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Baghdad: A Race Against the Clock
Baghdad: A Race Against the Clock
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Will Iraq’s Early Elections Solve Its Legitimacy Crisis?
Will Iraq’s Early Elections Solve Its Legitimacy Crisis?

Baghdad: A Race Against the Clock

Eight weeks after victoriously entering Baghdad, American forces are in a race against the clock. If they are unable to restore both personal security and public services and establish a better rapport with Iraqis before the blistering heat of summer sets in, there is a genuine risk that serious trouble will break out.

I. Overview

Eight weeks after victoriously entering Baghdad, American forces are in a race against the clock. If they are unable to restore both personal security and public services and establish a better rapport with Iraqis before the blistering heat of summer sets in, there is a genuine risk that serious trouble will break out. That would make it difficult for genuine political reforms to take hold, and the political liberation from the Saddam Hussein dictatorship would then become for a majority of the country’s citizens a true foreign occupation. With all eyes in the Middle East focused on Iraq, the coming weeks and months will be critical for shaping regional perceptions of the U.S. as well.

Ordinary Iraqis, political activists, international aid workers and U.S. officials alike expressed concern to ICG that as temperatures rise during the summer as high as 60º C (140º F), so, too, will the tempers of Baghdadis who have been much tested by the hardships and uncertainty that followed the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s hated regime, and whose cooperation is essential to an orderly political transition in Iraq. Two months into the new era, however, the U.S. and associated forces have dealt poorly with the issues that affect Baghdadis most immediately. They must quickly give people a feeling of greater safety in streets and homes and of improving services. They need also to move more out of their isolated headquarters in order to get in touch with average Iraqis and explain better policies on sensitive issues that are causing considerable resentment. These include the disposition of Saddam’s Baathist Party, demobilisation of security forces, and delay in the turn over of meaningful political power.

It is too early to reach a conclusion on post-conflict Iraq. The speed of the regime’s collapse, the near-total power vacuum that ensued and sharp international divisions regarding the decision to go to war have all complicated the task facing the new rulers, but Saddam’s fall has already brought some immensely positive changes. For the first time in a generation, Iraqis can express themselves without fear. Not surprisingly, they have begun exercising their newly gained liberties, including via protest marches against some of the policies of the very forces that made such manifestations of discontent possible in the first place. They have started to elect, or select, new leaderships in ministries, national institutions, municipal councils and professional associations. These are rudimentary forms of participatory democracy that, if sustained, hold promise of yielding a new legitimate national leadership and laying the foundation for a vibrant open society.

Yet ICG found Baghdad a city in distress, chaos and ferment. It is on issues that concern its citizens the most that the occupying forces have done least, and anger is palpable on the ground. While keenly aware of these realities, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) was only starting to make a tangible difference in the lives of ordinary Iraqis eight weeks into the occupation. Electricity, for example, has only just begun to be available for longer periods, and its supply is still unreliable. Time-consuming queues at gasoline stations and a pervasive sense of insecurity remain particularly aggravating for a population that has seen its government buildings and national institutions stripped bare, vandalised and in some cases destroyed in a frenzy involving a combination of looters and (apparently) saboteurs. Not safe even in their own homes from the crime wave unleashed by the sudden power vacuum in the capital after 9 April, Baghdadis move about gingerly when they can or, more likely, stay home waiting for a degree of normalcy to return, all the while complaining about their situation or exchanging horror stories about the latest killings, rapes, carjacks and robberies that may or may not have taken place in their neighbourhood.

Even senior American civilians in Baghdad express consternation at the near-total absence of advance preparations for dealing with post-war needs. They are among the first to acknowledge that they are virtually cut off from the society they have been charged with helping back to its feet. Concerned about their personal safety, permitted to move about the city only with a military escort, preoccupied with turf battles, and largely unknowing of Iraq and Iraqis, they venture from the grounds of the former Saddam Hussein palace that is their main headquarters only infrequently and have minimal interaction with the population. This disconnect is compounded by the delay in restoring broadcasting facilities that has deprived the administration of the ability to communicate its plans and even its achievements to ordinary Iraqis.

