Inside Iraqi politics – Part 2. A look at executive branch progress

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The first installment of The Long War Journal’s series on Iraqi Politics discussed Iraq’s overall political goals that impact reconciliation and how the coalition structure of the executive branch challenges speedy progress. This installment highlights the status of initiatives charged to the executive branch.

The Government of Iraq’s executive branch has several goals central to maintaining security gains and achieving sectarian reconciliation: effective hiring and management of the highly publicized Concerned Local Citizens (CLCs), the auxiliary security forces greatly responsible for the significant reduction in violence; the delivery of reconstruction resources, including basic services, to Baghdad and the provinces; and the creation of jobs and economic opportunity for average Iraqis.

The Concerned Local Citizens and the IFCNR

Many reconciliation initiatives are specifically championed by Iraq’s Implementation and Follow-Up Committee for National Reconciliation (IFCNR). It was formed by Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki on June 22, 2007 to place special emphasis on issues affecting reconciliation between sects in Iraq. The small committee is headed by Dr. Safa Hussein, who also serves as Deputy National Security Adviser, and includes four primary members and an additional eight subordinate members, with no extended support staff. The IFCNR focuses on managing or advocating several matters within the federal government: the CLC program, the delivery of basic services, the stimulation of jobs, and the orderly return of refugees.

“This is a national-level organization working in Baghdad, but some of its members travel around and talk to tribal support councils, which are sort of their method of communication at the local level,” said Major Rouven Steeves, a former staff member of the US military’s Force Strategic Engagement Cell, which works closely with the IFCNR. “There are six tribal support councils that have been organized to communicate at the local level, to include communicating with the CLC organizations.” The committee continues to stand up more tribal councils in Baghdad and other provinces.

The IFCNR is an independent body within the government, but any progress on its initiatives requires obtaining prime ministerial orders and the cooperation of the specific ministry involved in managing any given activity. A specific example is its aggressive advocacy of the Concerned Local Citizens program.

An offshoot of the tribal “awakenings” that began in Anbar province, the CLCs, now also dubbed “the Sons of Iraq,” are comprised of local auxiliary police or neighborhood watches that initially were hired and managed by the US military. The strategy was designed to empower local citizens to take responsibility for security, as well as provide much-needed legitimate employment that drains the labor pool for insurgency. Because some of the security volunteers previously were associated with the Sunni insurgency in one form or another, there has been significant hesitation among federal government officials to sanction and eventually manage the program, considered a crucial reconciliation step by US officials and many Iraqis.

“The Committee has been focusing on the CLC issue because that’s been the hot topic, both for the Coalition and for the Iraqis,” said Steeves. “What we were trying to do is get the GOI [Government of Iraq] to take over both monetarily, by paying for contracts, and also coordination and control of these organizations. Additionally   putting some of these people to work for the ISF [Iraqi security forces] by hiring them as police.”

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The Iraqi government’s management of the Concerned Local Citizens program is considered a significant step toward reconciliation. Data in this graphic last updated December 2007. Click to view.

Efforts to begin integration of Concerned Local Citizens into the government recently succeeded in increments approved by Maliki. First, the IFCNR obtained a prime ministerial order that forced the Ministries of the Interior and Defense – responsible for the Police and the Army, respectively – to work with the local CLCs at the request of American forces. Maliki’s order was considered a huge step in the atmosphere of sectarian mistrust that surrounds this issue. And on Dec. 12, the Iraqi government officially agreed to take over funding and managing the program from American forces. Eventually about 20-25 percent of the approximately 85,000 CLCs are slated to be officially hired into the Iraqi security forces (mostly Iraqi Police) after proper vetting, with the remainder ideally diverted towards training programs and public-works projects headed by various ministries. To date, almost 9,000 of the volunteers have been screened by the government and are expected to enter police training.

Though the government’s hesitance in taking over the program was held up as an example of sectarian inertia by some US officials and many Western media and political observers, others argue that the delay was rational, given that many of the CLC groups include former insurgents. Iraqi government officials express a desire to avoid the insurgent and militia infiltration that plagued the Iraqi National Police over the past few years, for example.

“[H]iring people [who] were fighting you yesterday   is not an easy job,” said Dr. Ali al Dabbagh, Official Spokesman for the Government of Iraq. “[They] need definitely to   be checked thoroughly, and that is what the Iraqi government is doing. But nevertheless, we have accommodated more than 20,000.   We don’t want to recruit [extremists] or   one more militia will be formed and they will fight the government from inside.”

Sunni leaders argue that their induction into the Iraqi security forces ensures government control. And the targeting of the CLC program by al Qaeda, they insist, is further proof that CLCs must have government support. In addition, some American officials argue that the Shia-dominated federal government already had displayed some willingness to engage with Sunni regions by hiring and consistently paying Sunni-dominated police forces in Anbar province, before either the Tribal Awakening or the spread of CLC programs throughout Iraq.

