Iraq is months away from national elections, but the Fort Lewis unit running daily American military operations in Iraq is already preparing for the voting, which will be a benchmark of Iraq's ability to run its own affairs.
“Quite frankly, if they hold successful parliamentary elections – secure and credible – and through the system they can seat a government successfully, that’s a pretty huge step for a young democracy,” said Brig. Gen. Peter Bayer, the I Corps chief of staff. Bayer spoke last week from Baghdad in a telephone interview that focused mainly on Iraq’s civil capacity, or its ability to properly govern its people.
The 1,000 service members of I Corps deployed in April to run operations under the banner of Multi-National Corps-Iraq.
Bayer, also chief of staff of MNC-I, said Iraq has seen its biggest leaps of governing ability in recent years on the provincial level, and much of the reason for that can be attributed to the operation of State Department-run provincial reconstruction teams, giving Iraq its best chance in years to move toward full self-governance.
HIGH-LEVEL CHANGES EXPECTED
The security agreement between Washington and Baghdad has allowed American troops to quietly fade into a support role, but American officials have long acknowledged that Iraqi governments on all levels must operate smoothly if the country hopes for long-term stability.
Politicking is already under way ahead of the national elections on Jan. 16, which Iraqi and American officials hope will lead to a more representative government.
Most Sunnis boycotted the 2005 election that ushered in Baghdad’s current lawmakers.
“We’re not sure who will lead the nation,” Bayer said, “but we expect there will be some changing faces on the ministerial level, which will cause some challenges for them in terms of their ability to do the bureaucratic functions required to support the nation.”
One of those ministerial-level changes could be the country’s top job.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his Dawa party have broken with their allies to form a new coalition. A victory in January’s elections would mean Maliki would return as prime minister; a defeat could send him to the political wilderness.
The Iraqi police will take the lead in securing polling sites, Bayer said, with the Iraqi military providing primary support. The American military will likely back them up with assets the Iraqi security forces lack, like drone-aircraft surveillance.
American officials hope next year’s election plays out like January’s provincial elections, which swept many warlords out of power.
“We saw a distinct change in the character of the leaders elected,” Bayer said. “They better represent the demographics of their provinces. And in most cases, most of those elected came from a more professional class – we’re talking engineers, doctors, lawyers, businessmen.”
He gave as an example the new government in Anbar province, one of the epicenters of violence in Iraq several years ago. The Islamist government there was replaced with members of the Awakening, a coalition of Sunni tribes that helped force out members of al-Qaida in Iraq.
CORRUPTION STILL AN ISSUE
Anbar Gov. Qasim Abid al-Fahadawi, a former businessman in the construction industry, has won praise for encouraging foreign investment in the province. But The New York Times reported in September that many Anbar residents are unhappy with their new government, with some accusing elected officials of skimming wealth from the province while doing little for the residents.
The American Embassy in Baghdad has an anti-corruption task force that operates throughout the country, and Bayer said the corps often stresses the need to eliminate graft.
Still, he said, corruption in Iraq’s military is “not a significant concern.”
“We don’t see it as pervasive as you see in government ministries and in places like (border checkpoints), where it can be challenging,” he said.
Much of the United States’ contribution to rebuilding Iraq’s institutions lies in the 16 provincial reconstruction teams throughout the country.
A State Department official leads each team, with a military officer as the deputy. Civilian and military experts work with local governments to increase ability to govern the population.
The military provides soldiers with civil affairs or engineering expertise, and often security; a battalion of Fort Lewis’ 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division is supporting the provincial reconstruction team in Diyala province.
And some of the military’s most effective assistance comes in the form of its civil affairs officers, who help their Iraqi counterparts with various fields such as agriculture, architecture, law enforcement and medicine.
But the supply of soldiers, many of whom come from the Reserve or National Guard, often struggles to meet the demand.
“When you have a guy who runs a chicken farm or a chicken cooperative, you have a great guy who can help with Iraqi agriculture,” Bayer said. But, he added, “we’re challenged as an Army in terms of our nation’s demand for our services.”
Scott Fontaine: 253-320-4758