The CPA’s summary edicts are communicated through Iraqi newspapers that are more numerous but also unaffordable to most and via radio. These accounts, which are embellished and distorted as they spread through word of mouth, are received with a mixture of outrage, resignation, puzzlement, and profound disempowerment. The proclamation of 16 May on “disestablishment” of the Baath Party, for example, was applauded by some as an essential first step for rebuilding political life but was more widely criticised as disregarding due process and too sweeping. It has the potential to unify opposition to the U.S. among three distinct categories of Baathists – those who were loyal to Saddam; those who joined out of expediency, and those who joined early out of ideological conviction – when the goal ought to have been to marginalise the first by co-opting the latter two.

The more recent order disbanding the military and other security forces has been received with even greater anger, as it threatens to put hundreds of thousands of mostly young men on the streets without serious prospect of work or, thus far, promise of a pension. Many, it is feared, will join the gangs of thieves who roam the streets virtually unchecked or form the nuclei for future armed resistance to what is referred to as the American occupation.

Resentment is also mounting among Iraqis who aspire to political power, both those who are slowly emerging from the shadows of the old regime and those who came from abroad and today feel betrayed by the U.S. endorsement of UN Security Council Resolution 1483 that offers them considerably less than the Iraqi-run and sovereign interim government for which they had clamoured.

The absence of security, failure to restore collapsed basic services quickly and misfiring of the political process are intimately interwoven. Insecurity keeps Iraqis off the streets and away from jobs. It is futile to repair key infrastructure if it is unguarded and so likely to be looted anew. The removal of top management in ministries because of Baath Party membership has led to confusion, deprived the CPA of technocratic help and further delayed resumption of normal activity. Inequities in payment of salaries (caused by pervasive Iraqi corruption) lead to slow-downs at power plants and other facilities, and so complete the vicious cycle by providing further incentives for desperate individuals to resort to crime.

This cycle, and the hopelessness it engenders for the vast majority of the population, is the challenge the U.S. administration in Iraq must address most urgently. Facing a serious credibility gap and hobbled by frequent staff rotations and reorganisations of its rapidly growing bureaucracy, it is banking on the prowess of its military forces, the talents of its hard-working staff and a bit of luck to turn the situation around in the few weeks left before the full summer heat descends. If the gamble fails, U.S. legitimacy for many Iraqis may suffer a defeat that could prove difficult to reverse and deal a serious, if not fatal, blow to the political transition that today still holds out the prospect of significant material change in the lives of all Iraqis.

Time is running short. To win this race against the clock, the CPA will need to implement the following urgent measures, discussed in the subsequent sections of this briefing:[fn]This briefing paper focuses primarily on the immediate aftermath of the war, reconstruction and humanitarian assistance and is based on fieldwork that ICG began in the latter part of May 2003 within the city limits of Baghdad. While it therefore gives only a partial perspective, the widespread view among Iraqis and international representatives is that the problems of the country can be adequately addressed only if those of the capital are successfully tackled first. The situation witnessed by ICG in Baghdad also appears largely consistent with reports from the northern and southern parts of the country. The political transition will be analysed more thoroughly in forthcoming ICG studies.Hide Footnote

  • Restore public order. This requires immediately placing armed guards around the clock in front of all public institutions and key infrastructure (power plants, oil refineries, water and sewage treatment stations, hospitals); a more extensive U.S. military presence; and getting more Iraqi police on the street by speeding up training of credible, vetted elements of the old force, giving Iraqi officers greater latitude to work, albeit under the ultimate supervision of the CPA, and re-appointing senior officers untainted by corruption and regime-related criminality. The CPA should fund and dispatch an experienced international constabulary force trained for civilian policing duties to conduct joint patrols with Iraqi counterparts. And, using existing police files, the CPA should implement a procedure by which, after a careful review by qualified Iraqi judges, many criminals amnestied by the previous regime can be identified and rearrested.
     
  • Repair basic infrastructure and restore essential services. While the priority in this respect is to move forward with a regular and reliable supply of electricity and gasoline, an effort also should be made to speed up the payment of salaries.
     
  • Improve the CPA’s broadcasting capabilities and public profile. The CPA should use the full range of media to communicate its progress and plans to the Iraqi people and organise public discussions in these media so that issues and concerns can be aired. It should, in the same spirit, establish walk-in centres at the neighbourhood level (providing the minimum necessary security), where Iraqis can both receive and convey information and lodge complaints. And the CPA should improve communications with non-governmental organisations and UN agencies, including via weekly briefings convened by the directors of its various branches.
     
