Wednesday, January 9, 2013

How The United States Ran Into Party Politics As Well As Violence Trying to Rebuild Iraq’s Government

In 2005, American civilian and military officials decided that rebuilding Iraq’s government would be a top priority. The U.S. needed a government to run services and provide an alternative to militants. This was part of a new comprehensive counterinsurgency policy that Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad was trying to implement. The new strategy ran into three problems. First, the U.S. created local and district councils after the 2003 invasion with no laws or regulations, which made it difficult to integrate them into the Iraqi government once sovereignty was returned in 2005. Second after the two elections in 2005, Iraq’s new political parties took over the ministries. They set about concentrating power in their hands, ignoring the provincial and local councils, and delivered services on a partisan and sectarian basis. Third, the civil war was just starting, and violence made it difficult for the government to operate, because public workers were being killed and intimidated, while ministers were using their offices to carry out political and sectarian attacks. These all undermined the Americans’ plans, and some of these problems persist to the present day.

Karrada district council in Baghdad holds ceremony for new power generator paid for by the U.S. Army in 2008. It was these types of local projects that the Americans were hoping would empower the local governments it helped create (U.S. Army)

After the 2003 invasion, the U.S. set about creating new councils throughout Iraq. At first, this was done on ad hoc basis by American military units. There were no orders on how to set them up, so officers took different approaches. In May 2003 for example, General David Petraeus who was then the commander of the 101st Airborne Division set up a city council in Mosul in Ninewa province. General James Conway of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force began organizing for provincial elections in Najaf. Eventually, the Coalition Provisional Authority and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) became involved as well. The Americans believed that they were initiating a new system of governance similar to what they had back in the U.S. with city councils, state legislatures, etc. The problem was these councils were never codified in Iraqi law, which would regulate them, delineate their powers, and provide them with budgets. The Coalition Provisional Authority refused to promulgate any laws for them believing that a new Iraqi government should do that. When sovereignty was returned, Baghdad didn’t want to deal with them either. It wasn’t until 2008 for example, that a Provincial Powers Law was finally passed, and that has largely been ignored. That meant while they operated it was hard for them to gain any traction, especially because they became completely dependent upon the U.S. for resources.

The issue of Iraqi governance was further complicated by the two elections that occurred in 2005. In January, there was voting for provincial councils and an interim parliament to draft a new constitution. Then in December, there was balloting for a permanent legislature. What happened was each level of government ended up conflicting with the others once these new politicians took office. One major issue was again the lack of laws for the new governing system. The result was that the new governorate councils demanded control over services and development, which authorities in Baghdad were unwilling to grant them. In turn, the provincial officials often ignored the district and local councils. Second, when new ministers were named they placed their followers into office often relying upon family and tribal members who were unqualified to run things. This also opened the door to corruption, which siphoned off huge amounts of funds. Third, the new political class was shaped by the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. Under Baathist rule, individualism and initiative were not only discouraged, but could cost people their lives if they ended up contradicting Saddam. The new political parties that took power in 2005 were run in the same manner. Ministers, parliamentarians, and provincial council members all looked to their party bosses rather than the public for instructions. Fourth, the ministers attempted to concentrate as much power as possible over services and funding in their hands. They used these resources to build up patronage systems to protect and expand their bases. This made the ministries accountable to individual politicians and their parties rather than the public. Party and sectarian rivalries also came into play, as ministers would not cooperate with those of a different list. The same problems affected interactions between the central and provincial governments. For example, the Interior Ministry refused to get rid of some police chiefs that provincial governments wanted to be fired, because the chiefs were from the minister’s party. It also undermined national development plans, because politicians only wanted projects to go to their constituents. The Americans originally believed that creating all these new levels of government would decentralize power in Iraq, so that another dictatorship would not return. The fact that they did not codify much of this new system, and didn’t anticipate the role of party politics showed short-term thinking and the lack of serious planning. The United States attempted to create linkages between the different levels of government, build their capacity, and mediate between them, but to this day there are still conflicts between them.

