BAGHDAD – In the lobby of the Iraqi foreign ministry hangs a large poster with photos of 42 men and women killed when a truck bomb exploded outside their offices in August.
The ministry buildings have been fully rebuilt – unlike the finance ministry, which was blown up on the same day – by the effective foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari. But Zebari told me, “Iraq is still not out of danger, is still not a normal country.”
That aptly sums up the situation here as a recount begins of the Baghdad votes in the March elections. The ballots have been challenged by the party of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who disputes a count that gave a (mostly Sunni) bloc called Iraqiya a narrow edge over his (mostly Shiite) bloc. The election produced such fragmented results, with no bloc gaining a majority, that most doubt a government will be formed before fall.
The security situation has dramatically improved since the days of civil war. As I toured Baghdad, I saw busy markets, women walking without long, black abayas – some even without headscarves – and streets full of traffic. The Iraqi police and army man checkpoints, and U.S. soldiers are nowhere to be seen.
Yet, as the United States prepares to pull out all combat forces and reduce troop levels to 50,000 by August, Iraqis worry about a security vacuum – and a political vacuum.
“If we don’t get it right in the next couple of months, if Iraqiya feels cheated,” Zebari worried, “we could go back to violence, and the country could be split.”
Although U.S. and Iraqi forces killed three key leaders of al-Qaida in Mesopotamia this week, Zebari believes Sunni extremists will keep trying to reignite sectarian warfare. He said the country was recently alerted that terrorists might fly an aircraft into a holy Shiite shrine.
For anyone who saw Baghdad at its worst, there are grounds to hope the country will muddle through this period. When I asked Gen. Ray Odierno, the U.S. commander in Iraq, for his prediction, he said, “I think there’s still within the population (some desire) for retribution, but nowhere near the level of 2006-2007. The population is tired of it, and the (Iraqi) army is becoming more professional.”
“If we leave by 2011,” said Odierno, referring to the date set by the U.S.-Iraqi Status of Forces Agreement, “the minimum capability we’ve given (Iraqi forces) won’t let anyone fill the security vacuum.”
Yet he, too, has concerns about the potential political vacuum as Iraqis struggle to develop their version of a democratic system. Neighboring Iran and Saudi Arabia, among others, are eager to exert influence – not necessarily for good.
In the coming years, Iraq will be a weak state, with legal and electoral systems that encourage voting by sect rather than competence.
“Our attempt to cross the sectarian border and to broaden our political base failed,” said Sadiq al-Rikabi, a key political adviser to Prime Minister al-Maliki. He blames pressure from Saudi Arabia for preventing Sunni groups from joining al-Maliki’s State of Law party.
Now, he says, Iraqi politicians have to deal with reality: “The outcome of the election pushed us to a sectarian base: Shia in two blocs, Sunnis in one bloc, Kurds in one bloc.” Any government must contain all three groups, he contends.
Many observers believe that all the big blocs will ultimately have a role in the government, with ministries parceled out by sect. This may prevent strife, but it will also ensure ineffective government.
Yet if vote challenges multiply, the process will drag on; it’s hard to foresee how the blocs will agree on a prime minister.
In the end, it may take U.S. mediation to resolve the impasse. So far, the U.S. Embassy has firmly rebuffed the idea it would play such a role. “If we’re serious about sovereignty, we have to let them be sovereign,” said a senior U.S. official. “And we mean it.”
Foreign Minister Zebari insists Americans can’t stay aloof. “Watching this unfold without any guidance is very dangerous,” he said. “Withdrawal (of troops) is one thing, but a hands-off approach is something else. There must be help to fill the (political) vacuum.” I think he will be proved correct.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.