The most important question for Iraq is: Does the presence of foreign military forces prevent its descent into civil war, or do they permit the Baghdad government to avoid taking responsibility for the nation’s future? The decision by the Iraqi Parliament to take a summer recess despite failing to take action on vital pieces of legislation implies that the government is less than serious about governing.
When U.S. President George W. Bush earlier this year made public his plans to increase the number of U.S. troops in Iraq — the much criticized “surge” — he warned that continuing U.S. support for Iraq would depend on the Baghdad government’s taking action on several issues: “America’s commitment is not open-ended. If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises, it will lose the support of the American people — and it will lose the support of the Iraqi people.”
Two core concerns are the sharing of oil revenues and the easing of restrictions that prevent former Ba’ath party officials from joining the civil service. Both measures would help ease tensions among ethnic and religious communities and help forge a greater sense of belonging to the country.
Thus, it was with some dismay that the Iraqi Parliament began its summer vacation July 30. The recess will continue until Sept. 4. The Parliament shut down after blaming the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki for failing to present bills to the assembly for consideration. Reportedly, the oil legislation has gone through two drafts but has yet to receive final approval from the Cabinet.
The paralysis reflects the vast divergence in views in Mr. Maliki’s government, a coalition of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. The division of oil revenues is critical to the economic viability of the country’s regions: Kurds, for example, seek a greater share of funds from production in the north, where they dominate. The Shiites and Sunnis are reluctant to set a precedent for the division of funds and worry that the Kurds will use that revenue to finance an independent Kurdish state.
While Sunnis want to ease the restrictions on former Ba’ath party members — the ruling party under Saddam Hussein — arguing that many people are being punished unfairly, Shiites remember the oppression under Ba’ath rule and seek protection against future abuses as well as jobs for co-religionists.
The result has been stalemate and the deterioration of political dialogue within Baghdad. Despite the recess, Iraqi political leaders will continue their negotiations; Mr. Maliki has assured Mr. Bush that discussions are ongoing. There is supposed to be a summit of the various factions this week.
Finding consensus, however, is becoming more difficult, not less. Cabinet ministers loyal to hardline Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr decided in April to pull out of the government. The largest Sunni faction, the Accordance Front, announced last week that it too was leaving the Cabinet. Sunni anger has mounted as sectarian violence accelerated; their chief complaint is the government’s refusal to give them more authority in security matters so that they can protect themselves better. While front members were relatively junior Cabinet officials, their departure is a blow to the image of a unity government. Officials have called it a grave crisis, but front leaders held out hope that they could be persuaded to rejoin the Cabinet if reforms are passed.
All the while, Baghdad burns. There is no reliable estimate of the number of Iraqi civilian casualties since the U.S. invasion in April 2003, but the toll is horrific and growing. On the day the Accordance Front announced its withdrawal, suicide bombers killed more than 70 people. The Iraqi government said 1,653 civilians were killed in July, a casualty toll one-third higher than that of June. Meanwhile, the U.S. announced that 331 U.S. soldiers lost their lives from April-June, the highest death toll since the war began.
U.S. officials warned that the surge was likely to increase casualties as soldiers became more aggressive in their efforts to go after terrorists and restore order. The verdict is still out on the success of that effort, although there are signs that a corner is being turned. After visiting Iraq, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates last week announced that developments on security were “more encouraging than I would have expected three or four months ago.”
Those gains can only be sustained if there is similar progress on the political front. Thus far, that has been elusive. Even Mr. Gates conceded that the U.S. had underestimated the difficulties in getting Iraqis to work together. Failure to keep their end of the bargain could resolve, by default, the most important question for Iraq’s future and undermine the remaining (and shrinking) support for any foreign military presence in Iraq.
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