The Magazine

The Future of Iraq

The decline of violence, the rise of politics.

Jul 28, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 43 • By KIMBERLY KAGAN
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We sip our tea and discuss the upcoming provincial elections. The party leader proudly takes out a folder containing the results of last week's poll, which the party commissioned from an independent firm. He has very high name recognition, strong favorable ratings, and low unfavorable ratings. If these continue until Iraq's national elections in 2009, he thinks he will retain his seat in parliament, and the party may gain a few more.

We are guests, so we ask our questions first. We discuss the party and its campaign, national issues such as foreign investment in Iraq, and foreign affairs including the Iranian nuclear program. We ask what they tell people when they go door to door: Why should anyone join and vote for their party? One older woman answers, We are religious people, but we are not a religious party. Any Iraqi can join, regardless of sect. We stand for all Iraqis. She says this gravely, and it does not seem a platitude.

These party members are hardly naive, despite their optimism. They have experienced politically driven and sectarian violence. The headquarters is surrounded by low, concrete barriers to protect it from vehicle bombs. After the party signed a lease for its first headquarters in Baghdad in 2005, the homeowner reneged on the agreement for fear that his property would be bombed, so the party moved.

I ask the young people why they have joined the party, and whether they hope to have careers in politics. One young man, who has been to college, explains that many young Iraqis have not had a proper education. He has joined the party and its youth committee to help improve Iraqi education, recruit good teachers, and ensure that all young people can not only read and write, but also acquire the skills that they will need to pursue their careers in a high-tech world. This is important, he insists, not only for the young people themselves, but also for the future of Iraq's economy, which must be able to compete in the global market. Another young man will not pursue a career exclusively in politics, but believes that when he enters the business world his political connections will come in handy.

The young woman with highlighted hair is frankly ambitious. She intends to have a political career and hopes to be a high party official someday--so she can better help the people, she adds as an afterthought. The older woman seated next to the party leader smiles wryly at this comment and cleans her spectacles so no one will notice her expression. She is evidently the high official that the young woman aspires to replace.

This could be the future of Iraq. These people have a strong vision of what their country can become, and are working to bring it to fruition in their lifetimes. They are not alone. In fact, 502 political parties have registered to participate in the provincial elections that officials anticipate will be held in December. Iraq's electoral commission, which determines whether parties are legitimate, rejected only 17 applications.

Five hundred parties are a lot. Forty registered in Basra alone, and if each runs a full slate of candidates (provincial councils have around 30 members), the ballot will look like a phone book. The proliferation of parties is not entirely desirable. Were they to join together in legislative and electoral coalitions, they might compete more directly with the larger parties. Iraqi politics tends to be noisy, chaotic, and unpredictable.

But the key point is, it is politics. Over the past year, the struggle for power in Iraq has shifted from military conflict to political competition. Iraq's leaders--Sunni, Shia, Turkmen, and Kurd--are thinking ever less about how to use armed might to seize or retain control of all or part of the country and ever more about winning votes. For all its drawbacks, the proliferation of political parties is an enormous advance toward stable, nonsectarian, or at least cross-sectarian politics.

Until now, Iraqi politics has been dominated by clerical parties attempting to function as monolithic blocs. An alliance between the ISCI and Maliki's Dawa party dominated Shia politics, challenged only by the Sadrist Trend. The Iraq Islamic party (IIP) represented Iraq's Sunni Arabs. The two Kurdish parties functioned largely as a bloc. The resulting parliamentary politics was simple, because there were really only three moving parts. It was also dysfunctional, because the Arab parties reflected the most hardline sectarian views of a minority of their constituents much more than the moderate views of the majority. The breaking of this sectarian political logjam would be an epochal event in Iraq, and it appears to be well underway.