Inside Iraqi politics – Part 1. Examining the executive branch

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Security gains in Iraq have maintained momentum for five months and the focus has turned to spurring and gauging the country’s political progress. The ultimate goal of the troop surge executed by the military was for improved security to provide “breathing room” for such progress, which can be simplified to three fronts: “ground-up” political progress, executive political progress by the federal government, and federal legislative progress.

“Ground-up” political progress largely consists of fostering relationships with local leaders – often tribesmen and former insurgents – who now wish to work with the Coalition and Federal Government of Iraq against the insurgency. This effort empowering local institutions – such as neighborhood watches, Provincial Security Forces, and city and tribal councils – is considered integral to durable security and stability.

Executive political progress by the federal government includes, at least in the short term, effectively delivering reconstruction and security resources to all provinces regardless of sectarian make-up, and integrating predominantly Sunni neighborhood watch programs into government employment. These actions will facilitate reconciliation and cement decreases in both insurgency and sectarian conflict.

Legislative political progress by the federal government is measured by the passage of proposed legislation immediately essential to executive functions, such as the 2008 budget; laws stipulating the long-term design of the Iraqi government, like the distribution of federal and provincial authority; and laws crucial for sectarian reconciliation, such as reform that allows more former Baathists into government service.

The first and arguably most important area of political progress, the “ground-up” aspect, has been a linchpin of US military strategy and is significantly responsible for the large security gains since August 2007. These rapidly successful grassroots reconciliation efforts were driven by the emergence of local leadership, budding relationships between the federal government and tribal leaders, quick application of US funds and reconstruction efforts, and local relationships forged across sectarian lines.

Despite such significant regional progress, however, many have questioned the will and ability of the Iraqi federal government to meet its end of the bargain: delivering services and resources, reconciling with former Sunni insurgents, and passing essential legislation. And most media coverage has focused on implacable sectarian interest as the primary reason for the Iraqi government’s underperformance in these areas, a sentiment shared by some American officials.

Colonel Martin M. Stanton, Chief of Reconciliation and Engagement for Multinational Corps-Iraq, is quick to praise the remarkable progress in ground-up reconciliation he’s seen in his job coordinating Iraqis who want to engage with the Coalition and Iraqi government. But he is also candidly skeptical about the willingness of the “Shia [federal] government” to reconcile with Sunnis, in light of sectarian hostility.

“What haunts me is the prospect of wasting all these opportunities,” said Stanton. “It’s encouraging at the bottom, at the tactical level, and then you deal with the people in the Iraqi government who are so paranoid and so reticent, and it’s a real emotional rollercoaster.”

But while most officials acknowledge a heavy atmosphere of mistrust stoked by sectarian carnage that peaked in 2006, many cite other elements that impede action on key political benchmarks. This Long War Journal series on Iraqi politics – involving more than a dozen interviews with American and Iraqi officials – will attempt to examine the factors, including but beyond sectarianism, that have affected political progress by the Iraqi federal government.

A complex executive structure

The Iraqi government differs from its US counterpart in the vast diversity of political interests within the executive branch. Click to view.

Any examination of political progress requires a basic understanding of the inherent challenges to quick action posed by the structure of the executive branch under the Iraqi constitution.

Executive authority is unevenly divided between the Presidency Council – comprised of the president and two vice presidents – and the prime minister, deputy prime ministers, and the Council of Ministers, a deliberative body composed of about 40 heads of Iraq’s ministries. The relatively powerless president is a Kurd, Jalal Talabani. The lion’s share of influence lies with Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, a Shia with the Dawa Party, and the Council of Ministers, which has its own powers, like debating proposed legislation before it’s forwarded to the legislative branch.

The various ministers are appointed by Maliki and must be approved by a majority of Parliament, which apportions the positions as political spoils after extensive haggling among members of the various parties that comprise the ruling coalition, or “government list.” The process doesn’t inevitably result in the most qualified administrators taking charge of the ministries, as priorities are placed on the distribution of political parties and approving candidates who are broadly acceptable. The result is an executive branch of variable competence that is radically divided among various ethnosectarian and political affiliations.

Applied to American politics, such a scenario might look like a Republican president’s cabinet divided among Republicans, Democrats, Independents, and Libertarians, roughly proportional to their prevalence in Congress. For instance, Iraq’s Minister of Municipalities and Public Works is a Shia affiliated with the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the Trade Minister is a Shia with Maliki’s Dawa Party, the Defense Minister is an independent Sunni, the Foreign Minister is with the Kurdistan Democratic Party, and the Minister of the Interior is an independent Shia.