Once in power the ruling parties were intent on staying in office for as long as possible. There were ideas to have new provincial elections after the December 2005 parliamentary voting for instance, but they were put off again and again. There was discussion of holding new governorate balloting in September 2006, and then March 2007, but laws were never passed, and an election commission was never authorized to conduct them. It wasn’t until January 2009, that the provinces got to elect new council members. American plans for Iraqi democracy once again ran into the reality of party politics. With Iraqis in office, they got to dictate the rules of the game. They saw the voting process as a way into controlling the new Iraq and its resources, and were not going to give that up for any abstract ideas the U.S. was pushing for how things should be run.

Former Deputy Health Minister Zamili of the Sadr Trend was accused of running death squads from 2005-2007. Today he is a parliamentarian (Al Tahreer News)

The situation was made worse by the emerging civil war. Al Qaeda in Iraq, insurgents, and large parts of the Sunni population rejected the new government seeing it as imposed by foreigners, and empowering Shiites and Kurds at their expense. Targeting government officials and offices became a top priority. As violence increased, parties employed their own personal militias, and the security forces and ministries to seize power. In 2005, Bayan Jabr of the Supreme Council’s Badr Brigade became Interior Minister. He immediately began recruiting his militiamen into the police force, especially the special commando units. They were accused of arresting people for being Sunnis, torturing them, and murdering them. In November, a U.S. military unit raided a secret prison housed in the basement of an Interior Ministry building in the capital with 173 prisoners in it, many of which claimed they had been tortured. The Sadrists controlled the Health Ministry and used it to carry out sectarian attacks. In one incident in 2006, Iraqi soldiers kidnapped six people from a Baghdad emergency room, and took them to the Health Ministry where they disappeared. That same year, the health chief from Diyala visited the ministry offices in Baghdad, and was never seen again. In 2007, the Americans arrested the deputy Health Ministry Hakim Abbas al-Zamili on charges of running death squads out of the Health Ministry. He was later found not innocent after several witnesses against him failed to show up, others were threatened, and the presiding judge was removed over rumors that he was willing to find Zamili not guilty before the case even started. Likewise, in 2007, Culture Minister Asad al-Hashemi of the Iraqi Islamic Party attempted to assassinate parliamentarian Mithal al-Alusi, but failed, and killed his two sons instead. An arrest warrant was later issued for Hashemi, forcing him to hide in his uncle’s house in the Green Zone, Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, before he escaped, and fled the country. The Minister was later found guilty, and sentenced to death in absentia. The government, which the Americans were attempting to develop to help fight the violence, was becoming a cause of it. The ruling parties were not only going after their rivals, but were actors in the civil war kidnapping, arresting, torturing, and murdering people, because of their sect. The hopes of creating a functional, decentralized Iraqi government were fading fast.

Former Culture Minister Asad al-Hashemi of the Islamic Party was convicted of attempting to assassinate parliamentarian Mithal al-Alusi in 2007 leading to him fleeing the country (AFP)

All of these problems were exemplified in Baghdad. The U.S. created 437 neighborhood, 195 sub-district, and 96 district councils in the capital after the invasion. In 2005, the Supreme Council won provincial elections there. In August, it pushed out the mayor of the city who was a secular technocrat for the governor of Baghdad who was from the Supreme Council. That year an American army unit gave reconstruction funds to a local council officer to build a pipeline to a planned water plant that was under construction. The problem was he was in a Sunni neighborhood, and the pipes would have to cross into a Shiite area where the plant was. The Supreme Council controlled provincial council refused to connect the line, because it wanted the plant to serve Shiite neighborhoods only. The growing violence also stifled the operation of the government. More than 50 members of Baghdad’s councils were assassinated. There were daily gun battles on Haifa Street, which housed various government offices such as the Board of Supreme Audit. Employees couldn’t go to work for weeks as a result, because it was too dangerous. In effect, the government at almost every level ceased to operate. The political and sectarian differences meant that there was little cooperation between offices. The violence made it impossible for many public employees to go to work, and many of them ended up dead in the streets.

