It’s Not Just Elections, It’s a Crossroads for a Nation’s Future

Iraqi officials prepare for the upcoming elections. Photo from IHEC.
Iraqi officials prepare for the upcoming elections. Photo from IHEC.

If all goes as planned, Iraqis will head to the polls on 30 April 2014 for the first national parliamentary elections since the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. forces. Iraq’s incumbent Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki is seeking a third consecutive term, despite his government’s chronic failure to promote good governance, better security, or national reconciliation.

The Atlantic’s Defense One reports, these elections mark a crossroads moment for the nation’s future: “…today Iraq is in chaos, with deadly violence, a dysfunctional government and a thriving al-Qaeda-aligned insurgency gaining hold in cities that Americans gave their lives to secure.” In February alone, at least 700 deaths were reported in Iraq. Additional deaths in Anbar province have been reported, although unconfirmed, due to the inability of United Nations officials to safely access the area.

The newly elected parliament will be charged with forming a government that can forge a path toward better governance, security, and national unity.

These elections will decide the 328 members of the Council of Representatives, the main elected body of Iraq’s national government, for the next four years. The Council of Representatives then elects the President and Vice President. The newly elected President then nominates a Prime Minister from the majority coalition in the Council, and this nomination must then be approved by the Council of Representatives.

Iraqi elections utilize an open-list system, meaning voters choose from a selection of political parties and coalitions. This method of proportional representation apportions 310 seats among Iraq’s 18 governorates. An additional 8 seats are reserved for minority groups (Christian 5, Sabean 1, Shabak 1, and Yizidi 1) and 10 compensatory seats are awarded to the lists that win the most votes nationwide. This system is meant to best accommodate and include Iraq’s widely diverse population.

A vast majority of Iraq’s political parties are based on religion and ethnicity, most notably between the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. Iraq’s political parties have traditionally banded together to compete as coalitions to maximize gains for the constituencies they represent. The administering body for Iraqi elections, the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC), released the official list of 39 electoral lists that are running in the upcoming election as coalitions of political parties. Since the last parliamentary elections in 2010, intra-sectarian competition has resulted in the splintering of several political parties and coalitions. In the 2010 parliamentary election, the Iraqi National Movement (aka Iraqiya) became the largest alliance, winning 91 seats. The State of Law Coalition became the second largest alliance, with a total of 89 seats. Other noteworthy parties are the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the Iraqi National Accord, and the Sadrist Movement (Ahrar).

Women are not to be overlooked in Iraq’s political sphere. A required one-fourth of the Council of Representatives must be female. In the coming election, there are expected to be over 2,500 women running for positions. This marks the highest participation of women to date.

All candidates running for election must first be approved by the Accountability and Justice Committee (AJC). Candidates face disqualification if found to have any ties to the Ba’ath party, of which Saddam Hussein was affiliated. This process, known as de-Baathification, has been the topic of much controversy since its introduction in 2003. In the 2010 parliamentary elections, the AJC banned 511 candidates from running and 15 political parties, most of whom were Sunni. More than 170 candidates appealed their ban, with only 26 appeals being successful. The IHEC also refused to disqualify 52 candidates. The actions of the AJC have fallen victim to accusations of both unconstitutionality and illegality. British Scholar Toby Dodge reports that Prime Minister Maliki’s direct control of the courts in Iraq has been a source of contention threatening the legitimacy of free and fair elections. Speaking to the nature of de-Baathification, EPIC founder and executive director, Erik Gustafson, agrees: “I would hope that the courts make decisions based on the facts of each case and not based on undue political pressure.”

However, on Tuesday 03/25, the Iraqi parliament and legislature issued differing rulings regarding the controversial clause in Iraqi electoral law allowing for the disqualification of candidates based on reputation. This resulted in the resignation of the entire IHEC board this Tuesday in protest of what they called political and judicial interference in the IHEC’s operations. IHEC spokesman Safa al-Mussawi told Agence French-Presse, “The commission is today caught between two authorities — the legislative and the judicial — and the two have issued contradictory decisions”. With the elections drawing near, it is unclear if these resignations will delay the planned April 30th elections.

The failure to deliver free and fair elections in Iraq opens the nation to a greater possibility for instability. As a means of combatting these and other potential challenges to free and fair elections in Iraq, international observers are necessary to serve as election monitors. In January, Eli Lake’s article in the Daily Beast reported that Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq called on the U.S., international community, and non-governmental organizations “to send election monitors, to ensure through technology there will be no fraud.” Their presence will be an essential safeguard to ensuring the legitimacy of these elections and setting Iraq up for success after the elections.

Despite any challenges facing the upcoming elections, expectations for the elections remain high. Within the current state of violence and a rise of sectarianism, Iraqis have the opportunity to positively change the direction that their country is heading. At a recent event hosted by U.S. Institute of Peace, Iraq’s federal deputy prime minister Rowsch N. Shaways discussed Iraq’s youth as a platform for change. He spoke of their optimism for change and for putting a divided history of sectarianism behind them by saying, “They want to build the country based on being Iraqis.” The question that remains is, will Iraqis have that opportunity to have their voices heard and counted on April 30th?

