After Iraq: How the U.S. Failed to Fully Learn the Lessons of a Disastrous Intervention
After Iraq: How the U.S. Failed to Fully Learn the Lessons of a Disastrous Intervention
Op-Ed / Middle East & North Africa 3 minutes

Think Small in Iraq

With the Bush administration, the Iraqi government and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the religious leader of the country's Shiites, insisting that national elections must proceed as scheduled in late January, and a coalition of Sunni Arabs saying they should not, it seems more likely that the voting will be delayed, discredited or both. But a train wreck can be avoided: by delaying national elections while holding votes for provincial governments wherever possible, an acceptable compromise may yet be found.

The apparently successful re-occupation of Falluja aside, war is raging and anger is boiling in most of the country's predominantly Sunni Arab regions. Organizing elections there in two months' time is increasingly fanciful. Some have suggested holding them everywhere else. But because Iraq will not elect legislators by region like the United States Congress, but through a single nationwide ballot in which seats are to be allocated proportionately, setting aside a predetermined number of seats for regions where voting cannot occur will not work.

In addition, because the legislature is to double as an assembly for drafting a permanent constitution, Sunni Arabs would be excluded not only from immediate political life but also from having a voice in the longer-term makeup of the nation. This would decisively alienate the very segment of the population at the heart of the insurrection.

Delaying the entire election is also unappetizing. It would likely embolden the insurgents and enrage the Shiites, who see elections as their chance to finally exercise political power.

Seeking a way out of this dilemma, the Bush administration is resorting to force (seeking to pacify insurgent strongholds by January) and subterfuge (arguing that the presence of Sunni Arabs as candidates will make up for their absence as voters). Both ideas are preposterous. It is an odd worldview that hopes to enlist voters by militarily overpowering them, and assumes that they will feel represented by legislators for whom they have never cast a ballot.

The situation calls for alternative approaches -- in particular, one that involves rethinking the Baghdad-centric mindset that has characterized America's Iraq adventure.

An early priority for the occupation forces should have been to ensure that Iraqis felt credibly represented in provincial, municipal and district councils, and that these bodies delivered vital services. It was not. American officials feared that letting Iraqis freely choose their local representatives would play into the hands of Islamic extremists. Iraqi state officials worried that devolving power to more legitimate local representatives would further dilute their own meager authority. The result is that the people are not receiving the services they deserve, and neither the central nor the local authorities have the legitimacy they need to hold Iraq together.

If things are to improve, the coalition and its Iraqi allies have to concentrate on the periphery rather than the center; embrace local elections rather than fearing them; and devolve power in place of holding on to it.

The decision of whether to postpone the national elections should be negotiated by the United Nations special envoy and sanctioned by the Security Council. But a delay would not be the disaster many predict if the country could go ahead with the scheduled elections for provincial councils. While it would be best to have as many of these elections as possible in January, the rest should proceed on a rolling basis as security improves. Only when elections yielding legitimate provincial councils can take place in all remaining regions should national elections be held.

In the short term, nothing irrevocable would be lost if provincial races in some Sunni areas were delayed, and much could be gained if the period were used to put in place a strategy aimed at drawing Sunni Arabs into the political process.

Of course, this approach will work only if the Shiites accept it. As incentives, they should be assured that by the time national elections are held, expatriate Iraqis (who are predominantly Shiite) would be given the opportunity to cast ballots. More important, local councils must be given real power to allow as many Iraqis as possible to exercise self-government.

The local councils would need to be given budget oversight and a financing stream directly from the country's oil exports, as well as the authority to work with Iraqi ministries to assess constituents' needs, produce annual strategic plans, decide which reconstruction efforts should get priority, and deliver services. They would also have an oversight role -- primarily auditing expenditures to guard against corruption and nepotism.

A national Iraqi leadership enjoying popular support, untainted by the occupation, and able to lure disaffected Sunni Arabs back into the political game is vital. But it is, for now, out of reach. Instead, the best hope for protecting Iraq's faltering national government is to strengthen its fledgling local institutions. That too is a tall order. But if local governments, immediately answerable to their communities, can't be made efficient, honest and representative, what hope does a central body in Baghdad have?


Former President & CEO
Program Director, Middle East and North Africa

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.