This parliamentary system is designed to force representation from and interaction between Iraq’s various religious sects and ethnicities. Ministers, representing various parties, are ostensibly granted great latitude in carrying out the function of their ministry, and have a practical say in overall executive decisions via their membership in the Council of Ministers. These features of the Iraqi Constitution that place a significant amount of power in a collective, rather than in one person, necessarily slow executive action, even as they prevent the dictatorial abuses of Iraq’s past.

“It’s not an easy structure,” said Phil Reeker, Counselor for Public Affairs at the American Embassy in Baghdad. “Different parties have different ministries, and [ministry] relationships with the prime minister’s office are different.”

For example, fifteen ministers primarily from the main Sunni bloc and Shia Sadrist Movement have left their positions in protest over the last 6 months, though many have returned or are currently negotiating a return.

Despite the decentralized structure, the singular influence of the prime minister remains unmistakable, especially in light of a cultural tendency to defer to a central authority. Ryan Crocker, US Ambassador to Iraq, and other US officials meet almost daily with Maliki and his immediate staff because “the prime minister’s office is important, it’s the center,” Reeker said.

Other advisers also see a strong degree of deference to the prime minister’s authority, as seen through the prism of American frustration with Iraqi administrative inaction.

“[A]ll lines lead back to Maliki,” said Stanton. “Very few ministers or committee members will take an action without clearing it through him.”

But while many note the high degree of prime ministerial authority under a decentralized structure, the complexity of the executive branch makes mapping the government’s progress more complicated than exclusively blaming or lauding Maliki. “Orders of the Prime Minister” are considered the leverage needed to get many things done, but Maliki’s issuance of orders favorable towards reconciliation is tempered by his management of the competing interests within his ruling coalition. In addition, the intent of individual ministers has historically influenced reconciliation issues not explicitly addressed by the prime minister.

For an extreme example, former high-level Sadrist officials in the Ministry of Health were indicted on charges of diverting government funds to the Mahdi Army and allowing the use of Iraqi hospitals and ambulances in sectarian killings during 2006. A more subtle example is the same ministry’s prioritization of opening medical facilities in Shia neighborhoods during 2007, according to a report by General David Petraus’ staff. Maliki’s awareness of such activities has been debatable, and his willingness to prosecute such crimes has been historically weak, but many officials do not consider such actions sanctioned by the Prime Minister. In addition, the recent withdrawal of the Sadrist bloc from the government reduces some historical pressures on Maliki’s decisions regarding military action in Sadr City, the hiring of Sunni security forces, and the long-term presence of the American military.

While Americans and Iraqis still note significant flaws in Maliki’s leadership, many believe it has improved over the past year, citing his willingness to prosecute rogue elements (Shia as well as Sunni) outside of and within the government, and decisions on reconciliation and security issues that have caused political discord, including the various defections from his government coalition. At least one Iraqi politician offers more unqualified praise.

“Give Maliki a lot of credit for not looking at the polls, as they say in the US,” said Entifadh K. Qanbar, former Deputy Military Attach´┐Ż for Iraq and former member of the Iraqi National Congress, a political party. “He makes decisions that might not be popular at first, but [later] people start to realize he’s a strong man who does not get dragged left and right by people threatening him. Maliki is probably not an intellectual, but he’s a street guy, he knows [politics] well.”

But various American and Iraqi officials make it clear that some degree of the executive hesitance towards reconciliation is due to its fundamental structure under the Iraqi constitution. This design has inevitably created a Shia-dominated but still diverse sectarian coalition whose members have varying intent to reconcile and some naturally competing interests. And the influence of party affiliation on the performance of individual ministers remains a factor in Iraq’s progress.

“Are they influenced by [their parties]? Yes. Are they influenced by them so much that they are incapable of acting in a nonpartisan manner? Some of them are. Some of them, I think, are not,” said Stanton.

Administrative difficulties and “building capacity”

While divisive politics and naked sectarian interest receive most of the blame for Iraq’s political inertia, government inefficiency, corruption, and administrative inexperience arguably pose larger problems.

“We think our system is bureaucratic   their system is even more bureaucratic. It tends to be a paper-based system.   They tend to require lots of signatures from different technocrats along the way. They tend not to delegate much,” said Brigadier General Terry Wolff, the Special Assistant to the President and the Senior Director for Iraq and Afghanistan Policy Implementation on the National Security Council.