Brigadier General Terry Wolff, the Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Iraq and Afghanistan Policy Implementation on the National Security Council, sums up a common US perspective well.

Listen, when you’re over there working this with [the Iraqis], yes everyone is incredibly frustrated, trying to help them accomplish what is intuitively obvious to us. If these tribes have found men who are willing to be part of the local security solution, then why does it take so long to get them hired and   paid? It’s a great question. So many people read into that slowness as ‘Ah, Maliki is against this and there are conspiracies everywhere,’ and so there is some distrust there, [but] the Iraqi government has gone on record as stating, ‘Hey listen, we don’t mind concerned local citizens, we just want to make sure that the demographics of the CLCs are reasonably balanced, and that people aren’t raising militias that are a threat to the government.’

But despite the government’s official acceptance of the CLCs and the IFCNR’s advocacy of the effort, there is still controversy over the eventual management of the program. As US officials check the backgrounds and catalogue biometric data of neighborhood volunteers slated to be integrated into the Iraqi Police, some in the government resist adding them to the rolls.

“[The] plan is still going ahead, but there is some pushback from GOI on how to move the CLCs to government control,” said Lieutenant Colonel Robert Friedenberg, the Multinational Forces-Iraq Liaison to the IFCNR. “It is arguable whether this comes from active resistance or just disorganized management and lack of capacity. Hiring the CLCs into the Iraqi Police is a slow process, and we have to work each time a list is ready for hiring to get the government to agree to hire the volunteers.”

With its recent progress on the CLCs, the IFCNR is now turning much of its attention to the idea of establishing job training and public works employment programs headed by various ministries. The hope is to divert some of the CLC volunteers to this employment as the need for the homegrown security forces abates. The committee also is addressing the property rights and pension claims of returning refugees, and coordinating some basic government services, like hospital improvements and the development of infrastructure. Many of these plans remain fuzzy, and minimal progress is a reflection of poor administrative capacity, a small staff, and disorganization, problems that plague many government agencies in Iraq.

“The IFCNR has advocated some jobs programs, building workers living accommodations near factories that are planned for refurbishment in order to house the workers in the Baghdad area” said Friedenberg. “Some of these plans are pretty ambitious, and out of the capability of the government of Iraq in my opinion. I expect the Coalition working with them on small projects initially and then picking up speed as momentum is gained.”

Reconstruction and the Services Committee

One area that reflects poorly on the government is its limited ability to deliver basic services like electricity, sewage management, and health care. The speed at which an acceptable level of service can be delivered to the population has implications for reconciliation, Iraq’s overall stability, and the odds of political survival for incumbents during the next national election cycle in late 2009.

There are signs of slow forward movement. Some of Iraq’s revenue is bypassing byzantine traditional channels and has been distributed directly to provincial governments, which are advised by US Provincial Reconstruction Teams focused on spurring local economies and the delivery of services. And the Iraqi economy continues to show significant momentum, with a estimated 2007 growth rate of 6.7 percent, while oil revenues have eclipsed budgeted expectations. Despite these advancements, reconstruction action at the Iraqi national level and in Baghdad specifically remains poor. This failure is seen in an improving but extremely low proportion of budgeted national revenue that has made it to the execution stage of reconstruction contracts, and the underperformance of national ministries.

For example, General Petraeus’ December report to Congress listed the following anecdotes:

• While state-provided electricity output increased 14 percent from September through November 2007 compared to the same period in 2006, there remained a 42 percent shortfall of output vs. demand in November 2007, as poor maintenance and inefficient fuel distribution continued to hamper improvement.

• While US-funded projects have restored potable water to 6.7 million Iraqis as of November 2007, Iraqi water services are understaffed and plagued by inconsistent power supplies.

• Eighty-five of 142 planned primary healthcare centers (PHCs) have been built, but only 39 of those 85 have been opened to the public and turned over to the Iraqi Ministry of Health for management. The report cites “a shortage of trained medical staff” and a “sectarian agenda” within the Ministry of Health “that determined which PHCs should open.”

In addition to lack of capacity and sectarian favoritism, 15 of 37 ministers – some heading ministries involved in delivery of services – have walked out of Maliki’s government to protest various decisions over the past six months, though many have either returned or are conducting negotiations to return. Even when fully staffed, ministerial coordination is hampered by poor communication.

“There are other elements to the issue, and one of them is interministerial cooperation,” said Friedenberg. “There is sort of a natural tendency probably anywhere, including the US, for different elements of the government to not talk to each other, and in Iraq, that is definitely the case.”

To improve communication and the delivery of services, Maliki has tried to coordinate the ministerial system by creating an independent Baghdad Services Committee. Headed by Ahmed Chalabi, the controversial former deputy prime minister and head of the Iraqi National Congress, the committee has a shifting membership that adjusts to its various agendas, and plays something like an ombusdsman role among the ministries involved in reconstruction. The body has met approximately weekly since last October and addresses a wide range of services, including electricity, health care, schools, trash removal, and traffic regulation.

