Briefing Book

The Definitive Guide to the Iraqi Elections

"The Land of Two Rivers" is also the land of thousands of aspiring political leaders. Foreign Policy takes you inside the diverse parties, coalitions, and sects, from the center of power to its outermost fringes, that make up Iraq's political mosaic.

"It's good to be the king," Mel Brooks famously intoned in the 1981 film History of the World, Part I. What is often forgotten is that Brooks was portraying French King Louis XVI -- who would soon be found guilty of treason and executed by guillotine in 1793. As Iraq approaches its March 7 parliamentary election, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki can no doubt relate: While he currently sits at the top of the political hierarchy, a diverse array of opponents have assembled coalitions in an attempt to unseat him.

Maliki's "State of Law" coalition, which bases its appeal on a continuation of the security gains that the country has enjoyed since 2007, still remains strong. By shucking off the religious Shiite parties and adopting a more nationalistic discourse, Maliki has charted a course that, for many Iraqis, has represented a clean break from the sectarian violence that shook Iraq from 2003 to 2007.

But Maliki's erstwhile allies aren't taking rejection lightly. Each of the individual members of the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), which the Shiite parties formed to oppose him, can't match his electoral weight -- but taken together, they represent a formidable threat. They have also revitalized their support by loudly backing the efforts of Ahmed Chalabi's de-Baathification commission, which has disqualified hundreds of prominent Sunni candidates from the election. By raising fears of a resurgent Baath Party and thereby stoking sectarian sentiment, the INA aims to pull voters in Shiite strongholds such as Karbala and Najaf back into its arms.

If the INA is attacking Maliki's credentials as a Shiite leader, the prime minister also faces a challenge of his nonsectarian, national security bona fides in the form of former interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. Allawi's al-Iraqiyya coalition originally seemed to be the most credible nonsectarian alliance, including Shiite and Sunni parties of equal strength. But al-Iraqiyya has been hobbled by the exclusion of its candidates by the de-Baathification commission, and the INA-fueled increase in sectarian tension poses the greatest risk to Allawi's electoral prospects.

Meanwhile, the Kurdish parties have stood outside this conflict, waiting for the dust to settle. They will hold at least 43 seats, out of the 325 seats in the Iraqi parliament, and will present a unified front on the national stage. Their key concerns are the status of the contested city of Kirkuk, claimed by the Kurdistan regional government, and the Kurdish share in oil revenues. Should a governing coalition hope to add the Kurds to its ranks, it will have to bow on these wedge issues.

What follows is the definitive guide to the parties and coalitions that will shape the future of Iraqi politics. While the central players usually hog the media spotlight, Iraq also has a bewildering array of smaller political parties representing minor ethnic groups, or political trends that have fallen by the wayside in recent years. On the final page of its guide FP delves into the fringes of the Iraqi political world.

State of Law Coalition

Maliki's coalition aims to convince voters that it can best restore stability to Iraq -- but that it also represents the Shiite identity of his core supporters. This dual task has required some fancy political footwork: Maliki has been largely supportive of the de-Baathification efforts led by the INA, but he has also recently announced the reinstatement of 20,000 army officers who served under Saddam.

Party: Islamic Dawa

Leadership: Nouri al-Maliki (prime minister of Iraq)

Main constituency: Shiite

Power centers: Baghdad, Basra, Qadisiyah, Wasit

History: The Islamic Dawa has secured its place atop the fractured Iraqi political scene after years of infighting and turmoil. According to its official history, Dawa was founded in 1957 in the holy city of Najaf. Somewhat ironically, its identity was originally forged in part by Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, one of the most influential Shiite religious figures of the era and father-in-law of current Shiite firebrand Moqtada al-Sadr, who hoped to inject Shiite Islamic values into the secular politics of the era. By the 1970s, cornered both ideologically and politically by the ruling Baath Party, Dawa began to evolve into a revolutionary movement with an increasingly militaristic bent. Following the Iranian Revolution, Dawa built close ties with the Islamic Republic of Iran, which supported the movement in its guerrilla war against Saddam Hussein. 

