I have made four trips to Iraq since May 2007. I have walked through markets in Baghdad escorted by U.S. soldiers, visited the outposts where they live with their Iraqi army partners, talked with school children playing soccer in the street, seen newly renovated housing in war-torn neighborhoods, and eaten in the homes of local and tribal leaders who have helped our soldiers fight Al Qaeda in Iraq. This morning, a weekday in July 2008, I am doing something I have never done before: visiting the headquarters of a small Iraqi political party to learn about its campaign for the upcoming provincial and national elections.
The visit was not on the original itinerary of the group of military analysts with whom I am traveling. The party's leader, a member of parliament whom we met several days ago, invited us to his headquarters, our schedule permitting. We have cancelled a morning's worth of meetings in order to see something new.
And so I step out of a Humvee onto a quiet, semi-residential street in central Baghdad, lined with trees that shade us from the bright sun. The only U.S. military personnel in sight are our escorts. We Americans are incongruously dressed in the body armor and helmets required outside the Green Zone, while our host, who comes out to greet us, is wearing a fine suit. We look as ridiculous in our protective gear as we would if we dressed like this to walk into a foreign embassy just off 16th Street in Washington.
The member of parliament--whom I choose not to name; he survived an assassination attempt years ago that killed members of his family--escorts us into the building. His party is secular and nonsectarian. There were 70 founding members at its first meeting, he says, before the 2005 elections. Today the party has over 10,000 members and headquarters in most of Iraq's major cities. Our friend holds his party's single seat in the Council of Representatives, a body of 275 legislators, in which the dominant forces are Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Dawa party, Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim's Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), and the Sadrist Trend.
Our host gives us a brief tour of the headquarters. It is strikingly familiar, reminiscent of hundreds of town and county election headquarters in the United States. A widescreen television in the large conference room displays news continuously. A freshly photocopied stack of flyers sits in an anteroom, explaining the party's position on the strategic agreement between Iraq and the United States that is the subject of intense debate throughout the country. Party officials responsible for different districts of Baghdad plan to distribute the flyers door to door over the weekend, assisted by staff and volunteers. They are preparing another round of flyers for next week. Nearby, young men and women sit at a bank of computers writing and designing the party's newspaper and laying out the advertisements that pay for its production. The color photographs in today's edition highlight a recent event sponsored by the party's youth committee: an awards ceremony for school children who have gotten top grades this academic year.
Our tour of the various sections, from the youth committee to the women's committee, lasts ten minutes. Then our host whispers that it's time for chai. We sit down to drink tea in the party's formal conference room, perched on the gold-hued couches that Iraqi officials think are elegant. Extra chairs are brought in from all over the building in order to seat the 30 party members who have come to discuss politics with us. Roughly half of them are in their twenties, like the bright and earnest recent college graduates one finds working for any U.S. election campaign. The young men are awkwardly dressed in suits; a few of them, daringly, do not wear the customary moustache--a bold statement of their post-Saddam outlook.
I am one of seven women in the room, which is a record number for me in Iraq, whether with Iraqis or with U.S. forces. The older women, well dressed in suits and headscarves, are senior officials in the party. The young women's outfits vary, and show a range of interpretations of traditional Muslim dress. Most wear headscarves. One beautiful young woman has covered her hair with a chic, regal, purple scarf glinting with beads, coordinated perfectly with her colorful, tailored long skirt. The headscarf brings out her perfectly made-up eyes. Her image is modern and elegant, whereas her equally modern companion dresses more casually--a pair of jeans, a blouse, and a translucent pink headscarf. Another twenty-something, in a lace-trimmed blouse and long skirt, shakes her uncovered hair, which is long and highlighted.
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.
The prime minister's decision to clear Basra of militias in March, followed by operations to clear Sadr City and Amara, has transformed the Iraqi political environment no less than the security environment. Iraqi forces, supported by the coalition, shattered the Sadrist and Iranian-controlled leadership of Moktada al-Sadr's Mahdi army, of the criminal Shia gangs Iranian agents were cynically paying and using, and even of the Special Groups more tightly controlled by Iran. Iraqi and coalition forces killed hundreds of militia fighters and leaders, and thousands more fled, many leaving Iraq. Iranian-backed militias initially fought very hard in Basra and Sadr City, but then broke completely. By the time Iraqi forces moved into Amara, the remaining Shia militants had no stomach for a fight.
Maliki ordered the Basra operation on his own, against the advice of coalition commanders. The initial operation, inadequately planned and prepared, looked very ugly. The coalition rushed assistance to Basra in the form of planning staff, intelligence and air assets, and military advisers--but no combat formations. The Iraqi military also rushed reinforcements to the city, including the Quick Reaction Force of the 1st Iraqi Army Division based in Anbar. That formation, with a high proportion of Sunnis, marched into combat against Shia militias in an overwhelmingly Shia city--and were received as liberators. And after the initial setbacks, the Iraqi soldiers fought hard. The process was repeated in Sadr City, although coalition forces initially did play a significant role in direct combat in order to stop the rocket attacks on the Green Zone. Once that was accomplished, the Iraqis cleared the rest of Sadr City on their own, with the same mix of enablers the coalition had provided in Basra (albeit on a larger scale).
