Global Policy Forum

Iraq's Election Aftermath Reveals a Failed State


By Michael A. Weinstein

Power and Interest News Report
January 5, 2006

During the weeks following the December 15, 2005 elections in Iraq for a four-year parliament, the political future of that country became increasingly clouded. Confirming pre-election projections of PINR analysts Erich Marquardt and Adam Wolfe, preliminary results from the polls registered a sectarian division of the vote with the Shi'a-dominated United Iraqi Alliance taking the largest share, the Kurdish coalition holding on to its base, and the Sunni Arab Tawafaq Front and the secular Iraqi National List trailing.

With probable control of at least two-thirds of the new parliament, the Shi'a-Kurdish alliance that held power during the period of interim government preceding the elections was poised to perpetuate its dominance and opened discussions on apportioning key cabinet posts, all the while insisting that its aim was to form a "national unity government," including all the major groups in Iraqi society.

Meanwhile, an alliance of convenience between the Sunni Arabs and the secularists disputed the election results, mounting mass protests, demanding a new round of elections and threatening a boycott of parliament and civil disobedience if its demand was not met. After the New Year, the Sunni Arabs split, with the Islamist National Accordance Front joining the Shi'a-Kurdish negotiations, leaving behind the nationalists and rejectionists. The secularists were frozen out of the bargaining.

As political conflict surfaced, civil violence and disorder spiked up after a pre-election and immediate post-election lull. Sunni Arab insurgent activity resumed with attacks on U.S. forces, Iraqi security forces and the energy infrastructure, and kidnappings of foreign diplomats. Violent protests also broke out over the government's decision to raise fuel prices, which was taken in response to shortages caused by insurgent sabotage and intimidation. Most seriously, the drift toward inter-communal warfare continued with mass killings of Shi'a and Sunni families, and assassinations of religious and community leaders.

Washington, which is anxious to draw down its forces for domestic political reasons, had hoped that the elections would rebalance power in the divided and contentious Iraqi political community, giving the secularists led by former provisional government Prime Minister Ayad Allawi greater influence and bringing the Sunni Arabs into the political process, blunting support for the insurgency. The elections did not yield Washington's desired results and, instead, have deepened longstanding divisions.

Iraq as a Failed State

Although public attention in the U.S. has been focused on the abilities of Iraqi security forces to take on primary responsibility for quelling the insurgency, Washington understands that the far more important requirement for an eventual graceful withdrawal of U.S. forces is a functioning civil government in Iraq.

In the wake of the elections, Washington's best-case scenario is that a broad-based government will emerge from negotiations among the competing political forces that would provide Iraq with a coherent central authority capable of preventing the country's break-up into a Shi'a state in the south that would fall into Tehran's sphere of influence, a Kurdish state in the north that would provoke resistance from Ankara, and a weak Sunni Arab state in the center and west that could become a breeding ground for Islamic revolution and be subject to Damascus' influence.

Faced with the persistence of the pre-election configuration of political forces in Iraq, Washington has been constrained to shift its support away from the Shi'a and the Kurds, who are determined to pursue their policies of regional autonomy, to the Sunni Arabs and the secularists, who favor a more centralized state.

U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad has been working behind the scenes to pressure the Shi'a-Kurdish coalition to hold out a hand to its opponents. His efforts have succeeded in getting the coalition to pay lip service to a "national unity government." The slide toward regionalism, if not separation, goes on, and the will to compromise on key issues -- such as the distribution of oil revenues and the division of central and regional power -- that would be necessary to reverse that slide appears to be nowhere in evidence.

The unwillingness of Iraq's major groups to compromise, which has marked the country's politics since the removal of Saddam Hussein's Ba'athist government, has become more severe as the U.S. intervention nears the end of its third year. The political class in Washington has failed to confront the fact that during the intervention Iraq has progressively taken on the characteristics of a failed state, the most important of which is the extreme dispersion of political forces.