With Saddam deposed in 2003, Dawa turned its attention back to politicking. This was an uphill battle at first: The party had earned respect among Shiites for its war against Saddam, but its leadership did not have the same degree of clerical support as its rivals and suffered from internal divisions, and so was eclipsed by rival Shia movements such as the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the followers of Moqtada al-Sadr. Fortunately, however, these other groups split the Shiite vote in the 2005 parliamentary election, and the subsequent competition between SCIRI and the Sadrists led to the selection of two successive Dawa leaders, Ibrahim al-Jaafari and Nouri al-Maliki, as prime minister. Maliki cleverly took advantage of improvements in Iraq's security situation starting in 2007 to broaden his party's base.

Maliki has savvily balanced his role as the leader of a religious Shiite party with the need to remain a nonsectarian leader committed to the re-establishment of the rule of law in Iraq. He was rewarded with a strong showing in the 2009 provincial elections and subsequently formed the new "State of Law" coalition, which broke off from his old Shiite allies, to contest the March 7 election.

Party: Anbar Salvation National Front

Leadership: Sheikh Ali Hatem al-Suleiman

Main constituency: Sunni

Power center: Anbar

History: Sheikh Ali Hatem al-Suleiman is a leader of the 5 million members of the Dulaim tribe in Iraq, the largest tribal grouping in Anbar province. He was one of the tribal sheikhs who played a pivotal role in the Anbar Awakening, which drove al Qaeda out of the western Iraqi province. The major figures of the Awakening movement -- Sheikh Hatem, Sheikh Hamid al-Heyes, and Ahmed Abu Risha -- had split apart by 2008 and joined different coalitions. In joining Maliki's coalition, Hatem is pinning his hopes on the Iraqi prime minister to deliver the nonsectarian leadership that he promised, which would be a welcome change for Sunnis after years of marginalization following the collapse of Saddam's rule.

Party: Independent Arab Movement

Leadership: Abd Mutlaq al-Jabbouri

Main constituency: Sunni

Power center: Kirkuk region

History: Jabbouri exists uneasily in the State of Law coalition. The former president of the Iraqi Arab Gathering, which broke up in 2009 following the collapse of the umbrella group Iraqi Accord Front (Tawafuq), Jabbouri is a Sunni and an Arab nationalist. His presence in the coalition represents his faith that Maliki will actually deliver on nonsectarian leadership -- and he has warned the prime minister that his movement will quit the alliance if Maliki cuts a deal with the more rigid Shiite elements of the Iraqi political world, represented by the Iraqi National Alliance.

Jabbouri is from the Sunni Arab village of Huwija, near the contested city of Kirkuk. Consequently, he has bolstered his Arab nationalist credentials by taking the lead in opposing Kurdish attempts to integrate the city into the Kurdistan Regional Government. He has criticized the compromise election law passed by the Iraqi parliament in November 2009, citing fears that Arab and Turkmen voters will be disenfranchised in the upcoming election due to voter fraud by the Kurdish-dominated local government. Jabbouri went so far as to call for a boycott of the parliamentary election in Kirkuk, but later backed down from this position. Although there has been some friction, Jabbouri has so far defended his decision to join Maliki's coalition. "I may have lost my standing among Sunni extremists, but I have gained standing among Iraqis," he said in February.

Iraqi National Alliance

The Iraqi National Alliance stormed to victory in the December 2005 election, winning 130 out of the 275 seats in parliament. Today, the party is a shadow of its former self. Maliki has left the coalition, and the remaining parties have seen their popularity drop precipitously. Maliki's decision to form his own coalition was less a principled political stand than a judgment based on cold political math: He demanded a larger share of the seats that the INA would win in the coming elections than the other members of the coalition were willing to provide. However, rumors of a coming post-election rapprochement between the two groups persist.

Party: Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq (ISCI)

Leadership: Ammar al-Hakim

Constituency: Shiite

Power centers: Najaf, Basra, Maysan

History: Like its sparring partner, Dawa, ISCI is a venerable Shiite group with ties to Iran -- though ISCI claims closer ties than Dawa's. The party has been going through significant changes recently: First, the party took a drubbing in the 2009 provincial elections, winning only 7.7 percent of the vote. Then Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the group's leader, died last August, passing the reins to his still-untested son, Ammar al-Hakim.

