the one and only Ahmed al-Chalabi, despite the fact that his commission was disbanded a few years ago and never replaced in accordance to the new laws.
Banning Dr. al-Mutlaq has already damaged some of the election's legitimacy, and it was perceived by many Iraqis as another instance of political persecution of opposition leaders. Prime Minister al-Maliki went ahead with the political banning despite many attempts by the Obama administration and the United Nations to broker a deal that would allow for an open and inclusive election. The bans have also exposed the weakness of the Iraqi judicial system. The Iraqi Supreme Court ruled that the bans ought to be canceled or postponed until after the elections, only to be overruled by a stubborn prime minister who ended up having his way despite the upper court's decision.
But even with Dr. al-Mutlaq out of the race, many political observers believe that with Prime Minister al-Maliki breaking ranks with al-Hakim and the Sadrists, the door is open for the al-Iraqiya coalition to win the election. With al-Maliki running in a different coalition, the ruling parties will be splitting the votes of their constituencies. However, this is only true if the election is fair and free, which will not necessarily be the case. The Iraqi Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) is fully controlled by members of the current five ruling parties. Thus, many Iraqis, especially from opposition parties, don't believe the IHEC is fair and balanced.
What adds complication to the already tense situation is that only a few hundred international monitors are participating in these elections, and many of them have not been there long enough to monitor the preparations and set-up process. For example, most US organizations that have sent international monitors to Iraq's past elections are not sending any at this time -some of them due to a lack of funds, others because of the lack of interest and security concerns. Last month, 28 US Congress members, including the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee and two chairmen of his subcommittees, sent a letter to President Obama asking him to pay more attention to the Iraqi elections. The letter urged Obama to "allocate emergency funds for US NGOs and encourage them to go to Iraq to observe the election," but the White House does not seem to have considered that appeal.
In addition to the absence of international monitors and lack of IHEC credibility, rumors about the impending theft of elections have been creating an atmosphere where the slightest claim of fraud might lead to Iranian-style post-election unrest. Last week, the Shiite religious clergy in Najaf announced their concern over reports about special types of ink that "disappear in 24 hours" that might be used in some electoral centers, asking voters to take their own pens. Dozens of different rumors, even stranger than the magic ink one, have been adding to the Iraqi public's suspicions and skepticism. This week, Iraqi newspaper Azzaman claimed on its front page that the electoral process abroad has been infiltrated by the ruling parties, and that all data entry clerks have been assigned by them in the last few days. Such claims will affect the perception of 1.4 million eligible Iraqi voters living in 16 countries outside Iraq.
Unfortunately, Iraq's problems are far more complicated than these threats to the electoral process. Even if this election proves to be inclusive, fair and transparent, there are other threats to a peaceful transition of power to the upcoming democratically elected government. The Iraqi armed forces continue to be infiltrated by militias and controlled by the current ruling parties. After the disbanding of the Iraqi Army in 2003 by Paul Bremer, the US ruler of Iraq at the time, Bremer issued Order 91 to integrate nine militias totaling about 100,000 men or more into the Iraqi armed forces. It sounded like a good idea at first.
However, the ruling parties kept control over their armed men even after they became members of Iraq's new Army, national police and national guards. For example, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), formerly an Iranian government agency created during the Iraq-Iran war, incorporated its Badr brigades into the armed forces, but kept its original hierarchy and chain of command. So did the two ruling Kurdish Parties, the PUK and KDP. In many cases, the ruling parties control entire brigades in the Iraqi Army or national police to this day. This situation has caused many Iraqi leaders, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, to worry about the loyalty of the transformed militiamen.
There is a high probability that Iraq will face a political meltdown after these elections. There is also the possibility, if al-Iraqiya wins the elections, that ISCI and other ruling parties backed by the Iranian government might stage a military coup. Most Iraqis would agree that the upcoming months will most probably bear a lot of bad news.
However, for the US, this should not affect withdrawal plans. There are two approaching deadlines for the US withdrawal from Iraq: President Obama's plan to withdraw all combat forces and end combat operations by August 31 of this year and the US-Iraq bilateral security agreement's deadline for all troops to withdraw by December 31, 2011. Both these deadlines are time-based, as opposed to the Bush-era's condition-based benchmarks.
Last month, the Pentagon submitted its first official request to approve "contingency plans" to delay the combat forces withdrawal this year in case conditions on the ground deteriorate. The plan has caused a wave of panic in Iraq, and even concern in the US that President Obama might be breaking his promises.
Going back to a condition-based withdrawal plan would not only further diminish US credibility worldwide, but it would also lead to more deterioration and destruction in Iraq. Linking the US withdrawal to conditions on the ground creates an equation by which further deterioration in Iraq will automatically lead to prolonging the US military presence. Some groups, like the Iraqi ruling parties, want the US occupation to continue because they have been benefiting from it. Some regional players, including the Iranian government, do not want an independent and strong Iraq to re-emerge. And other groups, including al-Qaeda, would gladly see the US stuck in the current quagmire, and would love to see the US continue to lose blood, treasure and reputation in Iraq. Linking the withdrawal to conditions on the ground would be an open invitation to those who want to ensure an endless war.
The situation in Iraq is horrible, and it will most likely deteriorate further this year, but that should not be used as an excuse to delay or cancel the US withdrawal from the country. Prolonging the occupation will not fix what the occupation has broken, and extending the US military intervention will not help protect Iraq from other interventions. The only way we can help Iraq and Iraqis is to first withdraw from the country, and then do our best to help them help themselves - without interfering in their domestic issues.