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Measuring Progress in Iraq: The Status of Political Benchmarks

In September, the Iraqi government publicly committed to meet a series of political benchmarks, by the end of 2006 or early 2007, for advancing the national reconciliation process, including measures for amending the constitution; holding provincial elections; reforming de-Baathification laws; regulating the oil industry; and disbanding sectarian militias. 

In unveiling his new security plan for Iraq on January 10, President Bush publicly pledged to “hold the Iraqi government to the benchmarks it has announced.”  He claimed that his military escalation strategy would provide a window of stability and security in which Iraqi leaders would be able to make the political compromises necessary to move forward with reconciliation.  In his speech, the President asserted that, “America’s commitment is not open-ended.  If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises, it will lose the support of the American people.” (New York Times, 4/4/07)

With this pledge, the President seemed to be asserting what top military officials, the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, and other leading political experts have been saying: that the situation in Iraq cannot be won by military action; a successful outcome will require a political solution.  As General Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq asserted at the outset of the military escalation plan, “there is no military solution to a problem like that in Iraq…Military action is necessary to help improve security…but it is not sufficient.”  He has advocated a “political resolution” to ensure all of Iraq’s main ethnic and political groups have a stake in the future of the country. (General Petraeus Press Briefing, 3/8/07)

In the four months since the President announced his new plan and three months into the military escalation, however, there has been little notable progress toward achieving these goals and little evidence that the Bush Administration is following through on its pledge to hold Iraqi leaders accountable.  Instead, as the al-Maliki government has failed to move forward with national reconciliation measures, the Bush Administration has pushed back the goal posts – repeatedly extending deadlines and diluting requirements for progress. 

According to many experts, the Administration is failing to get Iraq’s leaders to make the tough compromises necessary for national reconciliation and for achieving U.S. objectives in Iraq.  The path to success in Iraq leads through Iraqis’ political reconciliation, yet the Administration’s strategy is failing to deliver on this critically important issue.

The Iraqi government is falling behind on promises it has made for advancing political reconciliation

There has been little progress toward achieving goals established by the Iraqi government.  The following provides a status report on the political benchmarks the Iraqi government has committed to meet:

Amending the constitution.  In a deal brokered by former U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, Iraq’s Sunni Arab community agreed to participate in the October 2005 constitutional referendum, in exchange for the Iraqi government’s pledge to allow for changes in the constitution at a later date.  The government agreed to form a constitutional review committee within four months after the establishment of Iraq’s elected government – by September 2006 – that would allow for an amendment process to address critical concerns of the Sunni population.  According to the agreed timeline, the committee was to complete its work by January of 2007 and hold an amendments referendum by March of 2007. (Brookings Institution, Iraq Index, 4/26/07)

·        Status: No Progress.  The Iraqi government has not moved forward with the constitutional amendment process.  The Washington Post reports that, “Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds remain split over key issues: whether Iraq should be divided into autonomous regions under a federal system; the authorities of the prime minister and the president; the national identity of Iraq; and the fate of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.”  Most recently, on May 7, Iraq’s top Sunni official, Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi issued a warning that he will step down and pull his entire bloc out of the government if critical amendments to the constitution are not made by May 15.  Al-Hashimi’s Sunni coalition in parliament, which includes 44 out of a total of 275 members, is widely seen as essential to reconciliation efforts within Iraq. (Washington Post, 4/26/07; CNN, 5/7/07)

According to Laith Kubba, senior Middle East director at the National Endowment for Democracy, amending the constitution is critical to broader reconciliation and the key to making progress on other benchmarks.  He recently told reporters that, “it’s the constitutional amendments that are the crux of the issue;” and that “these benchmarks are in reality the byproducts of a successful political process… So if you can get the Iraqis together to flesh out differences and work together, then you will get all the benchmarks you want.” (Christian Science Monitor, 4/20/07)     

Revised de-Baathification law.  The Iraqi government pledged to approve a revised de-Baathification law by October 2006.