The ISCI has been a member of the Iraqi National Alliance since it was founded as an umbrella coalition of the major Shiite parties to contest the 2005 parliamentary election. However, Hakim is now trying to turn things around by transitioning the party's agenda to more closely align with Iraq's changing circumstances. He has dropped a proposal for an autonomous Shiite region in the south, similar to the Kurdistan Regional Government, to more closely reflect Maliki's vision of a strong, centralized Iraq, and promised other reforms aimed at broadening ISCI's political appeal beyond Shiite religious voters. But, given the overwhelmingly Shiite makeup of the Iraqi National Alliance and ISCI's longstanding demagoguery surrounding the issue of de-Baathification, which it views as a way of excluding prominent Sunni leaders from the political process, the success of these reforms are far from guaranteed.

Party: Sadrist movement

Leadership: Moqtada al-Sadr

Constituency: Shiite

Power centers: Dhi Qar, Maysan, Baghdad's Sadr City

History: The idea of reviving the Shiite umbrella coalition from the 2005 parliamentary election actually belongs to Sadr, who first broached the idea in a speech in Qom, Iran, in February 2009.

Following the collapse of Saddam's regime in 2003, Moqtada al-Sadr became the bête noire of the U.S. forces occupying Iraq. His political movement -- and armed militia -- has long exerted extensive influence through Iraq's southern provinces and in the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad. But after the Maliki government sent troops to liberate Basra from Sadr's Mahdi Army in March 2008, Sadr's fortunes took a turn for the worse. Since that offensive, which was aided by militiamen from ISCI's Badr corps, Sadr has increasingly retreated from the public eye. Some say he has been continuing his religious study in Iran in an attempt to gain a level of theological gravitas appropriate for a religious Shiite leader.

Party: National Reform Movement

Leadership: Ibrahim al-Jaafari

Constituency: Shiite

Power center: Maysan

History: Jaafari is this election's would-be comeback kid. A longtime member of Dawa, he served as Iraq's prime minister in 2005 and 2006. But the United States eventually grew disenchanted with his accomplishments while in office -- viewing him as too beholden to Iran and insufficiently capable of resolving the security situation -- and eased Maliki into the position. As Maliki's star rose, Jaafari steadily lost clout within the Dawa leadership and disappeared from public view.

In 2008, Jaafari formed the National Reform Movement as a vehicle for his political renaissance. But Jafaari-mentum has been hard to come by: The party garnered single-digit support in the provinces that it contested in the 2009 Iraqi provincial elections, winning its largest share in the southeastern Maysan province, where it took 8.7 percent of the vote. Jaafari has taken a harder line on the issue of Kirkuk than some of his allies, criticizing Ammar al-Hakim for visiting Kurdistan in January 2010. While Maliki has taken Dawa in a more secular direction, Jaafari has followed the precisely opposite path: "Oh, Hussein, here we come to your aid," reads one of his campaign posters, referencing the Shiite martyr whose death marked the beginning of the Sunni-Shiite rift.

Party: Iraqi National Congress

Leadership: Ahmed Chalabi

Constituency: Shiite

Power center: Baghdad

History: Chalabi has slunk into the race, a highly partisan but still crucial figure. His history is, of course, dubious: Chalabi founded the Iraqi National Congress in 1992 with strong CIA backing, to unite Iraqi opposition groups against Saddam. By 1996, the CIA had grown disillusioned with his intelligence and cut ties. However, Chalabi retained support in certain hawkish corners of the U.S. government and following the U.S. invasion in 2003, he was appointed to a number of significant posts in the fledgling Iraqi regime.

One of those positions was as head of the Accountability and Justice Commission, the body that leads Iraq's de-Baathification efforts. Although the Iraqi parliament passed a law in 2008 that called for revisions to the commission's mandate and the appointment of a new board, it neglected to actually appoint these new members. In the absence of a functional replacement, the old commission has continued its work, despite its questionable legal standing. Chalabi and his ally Ali Faisal al-Lami, the executive director of the commission, are now using the commission to prohibit some of Iraq's most prominent Sunni leaders from running in the election for their alleged ties to the banned Baath Party.

Although Chalabi will not deliver a significant number of votes to the INA, he has given his coalition an agenda: The de-Baathification issue has been used by ISCI, the Sadrists, and Jaafari to heighten sectarian tensions in the hopes that Shiite voters will turn to the sectarian parties for protection.

AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images

Al-Iraqiyya Coalition

Although former interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi fell on hard times following his poor showing in the 2005 parliamentary election, he has assembled an impressive number of allies to contest the coming polld. He has focused on a security message and also called for Iraq's reintegration into the Arab world, exemplified by his recent visit to Saudi Arabia. This message struck a chord with many Iraqis, but it might all be undone by the de-Baathification campaign led by the Iraqi National Alliance.

Party: Iraqi National Accord

Leadership: Ayad Allawi

Constituency: Nonsectarian, nationalist

Power centers: Baghdad, Diyala, Salah al-Din

History: Ayad Allawi may have suffered the most from his cousin Chalabi's de-Baathification efforts. His coalition, a nonsectarian blend of Sunni and Shiite with a message focused on law and order, is in tatters because of it. Allawi founded the Iraqi National Accord in 1991, following the Gulf War, as an opposition group composed of former Baathists and military officials. The goal was to foment a coup against Saddam by rallying disaffected elements within the Iraqi Army. Like Chalabi, Allawi was a favorite of the CIA. Unlike Chalabi, he remained on relatively good terms with the United States -- on June 28, 2004, he was appointed as Iraq's interim prime minister, a position in which he served until the January 2005 elections.

Allawi is a Shiite but, as his party was initially made up of Baathists, much of its leadership is Sunni. Allawi's list made a surprisingly strong showing in the 2009 governate election, a feat that he will attempt to duplicate in the coming campaign. However, his coalition has been hobbled by the de-Baathification efforts of Chalabi's Iraqi National Alliance, which disqualified 72 of al-Iraqiyya's candidates. Allawi hit back by referring to members of his cousin's Accountability and Justice Commission as operating a "secret police" in Iraq and initially threatened to withdraw from the election unless the ban on his primary Sunni ally, Saleh al-Mutlaq of the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, was lifted. However, he has since retreated from those remarks.

Party: Iraqi Front for National Dialogue

Leadership: Saleh al-Mutlaq

Constituency: Sunni

Power centers: Anbar, Diyala

History: One of Iraq's most important Sunni politicians, Mutlaq is an ex-Baathist who left the party in 1977 -- though many Iraqis aren't convinced that he ever fully broke from his former cohort. He openly courts Saddam's former supporters, saying that he "was proud of so many of the [Baath] party's achievements in education, agriculture, and industry."

Mutlaq was the most prominent figure excluded from the election by the de-Baathification commission -- a major blow to the al-Iraqiyya alliance and to hopes that the 2010 election would improve relations among Iraq's sectarian communities. Mutlaq denounced his disqualification as an "Iranian intervention" and initially pulled his party out of the election. However, his supporters, fearful of repeating the disastrous Sunni boycott of the 2005 parliamentary election, convinced him to reverse his decision.

Mutlaq has advanced an Arab nationalist agenda that tends to play down sectarian divisions. As one of the top Sunni negotiators responsible for drawing up the new Iraqi Constitution in 2005, he resisted Shiite and Kurdish calls for a federal system. He has also been a vocal opponent of Kurdish claims over Kirkuk, and the importance of this issue is a reason why Arab Sunnis like Mutlaq cannot afford to boycott the election, which would diminish their position in negotiations over the final status of the city.

MARWAN IBRAHIM/AFP/Getty Images

Iraqi Unity Alliance

Party: Constitution Party

Leadership: Jawad al-Bolani

Constituency: Secular Shiite

Power center:  Maysan, Wasit

History: Bolani is a smart but small-bore politician with little to distinguish himself from Maliki, who is running on a similar campaign platform. He kicked off his campaign with an op-ed in the Washington Post that described his role as interior minister in Iraq's recent security improvements, and the problems still facing the country. A Shia moderate with a reputation for political independence, Bolani is competing with Maliki and Allawi for those Iraqis who prioritize a cross-sectarian law-and-order message. Most recently, Bolani has announced the expulsion from Iraq of 250 former employees from the security contractor Blackwater Worldwide. Blackwater, now known as Xe, is widely distrusted in Iraq for its perceived indifference to Iraqi civilian casualties.

Bolani has maintained some ties with the Sadrists, who are a political force in his hometown of Amarah, in southeastern Iraq. But his coalition, of which he is the only national figure, has also been hit hard by the de-Baathification effort -- 67 candidates of the Iraqi Unity Alliance were excluded by the Accountability and Justice Commission.

