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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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.