  • Reconsider the sweeping de-Baathification edict. The CPA should retain in, or return to, their positions qualified senior managers who do not have a proven record of corruption and abuse, even if they were members of the Baath Party, and especially if they were not senior members. At the same time, it should set up a vetting mechanism consisting of independent Iraqis and legally-trained non-Iraqis to screen methodically the upper echelons of ministries and national institutions for elements suspected of committing crimes under the previous regime, irrespective of Baath Party membership and in keeping with principles of due process. And, for those Iraqis who are dismissed or demobilised, the CPA should hold out the possibility of re-recruitment, pension benefits or other forms of compensation.
     
  • Empower Iraqis. This should be done by handing over as much as possible of the administration, day-to-day policy-making and planning powers at the various ministries. The CPA also should accelerate the holding of elections at the local and institutional level, ensuring that they are as transparent and widely publicised as possible in order to maximise popular support and participation. Above all, it is imperative that Iraqis feel that they have a stake in the CPA’s success and that they cease holding it responsible for every problem they face. This can only be achieved by ensuring that they have an important role in running their country so that Saddam's ouster is not perceived as the substitution of one alien authority for another but rather as the Iraqi people's chance, finally, to govern themselves.

Baghdad/Amman/Brussels, 11 June 2003 

Tishreen protester holds an Iraqi flag in Tayaran Square. Baghdad, 19 January 2020. PHOTOGRAPHER/Ali Dab Dab

Will Iraq’s Early Elections Solve Its Legitimacy Crisis?

Protests in 2019-2020 forced Iraq’s government to resign, parliament to adopt a new elections law and authorities to organise early elections, scheduled for 10 October. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Lahib Higel says ruling parties are vying for support amid apathy and low expectations.

What’s at stake in Iraq’s elections on 10 October? 

These elections are the first test of Iraq’s political institutions since countrywide protests paralysed the country in 2019-2020. Those protests forced the government elected in 2018 to step down and pass a new elections law, which brought the polls originally planned for 2022 forward by six months. The so-called Tishreen (October) protests were a serious warning that the ruling parties and political system face a growing legitimacy crisis. If the balloting unfolds in a free and fair manner, without major violence, it may restore a degree of confidence in electoral democracy. Ideally, the vote would produce a new government empowered to tackle the country’s enormous socio-economic challenges head on, but that outcome is unlikely.

Many Iraqis have a dim view of their country’s future, despite a period of relative calm since the military victory over ISIS in 2017. Corruption and weak governance are hindering the provision of even basic services like water or electricity. In the summer, no one dependent on the national grid can count on more than a few hours of electricity per day. When temperatures reach 50 degrees centigrade, only those who can afford a household generator can keep cool. Even those with generators have to monitor them carefully, as they are often not powerful enough to cool an entire whole house. In 2018, the water quality was so poor in Basra that more than 100,000 people had to be hospitalised. These conditions triggered unrest, which turned out to be the precursor of the 2019-2020 Tishreen protests. 

State violence used to crush these protests led to demands for an overhaul of the whole political order that has been in place since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Critically, protesters also expressed frustration with a key political change made after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime. This change was the introduction of a Lebanon-style spoils system (known locally as muhasasa, Arabic for “apportionment”), which divvies up government and key state bureaucracy positions among the leaders of the main ethnic and religious groups. Though unpopular with the protesters, the system persists.

How great is popular interest in the new elections? 

Despite the great demand for change, popular interest in the elections is low. On television, the campaign is a race to the bottom, with politicians insulting their opponents and accusing one another of corruption. Each insists that he is the only leader able to save the country. On the road to Baghdad from the northern city of Mosul, campaign posters bedeck the entry and exit checkpoints outside every town. But political advertising is unlikely to convince people to turn out in great numbers to cast their ballots. Heavy state repression of the Tishreen protests left both those who had taken to the streets and those who had not with a sense of fear and disillusionment. Many have lost faith that the system can change at all, and few believe that the elections will shake up the establishment in any meaningful way. The 2018 polls were marred by widespread fraud. In the eyes of many Iraqis, corruption and mismanagement are too deeply rooted in the country’s politics for a better outcome to be possible. 