Party: Awakening Council

Leadership: Sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha

Constituency: Tribal Sunnis

Power center: Anbar

History: A key figure in the Anbar Awakening, Abu Risha has since worked to consolidate political power within the region's tribal power structure. When the Anbar tribal sheikhs began to reconsider their alliance with al Qaeda in 2005, Abu Risha's brother, Sheikh Abd-al-Sattar, was at the forefront of the movement that became known as the Anbar Salvation Council. After Abd-al-Sattar's 2007 assassination, Ahmed was elected head of the organization. But once the Awakening ended, the alliance of Sunni sheikhs fractured, and Abu Risha lacked his brother's charisma in holding them together. That said, he still commands a significant degree of support in Anbar; his party finished first in Iraq's 2009 governate election.

Abu Risha's slate has been heavily targeted by the de-Baathification commission; he has said that seven of his candidates were disqualified by the board. He had previously hinted that the exclusion of members of his party from the election could cause Sunni voters to boycott it. Anbar voters "will not care about the election, they will ignore it, maybe, if these decisions stands," he stated in January. However, he has subsequently refrained from calling on his supporters to shun the election.

SABAH ARAR/AFP/Getty Images

The Kurdish Parties

Party: Kurdish Democratic Party

Leadership: Masoud Barzani

Constituency: Kurds

Power centers: North/West Kurdistan, Dohuk and Erbil governorates

History: After more than six decades, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) remains the standard-bearer of Kurdish nationalism in Iraq. Masoud Barzani's father Mullah Mustafa Barzani founded the party in 1946, and the younger Barzani took over the leadership after his father's death in 1979. In 1997, the KDP entered into a power-sharing agreement with its one-time rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which has more or less endured to this day. The alliance allows the Kurds to present a united front vis-à-vis the central government in Baghdad.

In this election, however, the KDP has emerged as the dominant Kurdish party. With the PUK fending off an assault from the Gorran splinter group, the KDP has had room to flex its muscles, assuming positions within the Kurdistan Regional Government and the central government in Baghdad traditionally held by the PUK.

Party: Patriotic Union of Kurdistan

Leadership: Jalal Talabani (president of Iraq)

Constituency: Kurds

Power centers: South/East Kurdistan, Sulaimaniyah governorate

History: Kurdistan's second party, it has been led by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani since its creation in 1976. Its makeup is more secular and less tribal-based than the KDP. But a recent splinter movement has cut the party in two and forced a crisis. In early 2009, former PUK leader Nusherwan Mustafa left the party, accusing it of corruption and hostility to reform, and formed the Gorran (Change) movement, which took a significant piece of the PUK vote in its traditional stronghold of Sulaimaniyah. The PUK, which has adopted the slogan "Renewal and Reform" for this election, has tried to give every sign that it is learning from its past mistakes: The party has established an "internal integrity commission," and Talabani has disclosed his assets. But if Gorran again posts strong results, more members of the PUK may defect to the new group -- and there are rumors the KDP might rethink its traditional governing alliance if the PUK performs poorly, leaving this once-powerful party out in the cold.

Party: Gorran (Change)

Leadership: Nusherwan Mustafa

Constituency: Kurds

Power centers: Sulaimaniyah, Kirkuk

History: Think of Gorran as the Tea Party movement of Kurdistan, only originating from within the Kurdish establishment and bent on electoral success. The region's politics have been curdled through inertia: Kurdistan has been governed by the same two parties -- both of which face charges of corruption -- for the last 13 years. Enter Gorran, formed by former PUK leader Nusherwan Mustafa, promising to clean house. Formed barely over a year ago in February 2009, Gorran posted impressive results only five months later in parliamentary elections held in Iraqi Kurdistan, winning 25 percent of the seats.

When faced with "Kurdish" issues, such as debates over oil revenue sharing or the final status of Kirkuk, Gorran can be expected to pool its votes with its two rivals against the Iraqi Arabs. However, Gorran has pressed for important reforms to eliminate the corruption and nepotism that it says has long characterized the joint KDP-PUK rule of the Kurdistan Regional Government. The coming election will give a sense of whether Gorran is becoming a major player in Kurdish politics, or is merely a flash in the pan.

