Iraq Throws Obama a Curve Ball, Key 2010 Elections in Peril

Reminiscent of the political problems in Afghanistan that have plagued the Obama White House, on Monday Iraqi Vice-President Tareq al-Hashemi vetoed a set of amendments to Iraq’s election law approved by the Iraqi parliament. The veto may lead to a delay of the Iraqi elections, currently scheduled for January 21, 2010, and could trigger a debate over U.S. plans to withdraw from Iraq.

The elections law amendment, commonly referred to as the “new elections law” was under consideration for almost a year before its final passage on November 8th. Passage of the law was delayed 11 times, as lawmakers could not reach agreement over the allocation of parliamentary seats.

The original election law, used in the 2005 elections, was viewed by many Iraqis as unfair and opaque. The old law employed a “closed list” system, in which Iraqis were only allowed to vote for coalitions rather than individual candidates. The coalitions were not required to declare the names of their candidates. This led to millions of Iraqis voting for sectarian and ethnic-based coalitions with no political platforms or candidate names. Under the old law, all of Iraq was a single electoral district, failing to ensure that candidates were representing their constituencies.

The newly passed law seeks to provide greater transparency and accountability of candidates and their political parties by blending the old “closed list” with elements of an “open list”. Under the new law Iraqis are given the option to either vote for a particular candidate in a coalition or vote for the entire coalition. The new law also puts into place electoral districts organized by provinces.

With a system that apparently deepens democracy, giving citizens greater oversight of their lawmakers, why would al-Hashemi veto the measure? The status of how seats will be allocated in politically charged city of Kirkuk and for Iraqi refugees is officially being used as the rationale for vetoing the measure, but the truth lies a bit deeper.

There are approximately 20 major political parties represented in parliament, but only five are in the executive branch. Despite the fact that combined these five parties control a minority of seats in parliament they managed, with the help of the Bush administration, to the run the country exclusively without participation of the other 15 parties that control the majority of seats in the parliament (the only nationally elected body).

Four of these five ruling parties control the Presidential Council (ISCI, KPD/PUK, Islamic Party), and the fifth is Prime Minister Al-Maliki’s party (Al-Dawa). The four ruling parties in the presidential council oppose the “open list” law, because they have benefited from the “closed list” system. The closed list system has given them a free ride at the expense of other parties.

But these four parties started to lose their grip on power in the January 2009 provincial elections when the elections law was changed, forming electoral districts by province. The ruling parties lost control of all of the provincial councils to nationalist parties and others not previously represented in the provincial councils. Take ISCI for example: It used to control around a dozen provincial councils, now they control zero.

The idea of running national elections under a similar scenario terrifies the ruling parties, and is why they oppose an open list solution despite the public pressure to change the system to a more transparent and representative one.

The question now for the United States is if this latest roadblock in Iraq will have any impact on withdrawal plans. Currently there are two parallel plans guiding U.S. withdrawal: the bilateral security agreement (aka SOFA), and Obama’s plan for the withdrawal of combat troops.

Under the SOFA, all U.S. troops must leave Iraq before December 31st 2011., Obama added another commitment in his February 2009 speech at Camp Lejeune, NC. He called for a phased withdrawal, reducing troops from 120,000 to 50,000 between April andAugust2010 before bringing all the troops home by the December 31st 2011 SOFA deadline.

Unlike the Bush administration’s original plans for Iraq, both the bilateral security agreement and Obama’s phased withdrawal plan have set deadlines and are “time-based” plans. But Obama has muddied the waters in his response to the current election crisis. One day after the Iraqi parliament approved the elections law amendment, Obama announced that the withdrawal plan will go on time because the parliament passed the law, instead of committing to withdrawal regardless of conditions. This sent the wrong message to many who understood Obama’s statement as a change of policy to a conditions-based plan. With Vice President al-Hashemi vetoing the elections law, this may now open the door for delaying withdrawal plans. If this happens, every time the U.S. deadline approaches, someone could plant a car bomb in a market and delay withdrawal.

The Pentagon has been emphasizing in the last few weeks the “flexibility” of the withdrawal plan. General Odierno announced on Wednesday that the withdrawal could be pushed back to May instead of April, delaying it one month from the original Obama plan.

If Obama bends his commitment for troop reductions it will start an endless circle of violence. Some Iraqis, regional powers, and anyone else who wants to prolong the U.S. occupation will take these announcements as an invitation to destabilize Iraq further. The result will be new excuses for the U.S. to extend its presence and sabotage withdrawal plans.

Instead Obama should send a clear message that while the U.S. supports deepening democracy in Iraq, withdrawal plans will not be affected by internal Iraqi politics. Sticking to committed deadlines for withdrawal is the best way to keep the U.S. out of internal Iraqi affairs, forcing Iraqis to take the steps needed to build political stability. It keeps pressure on figures like al-Hashemi and focuses the debate on the real issue at hand — what democracy will look like in Iraq for decades to come. If Obama remains steadfast, those decades will be without a U.S. military presence on the ground.

Raed Jarrar is Senior Fellow on the Middle East, Peace Action. He blogs at Raed in the Middle. Erik Leaver is policy outreach director for the Foreign Policy In Focus project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C.