The U.S. pushed ahead with its plans throughout this difficult period. It attempted to use bureaucratic solutions to solve the conflict between the different levels of government. In June 2006, the Project and Contracting Office said that all U.S. and Iraqi stakeholders had to sign a memorandum of understanding to go forward with any projects to ensure that they would be completed, and not run into the political and sectarian problems that others had faced. That failed to solve anything. Next, the newly created Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) worked with the different levels of government to help them cooperate, worked to build their capacities, and carry out reconstruction. This was especially important for the local councils the Americans had created, which the provincial councils and ministries were trying to ignore. In 2006, the U.S. military also began prioritizing working with the local authorities, and ended up providing them security, distributed reconstruction funds to them, etc. Given all the chaos that was going on in the country at the time, the effects of these efforts took years to have any real positive outcomes. Additionally, the PRTs were originally understaffed, which meant they had great difficulty in carry out their duties. Finally, they were never able to completely overcome the party politics and the monopolizing of power that was going on in the central government. Provincial authorities to this day struggle with the ministries over who has authority over various tasks.

The United States came into Iraq with no real plans on how to set up a new government. Individual military units first created local councils, but these were never put into law, so their power was always disputed. Then the Coalition Provisional Authority wanted to create a new decentralized system, but again, failed to enact legislation to ensure that it would work. When Iraq held elections in 2005, the newly empowered parties tried to seize as much authority as they could, ignored the councils created by the Americans, and only wanted to provide services to their followers. Finally, the violence that went into overdrive starting in 2005 shut down large parts of the government. Not only that, but politicians became perpetrators of political and sectarian attacks driving the country into further chaos. The United States attempted to work through all this and make its ideas of a new Iraqi democracy a reality, but completely underestimated the difficulty of that task. First, its lack of pre-planning made it act in an ad hoc fashion, which defeated itself. Second, Iraqi parties had their own plans for the country, which often differed from those of the Americans. In the end, the Iraqis were going to be in control and determine their own future. These problems between center and periphery within Iraq continue to this day as seen in the dispute between the Kurdistan Regional Government and Baghdad, and between the other provinces and the central government over security and economic policy. If these differences ever get resolved it will be by Iraqis own machinations, and will likely take decades, something the United States never had the luxury of having when it was trying to work on governance issues.


CNN, “Deputy health minister arrested in U.S.-Iraqi raid,” 2/8/07

Diamond, Larry, Squandered Victory, The American Occupation And The Bungled Effort To Bring Democracy To Iraq, New York: Times Books, 2005

Glantz, Aaron, “Iraqi Health Ministry Severs Ties With US Over Raid,” AntiWar, 8/15/06

Ibrahim, Haider, “Local elections postponed – again,” AK News, 12/11/11

International Crisis Group, “Iraq After The Surge II: The Need for a New Political Strategy,” 4/30/08

Kadhim, Abbas, “Iraq’s Quest for Democracy amid Massive Corruption,” Arab Reform Bulletin, 3/3/10

Londono, Ernesto, “After Six Years, ‘We’re Worthless,’” Washington Post, 10/8/09

Musings On Iraq, “From Bad To Worse, How Militias Moved Into The Iraqi Police Force, And The United States Failed At Nation Building. Part Two Of An Interview With Jerry Burke, Former Advisor To The Baghdad Police And Interior Ministry,” 2/13/12

Packer, George, “War After The War,” New Yorker, 11/24/03

Ramzi, Kholoud, “a family tie too tight: nepotism runs deep in iraqi politics,” Niqash, 7/21/11

Rubin, Alissa, “Trial of 2 Ex-Officials in Iraq Is Delayed as Witnesses Fail to Show,” New York Times, 2/20/08
- “Charges Are Dropped Against 2 Shiite Ex-Officials Accused in Sectarian Killings,” New York Times, 3/4/08

Special Inspector General For Iraq Reconstruction, “Hard Lessons,” 1/22/09

Al-Wannan, Jaafar, “Committee blames councils for potential delay in municipal elections,” AK News, 3/27/11

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