SHWAN MOHAMMED/AFP/Getty Images

Fringe Parties

But that's not all! Iraq also contains a mosaic of parties representing the interests of Iraq's smaller ethnic communities, or ideologies that have fallen into disfavor. The Iraqi Communist Party and the country's remaining royalists embody political trends that once held great influence; today, it appears time has passed them by. The parties representing Iraq's Yazidi, Assyrian, or Shabak communities, on the other hand, face a natural ceiling to their influence, due to their communities' small and dwindling numbers. However, when election day rolls around, the leaders of these parties will be watching the returns as carefully as Iraq's political heavyweights.

Party: Iraqi Constitutional Monarchy

Leadership: Sharif Ali bin al-Hussein

Main constituency: Sharif Ali bin al-Hussein

History: In every democracy, there is someone who wants to be king. Iraq overthrew its Hashemite monarchy in 1958 for good reason, but try telling that to Sharif Ali bin al-Hussein, who has repeatedly called for its restoration and, naturally, put himself forward as the heir to the throne. His party advocates for a national referendum on the question of making Iraq a constitutional monarchy, believing that a royal head of state would be able to stand above partisan politics and act as a unifying force for the war-torn country. The ICM's website leaves little doubt on its choice for future king -- the section on al-Hussein reads like a résumé for the throne. Perhaps even stranger is the glowing review the ICM gives the 1925 Iraqi Constitution, stating that Iraqis adopted the document "after protracted negotiations in a form which was acceptable to them all" -- neglecting to mention that it was forced upon the country by Britain, the mandate power at the time.

Party: Iraqi Communist Party

Leadership: Hamid Majeed Mousa

Main constituency: Poor Shiites

Power centers: Baghdad, southern Iraq

History: Iraq's communist party has seen better days. Although it is still respected as Iraq's oldest political party, formed in 1934 and one of the major resistance groups during Saddam Hussein's rule, it has not managed to attract an electoral following. The group managed to survive constant crackdowns during Saddam's rule, and its house organ Tareeq al-Shaab was the first independent paper to publish in Baghdad after the fall of Saddam. However, the movement was finally crippled by the rise of religious Shiite parties, which cut into its traditional base among poor and minority voters. Despite the U.S. hostility to communism and the Iraqi Communist Party's opposition to the 2003 invasion, the party was offered, and then accepted, a spot on the interim Iraqi Governing Council. But in both regional and national elections since then, the party has posted dismal returns.

Party: Yazidi Movement for Reform and Progress

Leadership: Amin Farhan

Main constituency: Yazidis

Power centers: Nineveh, Dohuk Province

History: One of the many minorities of northern Iraq, the Yazidis boast they maintain the oldest calendar in the world, dating back some 6,759 years. They are adherents to a religion that is a mixture of Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, and Sufi Islam, and they worship a divine peacock. Following the 2003 invasion, some Yazidis appeared to have a perspective on the capabilities of the U.S. forces that exceeded even that of the Bush administration's most fervent neocons. "We believed that Jesus Christ was coming with a force from overseas to save us," stated one Yazidi tribal leader. Another asked for the U.S. Army to park a tank in front of his house "forever."

Yazidis are concentrated in the Nineveh province, which has been a frequent site of Kurdish-Arab tensions, and they have often been caught in the middle of this dispute: They have been targeted by al Qaeda-aligned Arab militias, and have also been victims of peshmerga attempts to "Kurdify" the region. Yazidis have either thrown their weight behind the Kurdish parties or struck out on their own. The Yezidi Movement for Reform and Progress has been the most successful independent group, winning a seat in the Iraqi parliament in the 2005 elections and garnering over 6,000 votes in the 2009 Nineveh provincial election.

Party: Assyrian Democratic Movement

Leadership: Yonadam Kanna

Main constituency: Ethnic Assyrians

Power center: Nineveh

History: The Assyrian Democratic Movement is competing for the five seats in the Iraqi parliament designated for Iraqi Christians. Representing Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Syriacs, it is the only Assyrian party with current membership in parliament (Yonadam Kanna, the party head). Boasting one of the most user-friendly websites of the minor Iraqi parties, the ADM appears to be running a FUBU-like campaign, referring to its electoral list as "by our people and for our people."

