Sunday, November 16, 2008

New Pieces in Place in Iraq

Two major events have happened in the last day that are going to make Mr. Obama's life significantly easier when he enters office. The first is the passing of the Status of Forces Agreement (SoFA) in the Iraqi Cabinet. The second is the setting of a date for provincial elections in 14 of 18 provinces of Iraq.

The Status of Forces Agreement is a treaty that the US has tried to acquire for many months, granting US forces some form of extended stay in Iraq (after the UN Mandate runs out on Dec 31, 2008). The issue has been hotly debated and altered many times; US troops will have less freedom to operate, a tighter Rules of Engagement (ROE), more oversight, and more deadlines than before. Earlier, Shiites in parliament had stated that they would not agree to the previous version of the pact, which granted US troops too much leeway. Most parliament members will probably publicly oppose the pact, but vote for it anyway, and claim that there was little else they could do--ultimately, Iraqi parliament knows that it needs the US for security more than the US needs Iraq for its reputation and values. This has become very clear in the past two weeks, which have carried a rise in violence.

In its first major step towards ratification, the pact got 27 of 28 votes in cabinet to be moved on to the legislature for approval. The legislature is unlikely to be as one-sided as Maliki's hand-picked cabinet--parliament is indeed made up of many factioned parties--but the near-unanimous approval of the cabinet will be a push for any fence-sitting legislators. In addition, Maliki has managed to forge a comrpomise with Cleric Al-Sistani, the most powerful religious figure in Iraq, to avoid openly opposing the pact. This should put most Shiites on board with the Kurds in parliament and, along with pro-US Sunni forces, they should likely make up a majority.

Provincial elections are complicated. In 2005, boycotts led to very lopsided victories, which led to Sunni worries of domination, which led to bombing a few mosques here and there, which led to reprisals, which led to civil war. Today, the provincial appointments remain lopsided, but the new elections aim to change that. Currently, Tamil and the three Kurdish provinces will not be voting on January 31, when everyone else votes. There are not yet sufficient rules for Kurdish semi-autonomous provinces for parliament to be able to deal with their vote, and Tamil's status is under contention by Arabs, Turkmen, and Kurds as to whether it should be semi-autonomous or not. Because no agreement on rules for these 4 provinces could be made, the elections--originally slated for October--were pushed back. The compromise so far has been to allow for elections in 14 provinces and figure the other ones out later--probably a pretty good idea. Of the 4 left-our provinces, only Tamil has serious potential for the ethnosectarian makeup of its leadership to change--the Kurdish provinces are mostly happy with their leadership.

After the 31st of January, 2 effects should be seen: First, an increased confidence rating by local citizens about their government's ability to act fairly and effectively. Disproportionate election results have meant a sense of oppression for many Iraqis, and that is likely to change. Second, a sense of compromise is likely to take hold in Iraqi leadership. Previously, parties with a disproportionate majority had incentives to try and brute-force their interests, and disproportionate minority parties had an incentive to block anything trying to go through. With more pluralistic representation, decisions will require multi-party support, and the incentive will be to start by compromising.

Both decisions will make President Obama's life easier. The first means he has a guide to troop withdrawal, and can avoid doing anything politically risky by making serious decisions one way or the other. The second will lead to long-term political reconciliation in Iraq, which will reduce violence and leave a more functional country upon US withdrawal--and he will be able to take all the credit.
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