Iraq: A Bigger Threat Than Bombs

An Iraqi weeps as he walks away from the ministries of justice and labour following the suicide bombing on October 25, 2009 (Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)

The horrific twin bombings in Baghdad on October 25 that killed over 150 people, including children in two daycare centers, and injured many more, could easily be seen as supporting the increasingly common contention that Iraq remains profoundly unstable. That such an attack could take place in the center of the capital might demonstrate that security forces under Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki are incapable of providing security; and that the United States will leave chaos in its wake when combat troops depart ten months from now. But the attacks must be seen in the perspective of deeper problems, even if the claim about Iraq’s instability is valid.

The bombings at the Justice Ministry, the Ministry of Municipalities and Public Works and the Baghdad Provincial Council building are even bigger than the suicide car bomb attacks against the Foreign and Finance Ministries on August 19, in which at least one hundred people were killed and more than six hundred injured. They are large, spectacular assaults on key government institutions, causing significant casualties as well as severe damage to Maliki’s image as the man who brought relative peace to the country over the past year. They could undermine Maliki’s chances of regaining his post following the January 2010 parliamentary elections, especially if more bombings follow—as well they may. This could indeed have been the intent behind the bombings—if, that is, they weren’t simply an attempt by former-regime elements to disrupt the political process, the only workable strategy they have at their disposal under current circumstances.

But the problems in Iraq are much more profound, and much more threatening, than occasional bomb blasts, however powerful. The bombings distract from the sobering fact that politics remain so dysfunctional as to disable governance. Following a two-year lull in which security steadily improved but politicians made no progress on the principal constitutional issues dividing them—particularly on the questions of how to share or divide power and wealth, and how to settle territorial disputes—Baghdad has entered a season of crisis that may undo the relative peace that has been achieved.

In the council of representatives over the past two weeks, Iraqi politicians proved incapable of passing legislation that would enable the January elections to happen on time. They may have to be pushed back as a result. Negotiations are now being conducted by a leadership council that has no constitutional standing but that reflects where power really lies. Despite rumors of an imminent deal, compromise has been elusive. Two issues have held up the law: disagreement over the electoral system, and controversy over registering voters in the governorate of Kirkuk, an oil-rich territory that is claimed by both the Kurds and Maliki’s government.

The two issues, while very different, have become linked. The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and Kurdish parties prefer a closed-system election, in which voters cast their ballots not for an individual candidate but for a list of candidates pre-ranked by the party—much as voters do in the Netherlands, Italy, and Israel. They appear to be using the Kirkuk imbroglio to get their way over the objection of much of the electorate, which wants to press on with the elections and prefers an open-list election (in which voters in effect rank the candidates on a list).

The closed-list approach also runs counter to the wishes of the Shiites’ foremost religious leader, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who has expressly called for an open-list election in order to encourage the ascendance of local leaders and technocrats over party hacks. As a parliamentarian who backs Muqtada al-Sadr told me during my visit to Baghdad in late September, “Shiite parties in government have no interest in an open-list system, but they have even less interest in publicly opposing the marja’iya,” i.e., Sistani.

So rather than openly disobeying a man who commands huge support among Shiites, the parties wanting closed-list elections are trying to stall negotiations about closed vs. open list elections by deflecting attention to a separate debate over the registration of voters in Kirkuk. They blame Kurdish leaders for insisting on a system of registering voters in Kirkuk that, in view of the Kurds’ numerical superiority, would advance the leaders’ quest to place Kirkuk under their control and, over time, inside the Kurdistan region. These Shiite parties hope that by encouraging deadlock over Kirkuk they can sufficiently delay negotiations over the elections law to convince everyone to agree to default to the old law that governed the previous elections in December 2005, based on a closed-list system. This, they expect, will ensure their continued hold on power, as it will keep all the party’s top cadres in their current seats in parliament.

Iraqi leaders are now working to hammer out a compromise on the Kirkuk voter registration that would unblock progress on the election law, following heavy pressure from US officials who fear that unanticipated election delays will jeopardize their timetable for troop withdrawal. The crisis will not cease, however, even if the law is passed and elections proceed more or less on time. The conflict over Kirkuk, which has bedevilled Baghdad politics for the past two years, is bound to also cast its shadow over the challenge that will follow the elections: the formation of a new government.


Kurdish leaders, who have a proven ability to mobilize their community for elections and thus remain indispensable political players—true kingmakers—in Baghdad, will demand concessions on Kirkuk in exchange for their participation in a future coalition government. We will have to see whether this means a firm date for a referendum on the status of Kirkuk, or a date for (previously delayed) provincial elections in Kirkuk —both of which the Kurds think they have the majority to win—or Baghdad’s consent to pay oil companies that signed contracts with the Kurdistan regional government. But since Kirkuk is the only issue that can unify the multitude of non-Kurdish parties, negotiations over a new government could go on for a very long time.

Will the security forces and state institutions hold up as politicians bicker and US troops pull out? This is the question that is rattling Iraq much more powerfully than the bombs last week.

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