U.S. keeps a low profile ahead of Iraq elections


As Iraqi lawmakers repeatedly miss deadlines for writing the new law urgently needed for elections to go ahead in January -- and for U.S. troops to go home -- America’s diminishing role in the political process is very much in evidence.

Back in 2005, when Iraq’s democracy was being formed, it was common for legislators to meet into the small hours of the morning in the presence of U.S. officials, who shuttled between the feuding camps, mediating disputes and pressuring them to stick to the timetable for a new constitution and for elections to be held.

Four years later, elections are due to be held again, and the original deadline for the new law came and went three weeks ago, putting at risk the Jan. 16 vote and potentially delaying the withdrawal of the remaining U.S. combat forces next year.


This time around, U.S. diplomats have adopted a noticeably lower profile, ceding the lead mediation role to the United Nations and emphasizing the need for Iraqis to solve their own problems.

With the time needed to prepare for the elections ticking away, Vice President Joe Biden on Sunday telephoned Massoud Barzani, president of Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish region, and parliamentary speaker Iyad Samarrai, a Sunni Arab, urging them to accept a U.N. proposal for resolving the deadlock. The men are key players in a dispute over voting procedures in the long-contested province of Kirkuk that is holding up an agreement.

Many lawmakers, including some who once complained of excessive American interference, say they wish the U.S. was playing a bigger role at the bargaining table.

“We want them to intervene for the sake of Iraq. We want more commitment by America because it’s an occupying power,” said Khalaf Ulayyan, a Sunni lawmaker known for his criticism of American interference. “We want them to come up with a proposal that would provide a solution.”

“They’re urging. They’re not pressuring,” said Mohammed Tamim, a legislator from Kirkuk who has met with U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill at least once in the last week. “We need pressure.”

American officials say embassy staff members have been working around the clock to broker a compromise, while letting the U.N. take the lead. Hill, they say, has held dozens of meetings with key players, and a team of U.S. diplomats attends parliament daily.

“We have been very actively engaged,” said an official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in keeping with embassy policy.

But American officials also make it clear that the days when U.S. diplomats sat in on Iraqi negotiations to steer them to resolution are over.

“We are not in the business of dictating solutions. There need to be Iraqi solutions to Iraqi problems,” said a U.S. diplomat, who also spoke on condition of anonymity. “After all, that is what a mature relationship is all about and what they have continually asked for.”

The lower profile is a sign of the shifting U.S. role now that Iraq’s sovereignty has been restored under the terms of a security pact signed last year, said Army Lt. Gen. Charles H. Jacoby Jr., the commander of U.S. ground forces in Iraq, who described the U.S. role as appropriate given the changed relationship.

“It’s very concerning to us that we are flirting with the timeline here,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s an issue of diminished U.S. interest. I think it’s an issue of increased Iraqi sovereignty and taking responsibility for their destiny.”

Yet the deadlock presents the worrying possibility that Iraq’s leaders won’t prove capable of taking that responsibility once U.S. troops have left.

The biggest issue holding up the new election law is the question of how voting should proceed in Kirkuk, whose population has swelled since the last elections because of an influx of Kurds.

Arabs and Turkmens, who also lay claim to the province, want special measures to adjust for the increased numbers because they believe many of the Kurdish immigrants are there illegally. The Kurds insist there should be no special voting procedures, and reject the U.N.’s proposal, which singles out Kirkuk.

The dispute is symptomatic of deeper divisions over the long-term status of Kirkuk and the distribution of oil, land and power, issues that remain unresolved and could erupt in conflict as U.S. troops withdraw.

Army Gen. Ray Odierno, overall commander of U.S. forces here, has pegged the withdrawal to the January elections. He is to make an assessment of security conditions 60 days after the voting, and if there is a delay, the pullout could also be postponed, U.S. officials say.

Though most Iraqis want the U.S. to stick to the August deadline for withdrawing all combat forces, there appears to be little urgency in the halls of parliament. On most days, lawmakers express anxiety that the elections will be delayed if they don’t reach agreement soon -- then they head home by midafternoon.

“During this transition time, we still need the U.S. to apply pressure on the parties to reach a compromise,” said Shiite lawmaker Jaber Habeeb Jaber. “We can’t do it by ourselves.”

Some Iraqis see the limited U.S. role as progress.

“They’re wearing U.N. gloves. They’re stepping behind, while some Americans are meeting individuals to persuade them to accept the U.N. proposal. It’s a positive thing,” said Sami Askari, a lawmaker who is close to Prime Minister Nouri Maliki. “Any sovereign country respects the U.N. more than interference from individual countries.”

But others, especially the Kurds who fear the disengagement of their American allies, are highly critical.

“Either don’t get involved, or come to the front and discuss it openly with everyone,” said Kurdish legislator Mahmoud Othman, who said Biden’s phone call with Kurdish leader Barzani showed an anti-Kurd bias by America because the Kurds oppose the U.N. proposal. “Talking to one here, or one there, is not useful and could be counterproductive. It would be better if they would step in and make proposals that are helpful.”