Ambassador Lukman Faily Speaks About Democracy in Iraq

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On Tuesday, February 18th, I had the pleasure of hearing Iraq’s Ambassador to the United States, Lukman Faily, speak at American University. The event drew a crowd of around twenty people, most of whom were professors or academics from the university. The ambassador spoke for thirty minutes, accompanied by a slideshow, and subsequently took audience questions for about ten minutes.

The talk focused on Iraq’s democratic transformation. Beginning with tales of Iraq in the Ba’athist era and stretching up until present day, Ambassador Faily argued that the legacy of dictatorship has had a major impact on Iraq’s democratic development. He described how the many years of dictatorship in Iraq have lead to an ongoing challenge of creating a democratic culture. In many ways, the ambassador’s talk was a progress report on where Iraq is in its transition away from dictatorship towards a democratic society.

Highlighting Iraq’s progress, Ambassador Faily pointed to Iraq’s three “free and fair” parliamentary elections that have taken place since 2003. In addition, he argued that Iraq has successfully established a government that respects human rights and is both transparent and accountable. Furthermore, the Ambassador spoke of the Iraqi people’s desire for democracy, supported by strong voter turnout across the country (averaging around 60% in successive parliamentary elections since 2003).

After being asked about the impact of violence from Al-Qaeda linked groups in Iraq, Ambassador Faily conceded that violence is hindering Iraq’s democratic process, but it is not stopping it completely. He downplayed the sectarian dimension of this current conflict, arguing that Sunni political officials want to be an integral part of the government and that both Shias and Sunnis are victims of Al-Qaeda-linked violence.

Indeed, all Iraqis, regardless of ethnicity and religion, have suffered from and are potential targets of violence from al-Qaeda-linked groups. At the same time, Toby Dodge, Juan Cole, and other close observers have argued that sectarianism, which had been greatly exacerbated with growing regional tensions over Syria’s civil war, and the lack of progress in national reconciliation are contributing factors in the violence.

Ambassador Faily’s lecture left me with with some unanswered questions that I believe are fundamental to Iraq’s democratic development. What does the lack of national reconciliation mean for democracy in Iraq? How can the Iraqi government work towards national reconciliation? Finally, what does the United States need to do to help aid Iraq’s reconciliation and reconstruction?

This upcoming April, Mr. Maliki will run for a third term as Prime Minister, leading many people to question his commitment to democracy. This begs the additional question: what effect will Mr. Maliki’s desire to stay Prime Minister of Iraq have on the institutionalization of democratic governance and culture in Iraq? While the answers to these question aren’t completely clear, Ambassador Faily suggested that the first step is creating mutually beneficial relations between Iraq and the United States. This is something EPIC supports wholeheartedly.

EPIC’s Latest 2014 Updates

EPIC’s Executive Director, Erik Gustafson (middle) with Program Associate Taif Jany (far left) and the Spring intern team
EPIC’s Executive Director, Erik Gustafson (middle) with Program Associate Taif Jany (far left) and the Spring intern team

With only two months passing into the new year, there have been many remarkable developments at EPIC. For all of us on EPIC’s team, it has been a very exciting time and we would like to share a few of these developments with you. 

First, we are pleased to welcome EPIC’s new Program Associate, Taif Jany, a Baghdad native who arrived to the US in 2008 to study Sociology and French at Union College in Schenectady, NY. Taif was born and raised in Baghdad, and left Iraq in late 2006 to seek refuge in Damascus, Syria due to the rising violence in Iraq at the time. Taif arrived to the United States through the Iraqi Student Project (ISP), a grassroots effort to assist displaced Iraqi students in Syria to finish their undergraduate education in US colleges and universities.

Second, we have a new podcast that will knock your socks off, thanks to the hard work of Taif and another amazing team of young interns. Here’s a quick description:

Episode 11: Bridging Cultures through Higher Education: The Iraqi Student Project

How did two upstate New Yorkers forever change the lives of 60 young Iraqis? Our latest IRAQ MATTERS podcast features an interview with Theresa Kubasak and Gabe Huck, the founders of the Iraqi Student Project (ISP), a grassroots non-profit organization that succeeded in securing a college education for 60 young Iraqi refugees in Damascus, Syria. We then talk with two ISP students, Ahmed Tarik and Sara Sabaa, about their life-changing journeys with the Iraqi Student Project. Theresa and Gabe were just two people who saw a problem in Iraq and acted on in, doing their part to support a creative solution. Working closely with Taif, a graduate of the Iraqi Student Project, has given me firsthand evidence of their success.

Jacob Russel at AUIS
Jacob Russel teaching the next group of PhotoVoice students

Third, I arrived in Iraq on Saturday to continue PHOTOVOICE IRAQ: Picturing Change, a research and youth empowerment project that EPIC is undertaking in partnership with American University of Iraq – Sulaimani (AUIS) and George Mason University’s Center for International Education (CIE) and Center for Global Studies (CGS). Last fall, a diverse group of 15 AUIS students and 7 volunteer mentors (all members of the AUIS faculty and staff) piloted the project for the first time. This first group of students “Picturing Change” included young men and women from Baghdad, Sulaimani, Erbil, Kirkuk, Ninewa, Babylon and Diyala. Week after week, they used cameras and written reflections to explore social issues that are important to them. Now we are continuing the project with a second group of 15 AUIS students as part of a photography course taught by the acclaimed photojournalist Sasa Kralj.