The party's platform stresses the importance of Article 125 of the Iraqi Constitution, which guarantees "the administrative, political, cultural, and educational rights of the various nationalities, such as Turkomen, Chaldeans, Assyrians." Kanna has done extensive outreach to the Assyrian diaspora, including a lengthy swing through Assyrian communities in Europe and the United States. He has called for Iraq to be a secular country -- a savvy move for a Christian living in an overwhelmingly Muslim nation. He explained his reason for reaching out to the diaspora in an interview with the Turlock Journal, in Turlock, Calif.: "Today, the world is a small village."

Party: Shabak Democratic Party

Leadership: Dr. Hunain Mahmoud al-Qaddo

Main constituency: Ethnic Shabaks

Power center: Nineveh

History: It's a sad fate to be a tiny ethnic minority in Iraq. Shabaks, a largely Shiite ethnic group in northern Iraq, are reserved one seat in the Iraqi parliament. However, the Kurdish authorities in Iraq's northern provinces have long claimed the Shabak are ethnic Kurds. Needless to say, Shabaks aren't thrilled with that assessment -- al-Qaddo has said the attempted Kurdization of the Shabaks is a "political goal."

Visiting the Shabak Democratic Party's website is an adventure in political sensationalism. The bouncing text, reminiscent of a PowerPoint presentation gone horribly wrong, warns of "an ethnic group dying out," and "greeving tears of blood flow." The rotating photographs alternately show nationalistic rallies and appallingly violent images of people murdered by, if one trusts the captions, "terrorists" and "Kurdish militias."

AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images

 

Muhannad Fala'ah /Getty Images

Briefing Book

How to Read the QDR

What the Pentagon’s most highly anticipated planning document says about the gap between its aspirations and reality.

If the annual budget is where the U.S. Defense Department lays out its needs for the coming year, the Quadrennial Defense Review is where the Pentagon lays out its vision of the years ahead. It's an important guide to how military and civilian leaders see the world, and since the U.S. military plays such an enormous role in setting America's foreign policy, it's a document that demands careful study. And it's also vital to examine the gap between the soaring ambitions of the QDR and the hard realities of the budget.

This year's QDR, the Obama administration's first, portrays the security challenges of the future as fundamentally different from those of the past. In the 21st century, conventional U.S. military superiority will increasingly drive potential adversaries toward asymmetric responses to American power. Recognizing this new state of affairs, the./ QDR emphasizes the nontraditional threats posed by WMD terrorist attacks, hybrid warfare combining high- and low-tech tactics, and the loss of shared access to the global commons in air, sea, space, and cyberspace. Even potential competitors like China are more likely to attack the United States using asymmetric means, such as by countering American power in cyberspace rather than in a blue-water naval battle in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Together, these asymmetric security challenges could erode America's freedom of action and ability to influence the course of world events in the years ahead -- if the United States does not begin to prepare for them now.

While the new defense budget released alongside the QDR continues to reallocate resources in response to nontraditional threats, it is difficult to compel dollars and plans to follow words. The quip about past QDRs -- "Civilians propose and services dispose" -- still holds true today. In its innovative "Quad Chart," the 2006 QDR masterfully sketched out the four main challenges facing the United States in the future. However, the Government Accountability Office judged that the 2006 report did not comprehensively consider "different options for organizing and sizing its forces to provide needed capabilities." Similarly, the 2010 QDR concedes that further narrowing of the gap between vision and reality may be required. In its own words, the new QDR "describes some of the tradeoffs that Defense Department leaders have identified to enable the rebalancing of U.S. mili­tary capabilities," but admits, "More such tradeoffs could be necessary in the future."

The new QDR and defense budget illustrate the challenge of matching vision to reality, even with more than $700 billion in annual funding for the Department of Defense. Closing the distance between strategic priorities listed in the QDR and realistic budgetary plans to implement them will prove a major challenge in 2010 due to persistent structural constraints on reallocating defense spending. Moreover, last year's overall success in reshaping the defense budget does not mean that members of Congress will unflinch­ingly accept and implement the vision illuminated by the new QDR. Some lawmakers may favor the status quo during 2010, thanks to the lingering economic recession and upcoming congressional midterm elections.

