Iraq's Elections: What Washington Must Do

Washington still maintains influence in Baghdad.

A new leader, untainted by a record of distrust and broken deals, could offer Iraq a promising way forward. A U.S. push to oust Maliki, however, would be risky. Relations between Washington and Kabul deteriorated sharply after Afghan president Hamid Karzai won re-election over the Obama Administration’s opposition. The experience with Maliki, moreover, shows that U.S. support for the winning candidate does not necessarily translate into reliable governance. In exchange for remaining Prime Minister after the 2010 elections, Maliki committed to the Erbil Agreement, which called for reform on issues such as de-Baathification, oil revenues, corruption, and federalism. In the absence of sustained U.S. engagement, however, Maliki failed to deliver on his promises. The same situation could evolve with Maliki’s successor if Washington lacks the influence or the sustained will to steer the new Prime Minister in the direction of reform.

Instead of relying on preferred Iraqi leaders, the Obama Administration should clearly articulate the program of reform it wants implemented during the process of government formation. Iraq’s constitution, which emphasizes federalism and decentralization of power, provides a roadmap for reform. Continued effort at monopolization of power by a majoritarian central government could incite a Kurdish push for sovereignty, as well as increased violence among Iraq’s Sunni population. Some Sunni leaders, after opposing federalism in the years after Saddam’s overthrow, now seek recognition of its provinces as federal regions.

Five specific reforms would tamp down ethnosectarian tensions and facilitate democratic consolidation over time. These reforms are all necessary for lasting stability in Iraq, but some, namely those regarding territorial control, represent more difficult challenges than others.

· Elimination of discriminatory laws such as de-Baathification, which are being implemented in a sectarian manner.

· Passage of a balanced revenue-sharing and hydrocarbon law that allows companies to export oil from regions and provinces and that distributes funds based on an agreed formula.

· Creation, as mandated by the Iraqi constitution, of a Federation Council that would provide for regional representation in the national government.

· Movement against Shia militias alongside counterterrorism operations directed at Sunni extremists.

· Resolving territorial disputes—produced by the forcible demographic changes under former regimes—in accordance with the constitutionally mandated frameworks.

Washington can help ensure that these reforms are implemented by conditioning U.S. security assistance and diplomatic support for concrete actions by Baghdad, regardless of which coalition or Prime Minister comes to power. The United States cannot rely on promises alone, as it did with the Erbil Agreement. The disbursement of U.S. assistance should be sequenced based on practical steps, such as the introduction of legislation on needed reforms.

Navigating Iraqi politics in the coming months will require a level of deftness, balance, and steadfastness that has eluded the Obama Administration’s Iraq policy to date. However, given the strong relationships that Washington has with key Iraqi leaders and factions, the United States still possesses sufficient leverage in Iraq for securing a government that is beneficial for Iraqis and friendly with the United States.

Zalmay Khalilzad is a counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. From 2007 to 2009, he served as U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations. He has also previously served as U.S. ambassador to Iraq, as well as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and also as special presidential envoy to Afghanistan. He is a member of The National Interest's advisory council.

Image: Flickr/The U.S. Army/CC by 2.0

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