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The Iraqi Elections


The apparently momentous events in the last few months, the signing of the U.S.-Iraqi "Status of Forces" agreement — which was headlined as a date certain for U.S. withdrawal — and the Iraqi provincial elections — which were headlined as a major step forward for democracy and stability — have had their glowing images tarnished almost immediately by the ominous grumbling in the corridors of power about continuing threats to peace, stability and U.S. withdrawal. The corporate media seems to have become even more opaque than in the past — reducing coverage and assigning reporters to Iraq who so often seem to combine a lack of background with an absence of political sophistication (with a few notable exceptions — the incomparable Anthony Shadid of the Washington Post returned to Iraq after a long hiatus). There have however, been the usual rays of light from outside the media establishment — in the last little while I have gotten real insight from (old reliable) Juan Cole, Dahr Jamail (back in Baghdad with on-the-ground reports), Reidar Visser (who seems to know everything that happens in south-of-Baghdad Shia provinces), and, just now, Robert Dreyfuss’ informed and insightful Nation article about the recent elections.

The elections are indeed a worthy topic for further scrutiny. Like so much else, we have to wait to know their real significance; the implications will begin to appear when provincial governments are formed and, much later, when they begin to take action. But — as usual — we do know that the mainstream media’s take is terribly wrong. To get a good look at what we know so far, read the Dreyfuss article. Among other issues and facts, he makes two noteworthy points worth analyzing.

First, the election did not mean that Iraqi public opinion had begun to soften on the U.S. presence. The media has strongly suggested that the winning parties were pro-American, from Current Prime Minister Maliki’s Da’wa Party to the new formations led by former U.S.-sponsored Prime Ministers Ayad Allawi and Ibrahim Al-Jaafari to the political leaders of the Awakening Movement, whose members have been on the U.S. payroll for the last two years. But all of these "allies" ran on explicitly anti-American platforms. Maliki built his whole campaign on claiming credit for forcing the U.S. to agree — in negotiating the SOFA agreement — to completely remove all troops from Iraqi cities by this June, and from the country as a whole by December 2011. Allawi and Jaafari — who have made significant gains after years of obscurity — have both been inalterably opposed to the occupation since they were each, in turn, unceremoniously dropped by U.S. occupation authorities. The leaders of the Awakening have never stopped asserting their antagonism to the U.S. presence even while taking its money — claiming before, during and after the election that the U.S. had no further business there now that the Awakening Movement had eliminated the terrorists, the last flimsy excuse for the U.S. military presence. And perhaps most telling is the dramatic decline of ISCI, the only remaining high-visibility political grouping that supports (though without great public conviction) a continuation of the American occupation. According to Visser, ISCI "has been decimated across the country."

Second, and far more important, this was not the resounding victory for the Maliki government (and by implication for its American sponsors) that the U.S. media and many independent observers have concluded, even if his coalition was the electoral victor. As Dreyfuss points out, Maliki’s political party, the Da’wa, which never had a strong presence outside the Green Zone, is now virtually non-existent. This is the aftermath of a major split that resulted in an opposing "Da’wa" (since renamed) that ran its own slate in the recent election, while Maliki’s faction has no real functional existence outside the government institutions that he tries to command. In contrast, his two main Shia rivals, ISCI — his erstwhile ally which has now become a major adversary and suffered devastating defeats in the elections — and the Sadrists — still the key anti-American force among Shia who held only considerable parliamentary power in the elections — both have an organizational presence in most Shia areas. The Sadrists are a particularly strong adversary because they have a huge and quite well organized following among ordinary citizens, enabling them to mount major grass roots challenges (violent or non-violent) in many localities in Shia areas.

So, why are the American media saying that Maliki "won" the election? The answer is that he (as an individual who controls the central government) formed alliances with local political groupings in various Shia dominated provinces (Baghdad and those to the south with large Shia majorities). These local groups most often led by religious and tribal leaders — now designated by the corporate media as part of Maliki’s coalition and running under his banner — used to be his adversaries, leading (violent as well as non-violent) local forces who demanded a variety of resources and/or concessions from the central government. During the campaign they made tactical alliances with Maliki promising fealty to him in exchange for promises that victory would result in the central government finally meeting the earlier demands. These local groups are not, however, real coalitions because they have no enduring connections to Maliki’s party or government, and they are not united with each other–in many instances are actually rivals.