·        Status: Little Progress.  On March 26, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani announced a plan that would allow thousands of additional former Baath Party members to return to government service.  The draft law, however, was immediately met with widespread opposition from the parliament’s existing de-Baathification committee.  Analysts expect a protracted debate and amendment process and anticipate that passage of the bill will be difficult. (Brookings Institution, Iraq Index, 4/26/07; The Hill, 4/25/07)

Experts say that a revised de-Baathification initiative is critical to reining in the insurgency and integrating the Sunni Arab minority into the political process.  Following the U.S. invasion in 2003, the Coalitional Provisional Authority, led by Ambassador Bremer, issued a sweeping de-Baathification policy that banned many former Baath Party members from serving in the new Iraqi government.  It is now widely accepted that this policy contributed to the rise of the Sunni Arab insurgency, which has proven a major impediment to securing Iraq and establishing a national unity government.  While the Iraqi government has begun to reverse this policy to allow thousands of low-ranking Baathists to return to government service, Sunni leaders say that more action is necessary to ensure that Iraq’s Sunni population is ensured a fair stake in the country’s political process. (Washington Post, 4/26/07)

Oil law.  The Maliki government pledged to enact a law to establish a national plan for the regulation of Iraq’s oil industry and the distribution of oil revenues by the end of 2006.

·        Status: Little Progress.  On February 26 – months after the deadline – Iraq’s cabinet approved a draft law that would give the central government control over the management of the country’s oil reserves.  The proposal, however, has yet to be considered by the parliament and, according to experts it is anticipated to face major obstacles once it is taken up by Iraqi lawmakers.  In recent weeks, Kurdish leaders have come out in opposition to the proposed plan, voicing concerns about draft provisions that would curtail regional control over the management of oil fields.  Reaching a compromise is anticipated to delay or derail the passage of the legislation. (Associated Press, 2/26/07; Washington Post, 4/26/07; New York Times, 5/3/07) 

Iraq’s oil sector is widely seen as the key to Iraq’s reconstruction and long-term economic development and as well as critical to cementing political unity of the country.  Contrary to pre-war Bush Administration assessments that Iraq’s oil industry would enable the country to finance its own reconstruction, the development of the oil industry has lagged far behind projections.  For the past four years, insecurity, poor management and corruption have undermined reconstruction efforts and stymied the growth of Iraq’s oil industry. 

According to the latest quarterly report from the Special Inspector for Iraq, oil production for the first quarter of this year was just 1.95 million barrels per day (bpd), which is more than 500,000 bpd below pre-war production levels.  Establishing a national plan for Iraq’s oil sector is considered to be essential to securing much-needed foreign investment and tapping into the wealth of Iraq’s vast oil reserves. (Special Inspector for Iraq Reconstruction, April 30, 2007 Quarterly Report to Congress)

Provincial elections law. By June, the Iraqi government has promised to hold provincial elections. 

·        Status: No Progress.  No date has been set for holding provincial elections.  With Shiite and Kurdish factions reportedly blocking the development of electoral legislation, analysts believe it is unlikely that elections will be held before next winter.

Because Iraq’s Sunni Arab population largely boycotted the January 2005 elections, they have been largely underrepresented in provincial councils, even in predominately Sunni regions.  Reconciling this imbalance is seen as critical to ensuring Sunni buy-in to the political process and moving forward with larger national reconciliation among Iraq’s three main ethnic groups. (The Hill, 4/25/07)

Disbanding militias.  By May, Prime Minister al Maliki has pledged to put in place a law to disband militias.

·        Status: No Progress.  Although Coalition and Iraqi security forces have detained many militia members, Iraqi leaders have not reached any political agreements for dismantling militia groups. (Washington Post, 4/26/07)

Sectarian militias have proven a major obstacle to achieving security and national reconciliation.  According to the Pentagon’s latest progress report on security and stability in Iraq, militia infiltration of local police and national security forces, particularly at the Ministry of Interior, remains a critical problem.  The report cites the threat of foreign influence – primarily from Iran – as a key concern and also states that some militias are “engaged in sectarian cleansing in Baghdad neighborhoods.” (Department of Defense, Measuring Security and Stability in Iraq, March 2007)

Dealing with militias has posed a particularly complex challenge to the Iraqi government.  While many of these groups are actively undermining security and fueling sectarian violence in Iraq, analysts report that some of the less radical militias play important security roles in parts of the country, by protecting areas that U.S. and Iraqi forces have been unable to secure.  The Maliki government’s failure to crack down on Shiite militias has promoted the perception that the government is working to advance sectarian, not national, interests.  Moving forward with efforts to disband these groups, therefore, is seen as a key step to bridging sectarian divides in Iraq and bringing much-needed credibility to the Baghdad government. (Associated Press, 5/7/07; Washington Post, 4/30/07)

The Bush Administration lacks an effective strategy for achieving political progress in Iraq or holding the Iraqi government accountable for the promises it has made

As experts have widely noted, the Bush Administration’s military escalation has not been matched by the political and diplomatic surge necessary to push Iraqi leaders to make progress toward critical political objectives in Iraq.  Without a strategy to take advantage of any reduction in violence that military operations may provide, experts say that the Bush plan will not be able to produce any long-term progress toward national reconciliation or securing regional support for the Iraqi government.  Further, in the absence of real consequences for failure to move forward with benchmarks, analysts argue that Iraq’s leaders will not be forced to make the political compromises necessary to move forward with reconciliation.

