One goal of the United States before it departs Iraq is to leave it a functioning democracy. The U.S. has facilitated four national elections, two provincial, one parliamentary, and a referendum on the 2005 constitution, since the U.S. invasion. In January 2010 Iraq is to have its fifth balloting for a new parliament. Voting is only the most visible form of democracy. Since 2003 the Americans have been building up local councils to give everyday Iraqis a say in their government. These look to disappear however when the U.S. leaves.
The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) was the first government agency in the U.S. to seriously contemplate democracy building in Iraq. It joined the post-war planning in August 2002. The State Department was supposed to be in charge of governance in Iraq after the invasion, but never came up with anything concrete. That left the USAID to create a policy on its own. They wanted to decentralize power away from Baghdad to the local level. Under Saddam, the Baath party was in control of all levels of government. The USAID wanted to break that hold. They wanted to create neighborhood councils that would create jobs, be in charge of reconstruction, and give common Iraqis a say in their government. When they presented their plans to a National Security Council subgroup on humanitarian issues in Iraq, their ideas were rejected. The official stance was the U.S. was not going to be doing nation building in Iraq, and USAID had just crossed that line.
The situation in Iraq after the invasion proved so chaotic, that the U.S. military began implementing some of the USAID’s plans without knowing it. American units wanted Iraqi partners in their area of operation. To find some they began building up local councils across the country. This was done on an ad hoc basis, as there were no orders from above on how to do it. In Mosul for example, General David Petraeus, who was then the commander of the 101st Airborne Division, set up a convention of 270 delegates from the city representing its diverse population, who in turn elected 24 city council members and a mayor. In Najaf, General James Conway of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force started organizing provincial elections, registering parties, finding candidates, etc. The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) had to step in at that point letting the general know that he could not carry out such a large undertaking because Iraq did not have an election law to legalize any voting. Some were far less representative and participatory. In the Karkh district of Baghdad only around 2,500 Iraqis of 30,000-35,000 showed up to vote for their council. In al-Kindi, fifty-five Iraqis elected 12 members to the council there. The U.S. military funded all of the councils they created, but believed that they would eventually hand them over to some other government body. That never happened, as the USAID lacked the money and personnel to deal with them. The U.S. military is still in charge of running these councils to this day.
The USAID was doing a similar job independent of the military. Iraq’s bureaucracy disappeared with the invasion. The tie between Baghdad and the rest of the country was severed in the process. The USAID tried to step in, offering three contracts to companies to create local councils. One company set up 22 offices across Iraq in the spring and summer of 2003 to complete this task. In April, the USAID also allocated $120 million to start local reconstruction that would assist these local groups. $61.7 million was spent in the end on 1,700 projects.
The U.S. military and USAID’s work eventually clashed with the CPA and the fledgling new Iraqi government. By 2005 437 neighborhood, 195 sub-district, and 96 district councils had been created by the Americans. CPA head Pual Bremer wanted to build a democracy in Iraq and decentralize power as well, but was more focused upon the provincial governments than local councils. The councils also ended up clashing with the Iraqi ministries and director generals over priorities and power.
This became more complicated after the two Iraqi elections in 2005. The provincial and parliamentary votes were closed list, meaning Iraqis voted for coalitions, which in turn picked the politicians. This was a blow to the U.S. military and USAID’s effort to empower local forces as the large national parties were in control of the process. The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) and the two main Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) came out the major winners in both votes. They too wanted to disperse power outside of Baghdad, but into their hands. As the new rulers of the provincial councils and ministries they too came into conflict with the U.S. created councils over authority. A mid-2006 report by the Americans for example noted that the SIIC and its militia the Badr Brigade had tightened their grip on the provincial governments, and were against any new elections or reforms that would weaken their power. The result was that provinces and ministries largely refused to work with the U.S.-backed local councils.
By the time the Surge started in 2007, the situation had grown no better. Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) were created to build up local and provincial governance, reconciliation, and reconstruction. They spread out across Iraq and began working with the local and district councils. They still had no real authority in the Iraqi government however. They had a small budget to pay salaries, which they got from the Americans, and some small scale U.S.-funded rebuilding projects, but no real say in ordinances, taxes, larger reconstruction efforts, provincial councils, or Baghdad.
Today it seems like only the U.S. military still considers these councils relevant. Stars and Stripes reported that few Iraqis go to the councils. The Iraqi political parties ignore them as well. If Iraqis want something done they go to the U.S. or Iraqi security forces, sheikhs, or other local leaders. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is also intent upon recentralizing authority in his hands. The attempt to give everyday Iraqis a say in their government was an admirable move. Simply voting does not make a democracy. A culture and norms also have to be created. The local councils were a move in that direction, but they were another sign that the Americans cannot dictate to the Iraqis how to develop their society. For better or worse, the post-invasion Iraqi elites are now in control of this process. That will mean these councils will all but disappear when the U.S. leaves. After all, they will have no more money to run, and have never been able to integrate into the new Iraqi political system.
Special Inspector General For Iraq Reconstruction, “Hard Lessons,” 1/22/09
Warden, James, “Focus turns to matching old, new Iraqi institutions,” Stars and Stripes, 3/1/09
- “Local leaders are making a comeback in Iraq,” Stars and Stripes, 3/2/09