Personal safety is also an issue. In Baghdad, I met with members of a recently established political party that has fielded candidates for the elections but raised serious concerns about possible danger to them due to the party’s affiliation with the Tishreen movement. Some candidates have received anonymous handwritten notes or phone messages threatening them with harm if they do not withdraw.

A perception that the system is unfair ... diminishes voter enthusiasm

A perception that the system is unfair also diminishes voter enthusiasm. Iraq has no law that forces transparency in the way political parties raise and spend money, and many small parties suspect that their bigger rivals abuse their access to and control over state funds in ministries and other state institutions. The Iraqi Communist Party and several new parties originating in the Tishreen protests have decided to boycott the elections to protest this perceived unfairness and lack of personal safety.

For these and other reasons, large segments of the electorate may stay home on election day, though turnout is likely to vary by region. The lowest levels of participation are expected in the southern governorates that witnessed protests in 2019-2020. The strongest participation is expected in Kurdish areas, where fewer parties compete over fairly static patronage networks. Sunni Arab areas will likely fall in between, as reconstruction following the war with ISIS still tops the agenda there and many people may be motivated to vote for the parties that they think are most likely to invest in their areas.

What is the likely outcome of the poll?

The parties that are likely to do best in each ethno-sectarian group are the established ones. Among Shiites, the popular cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his movement are likely either to come out on top or, even if they fall short of expectations, to run neck and neck with their main rival, the Fateh alliance. The latter mainly comprises parties affiliated with the pro-Iran paramilitary groups of the Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation). Together with the State of Law Coalition of former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, they were second largest parliamentary bloc in the 2018 elections. This time around, they may even be able to form the largest bloc, depending on post-election alliance building. Among Sunni Arabs, the main competition is between the Taqaddum Party of Parliamentary Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi and the Azm Party of politician-cum-businessman Khamis al-Khanjar. The former is likely to enter into an alliance with Sadr and other centrist Shiite politicians such as cleric Ammar al-Hakim and former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, while the latter is expected to support the Fateh alliance. Among the Kurds, the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Masrour Barzani is expected to stay well ahead in the race.

If the new parliament proves to be as reluctant to advance a reform agenda as the current one, more protests seem inevitable in the coming years.

Similar to previous elections, it is already clear that no party or bloc will be able to secure an absolute majority of the 329 seats, so following the polls there will be yet another lengthy process of coalition building and government formation. In 2018, negotiations lasted eight months and resulted in a government that included all the above parties. Governing by broad coalition and the need to reach something close to consensus on major decisions caused administrative gridlock, often resulting in parliament not taking votes on legislation or hampering the government’s ability to take policy decisions. This impasse in turn helped trigger the Tishreen protests. If the new parliament proves to be as reluctant to advance a reform agenda as the current one, more protests seem inevitable in the coming years.

The election will also be a test of the new election law enacted after the Tishreen protests. This statute introduced a Single Non-Transferable Vote (SNTV) to replace the old system based on party lists, which allowed political parties to fill seats representing their proportionate share of the vote with their preferred candidates, some of whom did not necessarily gain significant percentages of the popular vote. Iraq has also gone from having a single electoral district to having 83 districts. The candidates who garner the most votes in each district – each district elects between three to five legislators, depending on its size – will go to parliament in Baghdad. In principle, this new system might bring hope of greater accountability over time, because candidates will be closer to their constituencies and voters will be able to punish legislators who they believe have performed poorly. Yet SNTV can be quite unpredictable and hard to manage for political parties; it can also result in quite disproportionate results. Newly established parties may also face challenges, as they will likely struggle to field candidates who can vie for the voters of older parties in many small electoral districts.

Established parties have a big advantage in funds, access to media, organisational infrastructure and mobilising power. The new law is therefore not expected to have a big influence on the overall distribution of seats. As per the politically agreed-upon practice since 2005, the muhasasa system also means that a Shiite will have to be prime minister, a Kurd president and a Sunni Arab speaker of parliament, with similar distributions among parties taking place in the allocation of senior cabinet and administration posts.

What are the big issues that the new government will be facing with other governments in the region?

Iraq’s ambition to broker more stable relations among the powers around it was manifested by the conference it convened in Baghdad in August, which brought together neighbours and other regional countries for talks on greater cooperation. Many of them attended at the head-of-state level. But while the August conference was a positive step, any new government in Baghdad will have to keep treading a careful path between the far stronger states that surround it, which do not see eye to eye on much of anything.

