Analysis: Passing of Iraq election law brings relief

BAGHDAD, Iraq — American officials breathed a huge sigh of relief this week as Iraqi lawmakers finally herded themselves into parliament and voted through an election law for parliamentary elections in January.

The voting, taken up to the constitutional deadline that would allow for elections to be held at the end of January, was a relief for Iraqi officials as well. But more so for the senior U.S. diplomats who had spent weeks trying to reconcile Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen intent on holding onto power while they still could.

Embassy officials, barred from the parliament sessions — along with journalists — hovered around the edges of committee meetings and patched through phone calls from an increasingly edgy White House to Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani and Iraqi Arab officials.

As has been the case for much of the past six years, the U.S. seemed to experience a series of diminishing expectations.

After pressing for the most open of elections — one that would allow voters to choose individual candidates rather than just parties and coalitions — they began re-evaluating as the deadline loomed.

“We’re not going to keep pressing for an open list — at this point we just need them to pass a law,” said one senior U.S. official.

While the election is crucial to Iraq and its chances for stability, it’s also crucial to the U.S. being able to withdraw its troops as promised by 2011 without having to look back and see the country unraveling as they leave.

“Had these deliberations gone on, then new decisions would have had to be made,” about the pace of the withdrawal, said the U.S. chief of mission here, Ambassador Chris Hill, after the vote.

For many Iraqi officials, the U.S. is already essentially gone.

“Of course they were relieved — all they care about now is leaving,” said one senior Iraqi official.

It’s a view that seems to differ among those whose political fortunes are tied to a prompt U.S. withdrawal and many of the troops on the ground, who are scrambling to make a difference in the time they have left.

But the perception that the U.S. has disengaged has led to a diminished ability to influence events here. A 90-minute phone call between U.S. Vice President Biden and Barzani urging him to compromise on how voting would be conducted in Kirkuk had essentially no effect, said one senior Kurdish official. “Barzani told him he would think about it,” said the official, with more than a little glee that the Kurds seemed to have their fair-weather American friends over a barrel.

The Kurds have been particularly coy about which Iraqi politicians they will partner with in the elections. But many of them believe that with new divisions among Shiite parties, their time has come.

After the 2004 vote, the Kurds were the kingmakers who helped bring Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to power in a Shiite-Kurdish alliance. Kingmakers this time? "We could be the kings" says one Kurdish leader.

There is so much up in the air between now and the January elections that if Iraq were a company, it would be in play.

Political alliances are being drawn and huge oil deals are being negotiated while other foreign companies are waiting in the wings. The backdrop is an expectation of continued high-profile attacks aimed at the government and the ever-present view here that as the U.S. prepares to withdraw, this is a country besieged by hostile neighbors.

Even the friendly ones are being way too friendly. Lacking any sort of law barring foreign funding of political parties, Iranian money is secretly, but quite legally, flowing into Iraqi Shiite parties, according to officials.

Last week, the Iraqi foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, summoned the Turkish ambassador to Iraq to formally protest over the ambassador’s involvement in negotiations on the election law in an effort to win concessions for Iraqi Turkmen.

Perhaps the biggest political danger though is that after four years of rampant corruption and inefficiency, many of Iraq’s 19 million eligible voters are so cynical about their politicians they won’t even bother to go to the polls.

At the Baghdad International Trade Fair this week, Iraqi business people trying to survive in a business climate that seems to operate by the law of the jungle said that even by the standards of the Saddam era, they were shocked by the corruption of parliamentarians and government officials.

“We wouldn’t mind if they stole bags of money but all the bags have holes in them — they’re bottomless,” said Majid, a sales representative for a Turkish company.

It was the first trade fair since before the war, when angelic-looking girls in white dresses lined up at the opening ceremony chanted for Saddam to send his missiles to hit Israel as European businessmen unaware of what they were singing filed past.

This smaller, tamer trade fair drew companies from more than a dozen countries but the majority of the exhibits were Iraqi businesspeople on the edge of an uncertain but what they hope is a brighter future.

“Most of the companies in the world are looking at Iraq now,” said the Iraqi manager of a French cement factory. “It’s like starting a restaurant — you start with three or four tables and then you grow to 20.”

What’s on the menu is another story.