These surprising successes--which resulted from Maliki's initiative and occurred over initial coalition objections--have raised Maliki's stature in Iraq to a level never before seen. The change is palpable. Talking to Sunni sheikhs recently, I found a new tolerance for Maliki, whom they now see as someone who is at least sometimes willing to take on his own constituency for the good of the country. Many Sunni Arab leaders remain angry about Maliki's advisers' sectarian tendencies, but for the first time in my experience, Sunni Arabs are distinguishing between the prime minister and those around him.
Maliki himself--and even some of those "evil advisers"--learned interesting lessons from Basra. Hardline Shias in government have long feared the re-creation of a Sunni-dominated Iraqi army that could become, at least in their minds, a sectarian coup force. That is one of the chief reasons for early Shia efforts to seize control of the Ministry of the Interior, which oversees the National Police and the provincial Iraqi Police: Since the Shia believed they were preparing for sectarian civil war, it made sense to develop an independent Shia paramilitary force. But when the chips were down in Basra, it was not the interior ministry or the police that came to Maliki's rescue, but the Iraqi army--in the person of Defense Minister Abdul Qadr, a Sunni, and the Anbar-based Quick Reaction Force, which reinforced the city. Maliki and some of his advisers have taken note of that fact, and relationships even within the most senior governmental ranks have been shifting.
The destruction of the Sadrist Trend not only as a paramilitary force, but also as a cohesive political force, has also had profound consequences. Sadr himself did not stir from Iran while his loyalists were being hammered by Iraqi and coalition forces. Many of his movement's leaders were captured, killed, or driven off. The government's declaration that no political party would be allowed to compete in the elections without disarming its militia has broken up the Sadrist Trend as a political movement as well. Sadrist leaders who remain in Iraq are running as independents or joining other parties. Some say that they will re-form a Sadrist political movement after the elections, but it will almost certainly be a far weaker force than the one that gripped Baghdad with fear for so long.
Among Iraq's Sunni Arabs, tension with the central government remains high, but electoral politics are beginning to overshadow that tension. In Anbar, the leaders of the Awakening movement that helped defeat Al Qaeda in Iraq have formed a powerful political party. They mean to defeat the Iraq Islamic party and become the voice of Anbar. The IIP is responding to the challenge in various ways--some legitimate, and some less so. Everyone in Iraq thinks that one party or another will try to rig or steal the elections. Everyone I talked to said it would be best if there were an American soldier standing by every ballot box. They're probably right on both counts. But no one suggested that they did not intend to abide by the results of the elections. Of course, every party is confident that it will win.
Iraq's ethno-sectarian wounds have not healed--one might best say that they are starting to scab over. Tensions remain high along the Arab-Kurdish fault line in Ninewa, Kirkuk, and Diyala Provinces. Sectarian tensions are also high between Sunni and Shia Arabs in Diyala and in and around Baghdad. Nor are the Iraqi security forces quite as ready to take full responsibility for keeping the precarious peace as some of Iraq's leaders suppose. Flush with success and eager to appear strong and independent as elections approach, some of Iraq's leaders exaggerate their own capabilities, something that complicates our negotiations for a strategic partnership, among other things.
But even the most extreme of these hubristic Shia advisers strongly favor a partnership with the United States. "Iraq is flying west," one of them told me over a dinner of rice, kabobs, and masghouf (a fish dish). The debate over the details of the military arrangements for 2009 has overshadowed a much more important point, he said, echoing the comments of the young people at the party headquarters we visited: Iraq wants American help of every kind. The security arrangements must be seen within the context of this larger partnership, he added. Like American politicians, of course, he and the rest of Iraq's leaders have to figure out how to sell any specific agreement to the parliament--and to the voters. That makes negotiations difficult, but it is also the strongest possible sign of hope in Iraq.
The whole purpose of the surge was to transform the conflict over power in Iraq from a military to a political struggle. We and the Iraqis have accomplished that goal--for now. But the most critical period in the birth of a new Iraq lies ahead. America can stand beside this fractious and sometimes violent young state whose people are now passionate about democracy. Or we can abandon them to their enemies, to their own fears and insecurities, and to the fragility of their months-old efforts at real reconciliation. It is a weighty choice, but not a hard one for anyone who has seen the vision of a possible future Iraq.
Kimberly Kagan is the president of the Institute for the Study of War and the author of The Surge: A Military History (forthcoming).