The Budget Squeeze

The strategic rebalancing called for by the 2010 QDR will confront structural constraints that will make change difficult to implement. These impedi­ments, which are deeply rooted and long running, include:

  • Rising personnel costs for the Department of Defense's military forces and civilian employees, which are being compounded by 1) increases in the end-strength size of the Army and Marine Corps; and 2) the addition of 19,200 new governmental acquisition workforce employees.
  • Growing DOD operations and maintenance costs.
  • Higher price tags for advanced weapons systems, including the additional acquisition costs associ­ated with design problems and schedule slippages.
  • The cost of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, which 1) may not immediately decrease when troops are withdrawn if historical precedent is any guide; and 2) will require future investments to bring depleted equipment stocks back to pre-war standards.
  • Steady growth in federal spending on mandatory programs such as Social Security and Medicare, which will increasingly squeeze discretionary spending in other areas, including national defense.

Taken together, these trends leave alarmingly little room to maneuver. They present formidable obstacles to strategic flexibility, as well as budget­ary realignment when needed, in the pursuit of national security needs.

In the years ahead, fierce competition for federal budgetary resources may prevent the Pentagon from receiving enough money to do all of the things it has already committed to doing, let alone the things required to cope with emerging nontraditional security threats. When combined with byzantine congressional and interagency budget processes, which are not conducive to "whole-of-government" approaches to national security, the structural constraints described above are a significant drag on responsive, forward-oriented strategies for overcoming the wide range of irregu­lar, disruptive, and catastrophic challenges to the United States laid out in the 2010 QDR.

In the wake of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, political leaders may be reticent to increase defense spending and to keep it elevated for most of the next two decades, as would be required to execute existing initiatives. Excluding costs for Afghanistan and Iraq, the Pentagon's base budget must average $567 billion per year between 2011 and 2028 in order to carry out current plans. Defense policymakers should not delude themselves into thinking that it will be easy to secure this high level of funding over such a long period. The Pentagon will struggle to obtain resources as it competes against ballooning interest on the national debt, non-defense domestic priori­ties, and a generation of baby boomers driving mandatory spending higher than ever. Further, public opinion polls show that more than 70 percent of Americans think current defense spending levels are either "about right" or "too much." Even if the required funding were to be appropriated, the high costs for personnel, operations and maintenance, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq threaten to crowd out investments in procurement and research and development, which together provide new solutions for today, such as mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles, and alternative options for tomorrow, such as unmanned aerial vehicles and the next generation bomber.

Thus, the Pentagon cannot rely on American taxpayers' future largesse. Instead, the Department of Defense should concentrate on putting its own house in order by using the new QDR as a mandate to continue to bring strategic vision and force plans into closer alignment. In making these tough deci­sions, however, Pentagon leaders must also clearly explain to Congress and the American people the attendant risks. The U.S. military cannot alter its force plans without serious repercus­sions for the policies of U.S. allies, the strategies of potential U.S. adversaries, and the robustness of the defense industrial base.

Tradeoffs Still Required

Pre-existing budgetary commitments make it dif­ficult for the Pentagon to devote adequate resources to the new capabilities necessary for success in mis­sions U.S. troops are actually performing today and are likely to perform tomorrow. Despite the persis­tent challenges of global terrorism and two ongoing wars, the Department of Defense still spends more each year on administrative activities like claims processing than on the special operations forces that are so important for success in Afghanistan, Iraq, and counterterrorism missions. The Pentagon also continues to pay for major defense acquisition programs, initiated decades ago in some cases, that no longer serve current security needs.

Reforms to the defense budget made by Defense Secretary Robert Gates last year certainly brought the Department of Defense's priorities and plans into much closer alignment. Indeed, last year's 2010 budget will likely go down in history as one of the most revolutionary budgets ever because of the specific programmatic changes made to approximately 50 weapons systems. The new 2011 budget does not recreate the fireworks of last year. Instead, it consolidates last year's gains within a long-term evolutionary framework in accordance with the future needs of the U.S. military.

Yet more hard tradeoffs are still required to ensure that the commitments of the past do not become a strategic drag on overcoming the challenges of the future. The worst-case scenario going forward is that policymakers whistle past the graveyard by avoiding difficult choices today -- only to discover five years from now that things have become even less fiscally sustainable and that the United States is still not prepared for the uncertain future that lies ahead.