The George W. Bush administration has ballyhooed
recent legislation passed by the Iraqi parliament as a sign that its troop escalation
strategy has indeed created space for political reconciliation.
But observers say a closer look at the legislation in the context of the grander
Iraqi quagmire suggests that the chances of passage of the laws being the major
and meaningful step forward in the political process presented by the administration
and its allies is unlikely.
The laws remain controversial in Iraqi politics, and their implementation presents
incredibly difficult challenges an indication of the fact that the weak
central government, while taking baby steps, faces tough odds with the difficult
political realities on the ground.
"We've heard a great deal about the political climate in Iraq," said
Jason Gluck, a rule of law advisor at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP),
a nonpartisan think-tank founded and funded by the U.S. Congress.
"It would be an understatement to say that there are some significant
challenges ahead for the Iraqis," said Gluck, who then called the vote
on the legislation "a rare political success."
The three laws a provincial powers law, amnesty for some Iraqi prisoners,
and a budget for 2008 were passed as a package. The bundling may have been
the crucial step to get the laws through the parliament, known as the Council
The three major sects of Iraqi society Kurds, Sunni Arabs, and Shia
Arabs are further broken down into political party subsets within the
parliament. But each of the three laws represented an appeal to at least one
group that would then fear losing its desired legislation by voting against
"The alliances we are seeing are tactical rather than strategic,"
said Rend al-Rahim, a senior fellow at USIP and the founder of an Iraqi exile
group based in Washington, D.C. "We didn't see any strategic alliances
on what I would consider the major issues."
Still, the vote itself should not be taken lightly, as reaching a quorum in
the Iraqi legislative chamber is so rare an occurrence.
The laws now have to be ratified or approved by the Iraqi executive branch's
Presidency Council Kurdish president Jalal Talabani and Sunni and Shia
vice presidents elected by the Council of Representatives and go through
the administrative step of actually being put on the books.
The Bush administration and like-minded Iraq war cheerleaders heralded the
advances as a major step forward in achieving the "benchmarks" that
the occupying U.S. power had demanded of the Iraqi government.
"Last week," wrote Fred Barnes in the neoconservative magazine The
Weekly Standard, "the Iraqi parliament passed three laws that amounted
to a political surge to achieve reconciliation. Taken together, the laws are
likely to bring minority Sunnis fully into the political process they had earlier
boycotted and to produce a new class of political leaders."
But Sunni-Shia reconciliation still looks to be far off particularly Barnes'
claim of full integration into Iraqi national politics as the passage of
the "benchmark" laws is not tantamount to society-wide sectarian reconciliation.
Take, for example, the Sunni Awakening or Sahwa movement that
has taken tens of thousands of former-insurgent Sunni militia fighters and placed
them on the U.S. dole in exchange for help driving out al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Though doubtless important to the indisputable reduction of violence
perhaps more important than the additional U.S. forces associated with the "surge"
the Awakening groups are very tenuously positioned as tactical allies
of the Iraqi central government and U.S. forces.
Important parts of both the budget and the provincial powers law could potentially
help to bring the Sahwa fighters into the political discourse, but those parts
are clouded by doubt and uncertainty about their implementation.
The provincial powers act contained a provision that sets provincial elections
for the fall, but the Awakening groups in Anbar province insist that this is
not soon enough. They have demanded that the Iraqi Islamic Party a Sunni
party that participated in the 2005 elections vacate their positions
within 30 days or face armed resistance.
Furthermore, because of the difficulty of setting up provincial elections,
the law that provides those elections must be set up six to nine months before.
That would mean that the provincial powers law needs to be enacted immediately
and implemented without any major snags in order for elections to take place
on time by even the central government's standard.
And while the provincial elections will be an important step for bringing the
Sunni groups in the political fold, it is unlikely that they will be satisfied
with being relegated to that role in the wake of their effective assistance
in quelling violence.
"I was quite astonished that some people very senior advisors to
the [Shia] prime minister [Nouri al-Maliki] said 'they're going to have
provincial elections and they're going to be happy to rule their own little
provinces,'" said Rahim. "Well, when you heard from the Sahwa people,
that wasn't their idea at all. They wanted to get into the politics of Baghdad
Rahim said that the idea was floated of giving the Sahwa groups some cabinet
positions, but that would mean that others would need to evacuate those slots
an unlikely step given the political realities in Iraq.
About the Sunni-Shia distrust, Rahim said, "This still exists. Let's not
Another important upcoming step for the Iraqi authorities will be the implementation
of the amnesty law that offers to commute the sentences of some of the 26,000
or so people in Iraqi prisons. The law would release those mostly Sunnis
who have not been convicted of any crime and were jailed by what Sunnis allege
were abuses of power by Shia authorities.
But the amnesty law is not completely clear and implementation will be difficult.
The law, for example, does not mention a timetable for the release of the prisoners.
Gluck insisted that this needed to occur in the next four months and would be
useless if the time-frame was more like 12 months.
Looking to the future, another big challenge for the Iraqi government on the
path to reconciliation will be to implement a de-Ba'athification law passed
in early February that could potentially return 38,000 members of former Iraqi
dictator Saddam Hussein's party to take their government jobs.
But Gluck pointed to more problems actually carrying out the spirit of the
laws, saying that these positions have already been filled and that the Iraqi
government has not shown the ability to create new jobs.
"The impact of the de-Ba'athification law and by extension these
other three laws as well will be in the ability of the government to
effectuate them and to do so positively," said Gluck. "If they are
unable to do so it will have a net negative effect because it will just emphasize
the failure of the national government to accomplish anything and will lower
confidence of the average Iraqi in their government."
"As is always the case," concluded Gluck, "the devil will be
in the implementation."
(Inter Press Service)