As an example, a paper-based system of requisitions adds layers of difficulty for various provincial police headquarters getting equipment from the Ministry of the Interior. Thus, both Western observers and police officers in a Sunni province like Anbar might view equipment shortages as the product of sectarian hostility by the Shia-dominated federal government, when much of the delay is really administrative.

“An extremely small percentage   of equipment shortages would be attributed to some sort of deliberate effort to deny somebody something,” said Major General Michael Jones, Commanding General of the Coalition Police Assistance Training Team. In fact, Jones had not seen this occur in the four months he had been in Iraq. He believes that a combination of complex administrative rules and inexperienced bureaucrats is responsible for many delays.

“There are procedures that you have to follow to order equipment or just to do basically everything,” said Jones. “When you look at the volume of procedures that you have in an institution, to have inexperienced people try to suddenly start filling senior roles in that institution with these practices that are not well-known, and in some cases not well-documented, it creates   big challenges.”

Inefficiency is exacerbated by the drastic growth of the young government. A primary focus of American advisers is “building the capacity” to govern and administer, at all levels, in rapidly expanding institutions headed by Iraqis with varying levels of experience, honesty, sectarianism, and patriotism. For example, the Ministry of the Interior’s authorization for the police force in al Anbar has grown from 11,000 to 24,000 in six months. Any organization that makes decisions to grow at such a rapid pace is “going to have huge problems” because of the inherent logistical and hiring challenges presented by such rapid expansion, said Jones.

This highly demanded growth compounds the overall disorganization of a fledgling Iraqi government that in many respects has been reconstituted from scratch.

“The destruction in Iraq was so severe that we don’t have a proper staff   capable of proper planning,” said Ali al Dabbagh, Official Spokesman of the Government of Iraq, who notes improvement in the proportion of the government’s budget that was spent in 2007 compared to the previous year. “I think that in 2008 – we call it ‘the year of reconstruction’ –   the capacity of the government will be much, much   better than 2007.”

The US Government Accountability Office, however, recently reported that the Government of Iraq still only spent 4.4 percent of its investment budget by August 2007; 90 percent of that budget is dedicated to the capital projects behind reconstruction and the restoration of services.

If Iraq is to capitalize on security gains, the government must improve its efficiency, as well as mitigate a huge problem with corruption that is a major drain on these resources. An internal report by the US Embassy in Baghdad characterized corruption as “the norm in many ministries” and labeled Maliki’s government as incapable of “even rudimentary enforcement of anticorruption laws.” The corruption watchdog group Transparency International ranked Iraq as the third-most corrupt country of 180 countries measured in a September 2007 report.

While problems with massive theft diminish as security and oversight improve, corruption remains common and, to some degree, a culturally accepted facet of administration in Iraq. Many US officials set pragmatic goals of lowering graft to an extent where it does not interfere with accomplishing the mission of a given organization, from local police forces to national ministries. And some see corruption as a moderately reduced but persistent problem.

Qanbar asserts that the major corruption, the deals worth “hundreds of millions of dollars,” are a way of the past, yet he anticipates that the “middle to lower-level corruption will continue for a long time and will be a huge problem.”

“I think the only way to solve this problem is for the Iraqi parliamentarian system to work better, and it is,” said Qanbar, citing a recent example of Iraqi Parliament calling the Iraqi Minister of Trade to answer questions relating to corruption. He noted that this type of oversight is “unprecedented for this part of the world.”

Diverse impediments to quick action

Interviews with American and Iraqi officials depict an Iraqi executive branch grappling with challenges that include but are more varied than the popular narrative of sectarianism. Rapidly growing government institutions are often run by inexperienced administrators in a complex, paper-based system; poor oversight in the post-invasion chaos has fueled outrageous corruption; and a government design that has divided executive authority among the country’s various ethno-sectarian political parties delays action, even as it fosters compromise and successfully curbs the dictatorial abuses of the past. Despite the daunting list of challenges, however, some US officials see opportunity in the diversity of these problems. For example, while it is impossible to quickly push Iraqis towards sectarian accord, continued time and advisership can develop the experience of Iraqi administrators and build institutional “capacity” to govern effectively. And to the extent these issues influence the pace of political progress and improve self-sufficiency, both can and should improve. If security gains are maintained, time will tell whether such improvements are made fast enough to achieve stability and eventual reconciliation.

The next installment of this series will examine the efforts by Iraq’s executive branch to improve services and achieve reconciliation, including an in-depth profile of the Iraqi Implementation and Follow-Up Committee for National Reconciliation, a special body appointed by Maliki.

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