The standard account of the Iraq war breaks the conflict into two periods: pre-surge and post-surge. While the surge certainly wasn’t a cure-all, sectarian violence dropped sharply and Iraq stepped back from the abyss while it was taking place. Some American officials have gone on to say that the country has now progressed all the way to a metaphorical two-yard line, requiring just one last push to get into the end zone.
This narrative needs updating. The 2007 surge was a turning point, but it did not leave Iraq on the cusp of Jeffersonian democracy. What it accomplished was overcoming the security vacuum brought on by the invasion’s earliest and most consequential mistakes and purchasing breathing room for Iraqis to undertake a political reset. The momentum was always understood to be finite, and it began to dissipate in mid-2009. Iraq has drifted sideways since then, preserving hard-won security gains but not pressing forward decisively politically.
This period of drift is dominated by the sectarian power struggle around the inconclusive March 2010 national elections. Even after a record nine-month government-formation odyssey that returned Prime Minister Maliki to office in December, disagreement continues over leadership of Iraq’s all-important security ministries, as well as finding a role for Maliki’s chief rival, Iraqiyya leader Ayad Allawi. Given that political jockeying for the vote started twelve months ahead of time, there is now a full two-year period where Iraq’s leaders have been primarily consumed with the distribution of top posts as opposed to improving governance or consolidating the country’s democratic institutions. Most critical though was the missed opportunity to transition away from toxic identity-based politics.
While it is simplistic to identify a single turning point, the massive August 2009 "Black Wednesday” bombings of Iraq’s Foreign and Finance Ministries stands out as one moment where momentum from the surge began to sputter. The surge’s security improvements may not have enabled irreversible political progress, but they did presage a greater willingness among Iraqis to use politics to settle disputes, as shown in the country’s January 2009 provincial elections. While Iraq’s previous provincial polls were marred by a Sunni Arab boycott, the 2009 vote saw energetic participation from new Sunni actors such as anti-al-Qaeda tribal councils in Anbar and the al-Hadba Gathering in Ninewa. Equally importantly, Prime Minister Maliki’s party ran successfully on a nationalist, law-and-order image rather than standard appeals to Shiite solidarity.
Based on these developments, the emergence of cross-sectarian alliances to contest the 2010 national elections seemed genuinely possible. In the early summer of 2009, cautious negotiations were underway to form ambitious “second generation” alliances. Only days before the ministry bombings, Iraq’s former national security advisor said the country had a window of opportunity to move beyond the “religious-sectarian boundary.” Likewise, Osama Najaefi, a rising Sunni politician, contended that mixed electoral alliances were now required because the provincial elections had shown that Iraqis wouldn’t vote for sectarian lists. Maliki himself had boldly decided to run separately from other Shiite parties and was courting prominent Sunni leaders to join him.
Beyond the tragic loss of life, Black Wednesday severely complicated these efforts to bridge the sectarian divide. In the bombing’s aftermath, no Shiite politician could afford to be seen as soft on Sunni Ba’athists accused of organizing this symbolic attack on key institutions of the Shiite-led government. Indeed, Maliki’s pointed accusations towards Ba’athists and Sunni Arab countries for organizing the attack likely cost him the chance to form a grand alliance. When a subsequent (and likely Iranian-backed) effort led to the barring of hundreds of mostly Sunni and secularist figures from running in the elections based on alleged Ba’athist ties, no Shiite leaders stoop up against lack of due process in the decision and the tone was set. The vote and government-formation negotiations were to be a no-holds-barred sectarian affair, with Iran ultimately inducing the Shiite Islamist parties to reunite behind Maliki and Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Gulf Arab states backing Allawi’s mostly Sunni Iraqiyya list.
U.S. officials in Iraq are understandably now focused on the completion of government formation by pushing Iraqis to name security ministers and fulfill power-sharing commitments made to Allawi by creating a National Council for Strategic Policy that would give him a say over key government decisions. As important as these issues are, particularly given the role of the security ministries in any decision regarding a possible extended U.S. troop presence, they are both locked into the sectarian power struggle. The first relates to which community will oversee Iraq’s historically coup-prone army, while many Shiite politicians perceive Allawi’s council as a Trojan horse to circumvent their leadership of government.
Despite all the mistrust, there are the makings of cross-sectarian agreement around certain important policy issues. Many of these relate to constitutional institutions intended to ensure a workable separation of powers in the Iraqi government. For example, leading Shiite and Kurdish parties share Iraqiyya’s concern regarding the prime minister gathering unchecked power. At the same time, they are wary of the proposed National Council because it is not grounded in the Iraqi Constitution and reminds some of Saddam’s Revolutionary Command Council. There is instead broader support for undertaking the explicit constitutional requirement to draft rules for collective decision making by Iraq’s cabinet. Similar common thinking also exists regarding passing constitutionally mandated legislation to enhance the independence of Iraq’s judicial system.
The meta-problem facing Iraq’s democracy is the primacy of zero-sum sectarian and ethnic identity politics as compared to a competition of ideas as to how the new Iraq should look and function. American efforts to bridge differences over power distribution between mutually suspicious communities are important, but by themselves they are not reversing Iraq’s troubling post-surge drift. To help put the country back on track to cross the sectarian border, the United States should devote greater attention to important institutional issues where there are natural cross-sectarian constituencies and lobby Iraqis to elevate them closer to the top of the political agenda.