In many Shia provinces Maliki’s local allies won a plurality (none won a majority), and will almost certainly form the local government. But we have yet to find out whether they will remain loyal to Maliki, even in the short run, considering that they won the election essentially without his help and have little incentive to follow his leadership unless he begins to deliver the promised resources.

In fact, however, Maliki cannot deliver what he promised. In principle he should be able to deliver three major types of resources: social and infrastructural programs administered by the central government; military aid and protection against violent rivals, and funding for locally initiated projects. As far as national reconstruction, economic, or infrastructural programs go, the central government lacks an administrative apparatus and therefore cannot deliver any of the usual government services that work as political payoffs in such alliances. In fact, the government doesn’t even have a symbolic presence (much less a functional presence) outside the "Green Zone." It has no ability to deliver services in Baghdad, let alone the rest of the country. The national depression created by the devastation of war and the wreckage made by the U.S. occupations dismantling of the state-centered Iraqi economy has not even begun to be addressed. The sort of systematic institutional building featuring a functioning administration and technostructure has not yet begun, and the local leaders are fully cognizant that Maliki is — at best — years away from beginning to reconstruct the country’s infrastructure.

On the military front, one would think, from reading the corporate media that the Iraqi government finally has — after the investment of tens of billions of U.S. dollars and the intense works of tens of thousands of U.S. training forces — a functioning military capable of protecting local governments from violent adversaries. But while there are quite a few functional Iraqi military units, Maliki cannot use them for his own (or his allies’ purposes) without the consent and participation of the U.S. military. Simply stated, the Iraqi military cannot function on its own, it can only operation in concert with (and under the command of) the U.S. military. The failed 2008 offensive in Basra, when Maliki had the temerity to order his troops into the city without the required complement of U.S. military forces, his troops were roundly defeated by local militias and were about to suffer a humiliating defeat when they were rescued militarily by the U.S. and politically by Iran.

So technically, Maliki has an army. But actually he cannot undertake military actions on his own, since his troops are unreliable and he has no armor, no air power, and no means of transporting his troops and supplies. All of these essential elements for military action are supplied by the U.S. All missions therefore must include a huge infusion of U.S. support troops and with this infusion comes US "advisers" who actually command the Iraqi units, and U.S. "back-up" troops ready to rescue the Iraqi military units as soon as they get into trouble, which so far has been inevitable. Since Maliki’s local political allies hate the Americans and are most antagonistic to any U.S. military presence, they are wholeheartedly against military aid from the central government, even when they are engaged in violent confrontation with local adversaries.

This leaves the single resource that Maliki’s coalition partners dearly want: money — billions of oil dollars. It was the promise of this resource that initially motivated them to join Maliki’s electoral alliance, and it can only be sustained if Maliki delivers huge dollops of funding to his new local partners.

But the odds of these infusions of money into the Provincial governments appear to be very slim. Last year, when the central government was — technically speaking — bathing in petro-dollars and accumulating a $70 billion dollar surplus, it provided almost no resources to any local governments. Once again Basra is a perfect example. Even after the local government was delivered into the hands of Maliki’s Basrawi allies (via the efforts of the U.S. military and the application of Iranian political leverage on the insurgents), the province nevertheless continued to be starved of resources, and complained — as the other provinces had — that they were being systematically deprived of their fair share of the nation’s petrodollars. The Basra government went so far as to retaliate by refusing to share their electrical generation with Baghdad.

This failure resulted from a combination of constraints on the flow of petrodollars. First, the U.S. occupation authorities and associated agencies maintain a virtual veto power over large petro-dollar expenditures officially established to guarantee the repayment of Saddam-era debt and to enforce IMF guideless for fiscal "responsibility." This power is been used to veto any large projects that are conducted by government agencies instead of private multinational enterprises. Local governments therefore find that their demands for government financing of local road, economic, electrical, commercial, or water projects that are not contracted out to large private contractors are often not eligible for funding.

