Letter From Iraq: A Mixed Bag

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki speaks at his home village of Hindiya, Iraq, Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2008, as he kicked of the start of his election campaign. Iraqi provincial elections will be held on Jan. 31 2009. (AP Photo/Ahmed Alhussainey)
AP Photo/Ahmed Alhussainey
Manal Omar is a Program Officer with the United States Institute of Peace.

While Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki held high-level meetings in Washington D.C., the Kurdish Regional Government was preparing for this weekend's parliamentarian and their first presidential elections.

The regional election in the Kurdish area is Iraqi power-sharing incarnate. Whereas a central government under al Maliki in the last four years has gained strength and recognition, regional power structures - both formal and informal - continue to self govern.

I was in Iraqi for a USIP capacity building workshop for Iraqi NGOs across the country, and traveled between polling stations in Erbil to observe the regional elections. The Kurdish elections sparked a wider debate among the Iraqi participants at our training course about the future of Iraq. There were mixed feelings towards the Maliki led Iraqi central government. On one side, there is a strong sense that Maliki deserves credit for leading the country out of the dark years of 2006 to 2007 where religious and sectarian violence was rampant.

Actions such as restructuring the Ministry of Interior, Maliki's visit to Awjah in Salahuldeen (Saddam's hometown and a Sunni dominated area), and the emphasis on the rule of law have gained citizens' confidence from across the country. A civil society activist of a non-governmental organization based in Tikrit explained that he planned to vote for Maliki in the upcoming national elections in December despite the fact that Maliki was neither from his sectarian or religious background. Another civil society activist also from Tikrit nodded, adding that Maliki had proved a willingness to work across ethnic, religious, and political divide.

Others were not as positive.

They argued that any success on security and political alliances was due to the US troops, and that al Maliki was a puppet of US government interests. These Iraqis did not object to the alliance with America, but wished their leadership demonstrated stronger charisma and independent thought. For them, any talk of continued US troops was extremely problematic. Yet they also recognized the challenges that would bring. Their fear was that that withdrawal of US troops would equal to a resurgence of violence in hot spot areas such as Diyala and Salahuldeen. They were quick to point out the instability in the northern governate of Mosul, and the continued targeting of minority communities.

A Christian journalist from Mosul emphasized that until today Iraqis in Mosul could not look towards local Iraqi police for protection, and the only true protection was from the Peshmergas (the Kurdish regional government's military). The solution, many argued, was not the presence of US troops. The solution lay in a stronger Iraqi central government that al Maliki could not provide. They believed that the challenges facing al Maliki, primarily corruption and diversifying his power base, were going to be hard to overcome with his leadership style.

No matter how people feel about Maliki leadership, there is no doubt that under his watch security has drastically improved. Almost eighteen months ago I held a similar training in the Kurdish Regional Government concentrating on Iraqi women's organizations. None had been willing to travel by road. The situation was simply too dangerous. In the current trainings almost all forty participants will travel by road. Some will be traveling as far as Ammarah and Basra, the governates in the South. This was impossible one year ago. That was something everyone could agree on.

Additionally, they all confided that the primary question on their minds was how sustainable the security improvements would be, especially with the withdrawal of the US troops. Yet al Maliki's proposal to extend the presence of US troops was met by frowns by almost all sides. The time had come for Iraq to manage its challenges on its own. The critical factor for Iraq's self determination, they argued, would be on being able to manage their internal conflicts on their own through a central government based on the rule of law.

There was strong recognition that this would bring further growing pains for Iraq. But as one Iraqi woman pointed out -Iraqi's were used to bearing pain, especially with the promise of a stronger, independent country on the horizons.

By Manal Omar