  • The Bush Administration continues to measure progress in Iraq in terms of military and security indicators, not political achievements.  While remaining silent on lagging political benchmarks, for the past several weeks, Bush administration officials have pointed to a recent decline in sectarian violence in Baghdad as a sign of progress in Iraq. (McClatchy, 4/25/07)
  • The Bush Administration’s limited diplomatic initiatives are falling far short of the Iraq Study Group’s recommendations for a “new diplomatic offensive.”  One of the Iraq Study Group’s most important recommendations called for the immediate launching of a “new diplomatic offensive to build an international consensus for stability in Iraq and in the region.”  The bipartisan group of experts advocated building a support structure that would include all of Iraq’s neighbors and called for “regional and international initiatives and steps to assist the Iraqi government in achieving certain security, political, and economic milestones.”  Although the Bush Administration has recently demonstrated a new willingness to engage Iraq’s neighbors, its diplomatic efforts have remained very limited.  At last week’s international conference at Sharm el-Sheik, Secretary Rice did not meet with her Iranian counterpart, while her discussion with Syria’s foreign minister was described by the White House as “a sidebar conversation,” with U.S.-Syrian relations remaining “informal and not bilateral.” According to media reports, the conference failed to secure regional support for an agreement that would provide debt relief and aid to the Iraqi government. (The Iraq Study Group Report, 12/06; New York Times, 5/4/07)
  • The Iraqi government remains divided, unable to advance the national legislative agenda.  According to analysts, the Iraqi government continues to be fractured along political and sectarian lines, disconnected from the Iraqi population and unable to move forward with critical national reconciliation initiatives.  In a recent poll, 57 percent of Iraqis surveyed said that they disapproved of the way Prime Minister al-Maliki is handling his job.  Among Iraq’s Sunni population, disapproval rates are dramatically higher, at 96 percent. (Christian Science Monitor, 4/18/07; Brookings Institution Iraq Index, 5/7/07)


Measuring Progress in Iraq:

The Status of Political Benchmarks

Benchmark

Original

Deadline

Status

Anticipated
Obstacles to Progress

Amend the Constitution

March 2007*

No Progress: The Iraqi government has not moved forward with the constitutional amendment process.

The Washington Post reports that, “Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds remain split over key issues: whether Iraq should be divided into autonomous regions under a federal system; the authorities of the prime minister and the president; the national identity of Iraq; and the fate of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.”

Revise de-Baathification policies

November 2006*

Little Progress: On March 26, 2007 Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani sent a draft law to the Cabinet.  To date, the Cabinet has yet to consider the draft legislation.

The draft law was immediately met with widespread opposition from the parliament’s existing de-Baathification committee.  Analysts expect a protracted debate and amendment process and anticipate that passage of the bill will be difficult.

Enact a law for the regulation of the oil industry and a plan for oil revenue sharing

October 2006*

Little Progress: On February 26, 2007 Iraq’s cabinet approved a draft law that would give the central government control over the country’s oil reserves.  The draft legislation has yet to be considered by the parliament.

Kurdish politicians are demanding greater regional control over the negotiation of oil investment agreements and the distribution of oil revenue and have said that they will not support the current draft

Approve provincial elections law and schedule date to hold provincial elections

October 2006*

No Progress: No date has been set for holding provincial elections.

Shiite and Kurdish factions are reportedly blocking the development of electoral legislation.  Analysts say that it is unlikely that elections will be held before next winter.

Enact a law for disbanding militias

December 2006*

No Progress: Iraqi leaders have not reached any political agreements for dismantling Iraq’s militia groups.

According to the Pentagon, sectarian militia groups have infiltrated much of Iraq’s police and national security forces.  Analysts say that some of these groups have ties to elements within the Iraqi government, receive support from foreign governments, while some also play an important role in providing security to areas of the country.

* Original deadlines refer to dates established by Iraq’s Policy Committee on National Security in September 2006, reaffirmed by the Presidency Council on October 16, 2006, and posted on the President of Iraq’s website (see January 2007 letter from Secretary Rice to Senator Levin). 

Other sources for chart: Brookings Institution, Iraq Index; 5/10/07; Washington Post, 4/26/07; Christian Science Monitor, 4/20/07; The Hill, 4/25/07)

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