On Monday, I led Sasa’s class and formally introduced the students to the photovoice concept and the three core questions of “Picturing Change”:

(1) What do you see as the most important issue today affecting you or people you care about?

(2) What positive change do you hope to see within your lifetime?

(3) How do you see yourself being a part of this positive change?

Yesterday, I was honored to also team up with the brilliant freelance photojournalist Jacob Russell, who taught the students basic techniques of portrait photography.

Over the next three weeks, I will be mentoring these students through three cycles of photovoice. They are a promising group, and alongside Sasa, I look forward to co-mentoring them through the photovoice process. By looking at Iraq through the eyes of these young people, we are gaining insights into how our advocacy and field work can more effectively address their fears and support their aspirations.

Finally, a word about some truly EPIC interns. Every semester brings a new group, and each time I am impressed by the dedicated, talented young people who are attracted to our mission. Last summer it was two of those interns, Lesley Harkins and David Slater, who had the crazy idea of starting a podcast for EPIC. We call it IRAQ MATTERS, and with successive teams of young interns, including U.S. combat veterans and Iraqi Americans, we continue to podcast news, ideas, and conversations about Iraq. Our new interns Alicia Sornson, Julia Uriarte, Ruwani Dharmakirthi and Matan Diner have been working very hard to continue this project as well as taking on other important responsibilities.

If you have not heard of our podcast, make sure you check out our previous podcasts here. Also, please help us spread the word about EPIC’s mission by following us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Without supporters like you, none of our work would be possible. Please help further our mission of peace in Iraq by signing and sharing our Change.org petition to Put Iraq Back on the Agenda and by considering a charitable donation today. Thank you for being a part of our mission.

Rethinking Iraq’s Outdoors

Mawat, March 2011 2
Mawat, Sulaymaniyah, Iraq

Popular images of desert and sand cloud the public perception of what Iraq looks like today. The world gives little recognition to the beautiful mountains, landscapes and rivers that encompass the magnificent countryside. EPIC’s friend and partner, Nature Iraq, is one of the organizations working to protect, restore, and preserve Iraq’s rich natural environment for future generations.

Unfortunately, severe environmental problems are threatening these resources today in three major ways. Firstly, clean water supplies are jeopardized by a lack of regulation, awareness and protection, as well as foreign water projects altering the flow of rivers into Iraq. A similar pattern of lacking emissions and electricity regulations has led to a second problem of air and land pollution. This pollution is intensified by improper waste disposal and a lack of green belts and park systems. Finally, the biodiversity of Iraq has been adversely affected by the uncontrolled industrial, hydroelectric and oil development, as well as unrestrained animal hunting and trading.

Thus, Nature Iraq works to foster local engagement, decision-making and planning projects, while collecting scientific data and working within international guidelines for environmental restoration. Director Azzam Alwash was recently recognized as one of the top global thinkers by Foreign Policy “for saving the Garden of Eden.”

One of Nature Iraq’s most recent initiative aims to call attention to the need to protect Iraq’s rivers. Among these rivers is the Greater Zab river, a tributary of the Tigris flowing from the mountains of Turkey into northern Iraq and the last wild river in the country. The Greater Zab feeds many tributaries, including the Rawanduz River. These water sources provide vital environmental services by creating biodiversity and providing clean water, as well as great tourism opportunities to the region. However, pollution and poor resource-management have posed a threat to the sustainability of these rivers.

Speaking on behalf of Nature Iraq, Director of Conservation, Anna Bachmann talked about the nature of the issues plaguing these rivers by saying, “in the areas that are more secure such as Kurdistan, northern Iraq, there is a real thirst to develop as fast as possible and many of the mistakes we made in the West, polluting our waters and damming every tributary, are being repeated there. ”

To combat these concerns, this Spring, Nature Iraq is sending a team of professional kayakers, activists, and videographers to be the first to voyage the entire length of the Rawanduz River, located in Iraqi Kurdistan. Nature Iraq’s Waterkeepers Iraq Program, the Nature Iraq Foundation, American Canoe Association and Majestic Heights Outdoor Adventures are all working in conjunction to sponsor this trip. This trip follows a wildly successful Tigris River Flotilla in the fall of 2013.

The team will be reaching out to local communities along their journey to educate locals about river sustainability and protection. A short film of the trip will be produced upon completion of the expedition to further educate both local and international communities about the sustainability of these rivers as well as Eco-tourism opportunities.

The expedition is working to raise $10,000 through Indiegogo to cover the cost of the filmmaking. While the cost of the entire trip is estimated to be $70,000 with transportation, equipment and logistics, most of this funding will come from within Iraq or from the participants themselves. In order to donate to this worthy cause, you can visit the program website or the Indiegogo page directly.