Beyond this policy blockade, local governments also encountered the massive culture of corruption which the Maliki government inherited from the Saddam Hussein regime and the U.S. occupation, two administrative apparatuses that had cultivated predatory corruption as a major feature of all large expenditures, with billions of dollars being siphoned out of the country at all moments in the petrodollar cycle. During the pinnacle of U.S. direct control of government revenues (extending from the fall of Saddam until well in 2007), the amount of reconstruction or economic stimulus money actually reaching local governments was negligible, as U.S. military and political personnel delivered the moneys to (mainly U.S.) multinational companies, who employed large Middle East-based corporate subcontractors, who, in turn, shared their take with Iraqi officials. The amounts reaching specific localities were often microscopic proportions of the originally allocations, with the rest siphoned off by the multitude of companies and officials "taking their cut" as the money rushed past. As the authority over these projects migrated from the military and civilian officials of the US occupation to the political leadership of the Maliki government, the process remained intact, with only the beneficiaries changing. Whatever projects were declared under Maliki’s regime had the same fate as the previous tier of U.S.-green lighted projects — the money simply did not reach the ground level — it was instead, frittered away as the various levels of the bureaucracy shared the spoils with corporate partners. Even when local plans for increased electrical capacity, the repair of sewage systems, the re-opening of industrial and commercial enterprises, the revival of the medical and school systems, and the repair of massively damaged housing in war zones were "funded" by the central government, the typical result was that there was often no sign of the projects even beginning, and those that began never reached completion. An official Iraqi government report indicated that in 2007, less than 10% of the funding allocated for national and local reconstruction was actually expended on the designated project. In Falluja the U.S. occupation-promised repair of the sewage and water treatment system remains incomplete five years after the battle, with the Iraqi government now saying that when it is completed, it will service at most one-third of the city.

It is hard to imagine that these endemic problems will be remedied any time soon, and certainly not before the U.S. takes its administrative and military hand out of the government machinery. Already, even before the local provincial governments have been formed, the local leaders — members of Maliki’s fragile coalition are demanding a flood of resources. Given the drastic decline in petroleum revenues, the Iraqi government is struggling to cover its direct expenses, and it is publicly announcing its incapacity to finance the reconstruction projects that the local governments are already demanding. In Diwaniya, a province in which the Maliki coalition won one of its most resounding victories, his local leader was already complaining about the impending failure of the national government to finance his promises of "refurbished irrigation system, new housing and government jobs for unemployed youth."

If Maliki and his (U.S. and Iraqi) cohorts in the national government fail to deliver the promised revenues, the local governments will have little reason to mute remain loyal to Maliki. They will almost certainly, return once again return to reliance on their own resources. Those with oil wells or pipelines will siphon off "their share" of the petroleum for their own benefit and for local use and revenues, renewing the decade’s long antagonism between the central and local governments. Those with electrical plants, like pre-election Basra, will refuse to share the production with the rest of the country, except on a "fee for service" basis, thus creating yet another set of antagonisms among the provinces and between the provinces and the central government. Those provinces which house the meager functioning industrial and commercial enterprises will tax them to finance their local (personal and government) operations, and refuse to share these revenues with other Baghdad. If Maliki (and the U.S. occupation) want to resist these "illegal" actions, they will have few options except the sort of military interventions in Basra and Sadr City that punctuated 2008. Even the threat of such military intervention will, of course, lead the local governments to remobilize their own militias, either as a deterrent against government intervention or in preparation for a military confrontation.

That is, without the infusion of vast resources from the national to these local governments, the various provinces will return to the "city-state" status that has existed for the last few years, in which local governments were in a constant struggle with the central government over their failure to receive "there fair share" of the oil revenues, while continuing to rule their local domains by siphoning off various revenue streams for local use. While these resources are insufficient to revive local economies, there are certainly sufficient to create ongoing friction and even violence between the provinces and the central government, as well as among the provinces.

This set of impending tensions becomes a ticking time bomb as 2009 moves toward the national elections at the end of the year. If the fragile set of alliances making up Maliki’s Da’wa electoral coalition dissolves, then Maliki re-election chances will also dissolve, as Dreyfuss has eloquently argued. His defeat in December 2009 would then usher in a period in which the majority of parliamentarians are both ferociously anti-Maliki and ferociously anti-American. It is possible that as soon as December, Obama may be faced with the choice between militarily preventing or abrogating the December Iraqi elections or allowing an opening hostile government to take power.


Michael Schwartz’ new book, War Without End: The Iraq War in Context, was released in September. It describes the political and economic causes and consequences of the invasion, analyzing how the roots of the war in the militarized geopolitics of oil has led the U.S. to dismantle the Iraqi state and economy while fueling sectarian civil war inside Iraq. A professor of sociology at Stony Brook State University Schwartz is the author of award winning books on popular protest and insurgency (Radical Protest and Social Structure), and on American business and government dynamics(The Power Structure of American Business, with Beth Mintz). Besides ZNet, his work on Iraq has appeared in numerous academic and popular outlets, including TomDispatch, Asia Times, Mother Jones, Cities and Contexts. His email address is [email protected]

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