A combination of factors, including the failure to restore public services and to get the oil industry running effectively, the persistence of the insurgency, and high levels of unemployment, have led to the devolution of power to local leaders based in traditional clans, religious figures, criminal gangs, and narrow political factions, some of which deploy militia, that partially overlap with one another and split the major groups from within, except -- for the moment -- the Kurds.

The greatest shortcoming of the intervention has been its failure to nurture a coherent Iraqi political class. In its absence, loose and divergent coalitions have emerged that mask the underlying dispersion of power, which was the primary cause of the protracted negotiations that were necessary to form the interim government and that are likely to be repeated before the new constitutional government is put in place.

The hallmark of a failed state, political dispersion severely weakens the ability to compromise because it impairs the capacity of leaders on the national stage to discipline hard line factions among their constituents and encourages a chronic battle for influence within coalitions over the distribution of political spoils and a struggle for prestige. The problem is exacerbated when -- as in Iraq -- leaders do not have sufficient resources to reward cooperation. That 60 separate parties were involved in the coalition protesting the elections is an indicator of Iraq's political dispersion. The Shi'a are similarly factionalized and appear to be unified only because they are determined to hold on to and, if possible, expand their regional autonomy and control over petroleum resources.

The mobilization deficit that follows from political dispersion will make it difficult to achieve governability in post-election Iraq. Initial Shi'a-Kurdish talks on the composition of a new government produced no more than "an agreement on principles." The Kurds are standing firm in their aim of restoring their supremacy in the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, from which Kurds were expelled under Saddam Hussein's rule and which was left out of the Kurdish provinces, and are pressuring the Shi'a alliance to meet their demands. Any concession to the Kurdish position would be a probable deal breaker for the Sunni Arabs.

The decision of the Sunni Arab Iraqi Accordance Front to open talks with Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani in early January 2006 was a sign that the dominant coalition is reaching out and that the more moderate Sunni Arab faction is willing to brave hard line opposition within its community and to pursue a dual-track strategy of negotiation and continued protest against the legitimacy of the elections, which -- after Khalilzad's successful pressure -- will be reviewed by independent assessors from the International Mission for Iraqi Elections, delaying the release of final tallies and opening the possibility of local and provincial re-runs.

After being welcomed by Barzani, the Iraqi Accordance Front sat down with the Shi'a Alliance. The loose Shi'a bloc was constrained to reach out to the Sunni Arabs by the forces of anti-occupation cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who demanded that Allawi's secularist faction be frozen out of the negotiations. Unlike other Shi'a factions, al-Sadr's favors a centralized governmental structure, but will not abide Allawi -- Washington's favorite -- who suppressed al-Sadr's rebellion against the occupation when Allawi led the provisional government.

Al-Sadr's influence in the Shi'a bloc underscores the bloc's fragility. In order to bring some discipline into its ranks, the Alliance has formed a steering committee and has exacted pledges from its members to respect the new constitution and refrain from violence.


With uncertainty clouding every aspect of Iraq's political future, mixed signals coming from every camp and dispersion the order of the day, General Peter Pace, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, has urged Iraqi leaders to form a government as quickly as possible to avoid the 2005 scenario. Washington knows that protracted negotiations would only increase the momentum toward regionalism, encourage the insurgency, delay rebuilding and leave the way open for intensified inter-communal conflict, all of which would herald a failed state. Yet, there is nothing that Washington can do now to make up for the mobilization deficit.

If Washington is determined to draw down from Iraq, its exit is not likely to be graceful. If it judges that it must maintain its current presence, it will increasingly be reduced to a bystander, unable to control the direction of events. Rather than marking a milestone of Iraq's progress toward political stability, much less democracy, the aftermath of the elections shows that they were the opening shot of an intensified conflict in which all the players will seek to defend and promote their perceived vital interests in a spirit of militancy.

The Power and Interest News Report (PINR) is an independent organization that utilizes open source intelligence to provide conflict analysis services in the context of international relations. PINR approaches a subject based upon the powers and interests involved, leaving the moral judgments to the reader. This report may not be reproduced, reprinted or broadcast without the written permission of This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . All comments should be directed to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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