From Iraq’s perspective, the most influential of these neighbours is Iran. Ever since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, every government in Baghdad has needed the blessing of both Tehran and Washington to succeed. In 2018, for example, Iran and the U.S. compromised on the composition of Prime Minister Adil Abd-al-Mahdi’s government and, two years later, on Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s interim government as well. The muhasasa system works in Iran’s favour, as the prime minister’s post is the most powerful in the Iraqi system and a Shiite must fill it. Not all Iraqi Shiite politicians are amenable to Iranian influence, but Tehran’s clout has undoubtedly been growing steadily since 2003. The new, more conservative government in Iran may push for a prime minister in Baghdad who leans farther away from the U.S. and will accelerate negotiations aimed at a full withdrawal of U.S. troops – including trainers and advisers (discussed below) – which is a major Iranian objective.

To Iraq’s north is Turkey, which is increasingly worried about the growth inside Iraq of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an insurgent group that has been fighting the Turkish army for nearly four decades. Ankara will be looking for a government it can do business with and in particular one that will not block Turkish forces from carrying out continuous attacks on PKK and affiliated camps along Iraq’s northern border. Most worrying to some in Baghdad, the range of Turkish airstrikes has been creeping southward, especially in the last year, prompting Shiite parties aligned with the Hashd al-Shaabi network of paramilitary groups to condemn the strikes as an infringement upon Iraqi sovereignty. The Hashd groups work closely with the PKK and pro-PKK parties, among other things to ensure that they will continue to have full access to the Syrian border, which the PKK partly controls.

[The Gulf Arab States] will almost certainly look for ways to make sure the new Baghdad government stays close to the U.S. and keeps building on the momentum toward greater regional harmony.

To Iraq’s south are the Gulf Arab states, which remain deeply concerned about the spread of Iranian influence in Iraq and the Middle East. They will almost certainly look for ways to make sure the new Baghdad government stays close to the U.S. and keeps building on the momentum toward greater regional harmony that was in evidence at the Baghdad conference in August.

How has U.S. influence fared in Iraq, especially after the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan?

The U.S. was the dominant player in Iraq after 2003 but has been losing ground, especially to Iran, ever since withdrawing most of its troops in 2011. The anti-ISIS fight brought back some U.S. soldiers in 2014, incongruously working in tacit concert with pro-Iranian paramilitaries, but their continued presence became politically controversial after the jihadists’ territorial defeat three years later. The last round of strategic talks between Baghdad and Washington in July produced agreement that all U.S. combat forces will depart by the end of 2021, leaving only trainers and advisers.

The new government will face two thorny questions relating to what remains of the U.S. military presence. The first is whether the U.S.-led coalition’s adjusted mandate will enable government forces to contain ISIS or other Sunni Islamist militants, should they resurge. Despite its territorial defeat, ISIS remains active today, carrying out attacks on security forces in the central provinces of Kirkuk, Salah al-Din and Diyala. In just two ambushes in September, ISIS fighters killed thirteen members of the Iraqi security forces. The full U.S. withdrawal in 2011 was followed three years later by the takeover of one third of Iraq by ISIS, forcing Washington to send some U.S. troops back. This time, by contrast, trainers and advisers as well as air support will remain.

The second question is how the government will handle countervailing domestic pressures on the U.S. to withdraw all its remaining forces. This demand is strongest among the Hashd groups aligned with Iran, especially after the January 2020 U.S. drone strike that killed General Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s expeditionary Qods force, and Hashd leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. But it is resisted by others, especially the Kurdish parties. It remains to be seen whether the Iran-aligned groups will accept the government’s agreement with the U.S. to keep trainers and advisers in Iraq after withdrawing its combat troops. Some of these groups have been implicated in attacks on U.S. forces in 2021 and have also been on the receiving end of U.S. retaliatory strikes. Further violent incidents may thus occur involving paramilitary groups and Iraqi bases on which U.S. personnel are co-located. While the absence of agreement between the U.S. and Iran on reviving the 2015 nuclear deal suggests the likelihood of further attacks, restoration of the agreement will not automatically lead to the end of hostilities, as some Iraqi paramilitary groups’ very raison d’être is to resist the U.S. military presence and Iran may not exert full control over these groups.