For a specific example, the Baghdad neighborhood of Sab al Bor suffered a downed powerline that inactivated water pumps used for irrigation, forcing local farmers to tend their fields with drinking water. When the Services Committee learned of the resulting drinking water shortage and determined its cause, it brought the problem to the attention to the Ministry of Electricity, which repaired the powerline within a week.

Yet both the committee and the ministries have problems prioritizing finite resources, in terms of labor and money, for the delivery of services that will have the greatest impact on improving conditions. As with many Iraqi institutions, planning within these groups is not a strength. And American advisers have had their own difficulty with organization; an October 2007 report by the US Government Accountabilty Office lauded individual US efforts to build ministerial capacity, but assessed that they lacked overall direction, adequate performance measures and coordination with Iraqi goals. The flaws listed in this report were noted in a Petreaus’ last report to Congress, along with plans to address the problems.

It’s relevant to note that the Baghdad Services Committee itself does not have a significant budget and serves in an advisory role; it can make recommendations to the ministries, but lacks inherent authority to mandate response. But American officials assert that the committee plays a “constructive role,” and it’s believed that Chalabi has a genuine and vested interest in making a positive impact. Beyond altruism, his political party gained no seats in the last parliamentary elections, and the restoration of services could influence his political fortunes in future elections or appointments.

Current progress and the way forward

US advisers see enthusiasm for national reconciliation and reconstruction in quarters of the Iraqi executive branch, but the highly variable and often poor ability of the ministries and various committees will determine whether Iraqi citizens perceive the government’s competence or willingness to reconcile all sects of Iraq.

“There’s been a lot of debate about   whether [lack of progress] is sectarian, whether there is true interest in reconciliation or not; our observations over the last six months in close operations on a daily basis with these folks [in the IFCNR] is a lot of it has a lot less to do with sectarianism than just pure inefficiency,” said Steeves. “That does not undermine the fact that as far as the GOI is concerned, that you probably do have sectarian actors at other levels of the government. You have a fragmented and fractured civil society, and there are a few good actors who are attempting to heal those rifts and overcome sectarian divides – not just Sunni-Shia [conflict] – but you’re also talking corruption, pure self-interest, and awareness of what it means to be Iraqi.”

US personnel are assisting Iraqis at most levels, from the prime minister’s office to the ministries to Provincial Reconstruction Teams and public works advisers in the provinces, but most agree that these advisory efforts will need time and persistence to have requisite effect on an inefficient and rapidly changing Iraqi bureaucracy. Assuming maintenance of improved security, 2008 will be a crucial year for Iraq’s executive branch, which must deliver more services and jobs, distribute oil revenue, spend and execute a much greater proportion of the budget than in years past, and effectively integrate local security forces into police and public works employment.

Some US personnel are optimistic that the development of Iraq’s administrative “capacity” will improve many of the conditions related to reconciliation. Most stress Iraqi solutions to Iraq’s problems. And all assert that “the way forward” is contingent on rapidly shifting conditions on the ground, while few are willing to venture firm predictions of success or failure.

“I think a sober assessment comes back to, we cannot dictate the outcome but we can dictate the means,” said Steeves. “And I think the means we are using now are some of the best we can utilize under the circumstances we find ourselves.”

When pressed, Colonel Martin M. Stanton, Chief of Reconciliation and Engagement for Multinational Corps-Iraq, was one of the few to hesitantly give odds of the Iraqi government accomplishing goals quickly enough to maintain recent stability:

“I’d say even,” said Stanton. “It’s all going to come down to reconstruction and employment, because at the end of the day people will put up with a lot if they just have a job and the standard of their living is improving.”

The next installment in The Long War Journal’s series on Iraqi Politics will focus on the structure and challenges of Iraq’s legislative branch.

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2 Comments

  • David M says:

    The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the – Web Reconnaissance for 02/08/2008 A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the day…so check back often.

  • I didn’t realize you didn’t have to have a typekey identity, so I will copy my response from Ace’s:
    Although almost no one understands nor is really interested in the govt process in Iraq, it really is fascinating to read. I can totally understand the mistrust in the higher levels of government. We are dealing with people who are used to tyranny, not freedom. I would suspect they wonder if Maliki will have soldiers come get them in the middle of the night and take them away. That is how they have lived for all their lives after all.
    I don’t think the average American really understands the miracle of so many factions working together now. It’s like watching former gang members of the Cripes and Bloodz come together to form a government in peace!!!
    Bill, you must feel every day that you are watching history being made, but knowing that it is a tinderbox and hoping to God no one throws a match in.
    I would think the lower tiered people are not used to actually having some power, some say so in what they are suppose to do. A strange new world for them all I would think.
    Americans should be praying every day for this new democracy. I believe history will show us how it changed everything.
    Hold on Iraq. Hold on.
    Thanks Bill.

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