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Friday, October 23, 2009


President Obama has a problem that no president in recent memory, save perhaps his immediate predecessor, has had to face: two war fronts. When Bush was president, it seemed (falsely, as it turned out) that Afghanistan was well under control before he began his ill-fated invasion of Iraq in 2003. As Obama considers a decision on increasing American troops in Afghanistan, some -- even a few in the president's war council -- now believe Iraq to be under control, but that could prove to be little more than wishful thinking.

The Iraqi constitution requires a new election before January 31, 2010 and the Obama administration's pullout schedule was predicated on Iraq having solidified its democratic foundation by putting a new government firmly in place by then -- one presumably formed by elections that, unlike the last ones there, can be executed without the cloud of insurgent violence hanging over every polling place.

But a dispute colored by all the problems of an ethnically-divided nation still short of political maturity remains an imposing obstacle. The country's present election laws require voters to cast their ballots for political parties -- not individuals -- and leaves the assignments of parliamentary representatives up to the winning parties themselves. This would be as if the American election was a battle between the "African-American Party", the "Hispanic Party" and, say, the "Christian Right" party, with your vote going predictably to whatever ethnic or religious identification you claimed.

Most Iraqi political leaders want to abandon that for a more Western style of democracy, with voters choosing between individual candidates. But in the city of Kirkuk, where Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen are all represented, there remains an impasse that could well force an election crisis. There, the Arab and Turkmen parties claim that Kurds have been moving population into the region in an attempt to eventually annex it as a part of greater Kurdistan. A party-based election would increase their chances of doing that.

As the country argues over this, there is a clash over American policy between GEN Ray Odierno, the American commander, and Ambassador Chris Hill. Hill wants the Iraqis to figure Kirkuk out on their own while Odierno wants to force the Iraqis forward by stepping in to broker a deal that leaves the constitutionally-mandated election cycle in place. Without an election, the chances for maintaining the draw-down Obama has scheduled -- and upon which a commitment of new troops to Afghanistan depends -- will fade and so will respect for constitutional government.

GEN David Petraeus, head of Central Command, has frequently said that Americans need to adjust their expectations when examining the situations in both war-torn Iraq and war-torn Afghanistan. He says we should be satisfied with an "Iraq-cracy" not an American-style democracy. But when a constitution becomes a document of good intentions rather than the hard granite of the law, it usually creates a situation ripe for electoral chaos and a breakdown of order. In other words, even as we become more focussed on the considerable challenges in Afghanistan, the stakes for America in Iraq remain high.


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