On 30 April, Iraqis will be back at the polls for their third national elections since the downfall of Saddam Hussein. Looking back over the past four years under the government of Nouri al-Maliki, they have little to be thankful for.

Despite the growth of the country’s oil export revenues, most Iraqis have not seen much change in their lives. Electricity shortages are still widespread, basic services are still lacking and security is as bad as ever. Voting looks like it will follow a familiar pattern, based on ethnic and sectarian ties.

Former national security adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie recently spoke to MEED about his plans to stand in the elections and the vast challenges ahead for his country.

Al-Rubaie’s return

Having left Iraq for the UK in 1979, Al-Rubaie was tried in absentia and sentenced to death by Saddam Hussein’s regime for being a key member of the then-banned Dawah party, the main opposition to Saddam. He did not return until 2003, following the US-led invasion, as a member of the Iraqi governing council until the establishment of the Coalition Provisional Authority in May 2004. He was appointed national security adviser in March of that year, serving Iraq’s prime ministers until April 2009.

Al-Rubaie won his first seat in Iraq’s parliament, the Council of Representatives, in 2009, after founding the Wasat (Centrist) party, which advocates non-sectarian politics and the appointment of technocrats at all levels of government.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Dawah party is inherently religious, according to its constitution, which is why Al-Rubaie left it in 1996. But his Wasat party remains aligned with Al-Maliki’s State of Law (SOL) coalition. “Changes can only come from within, not from outside,” says Al-Rubaie. Behind the scenes he has continued to work as an informal adviser to Al-Maliki. Having been outside the government for the past four years, Al-Rubaie is now seeking a fourth term in parliament.

[Iraq’s challenges involve] a terrible triangle of corruption, a dysfunctional state, terrorism and militias

Mowaffaq al-Rubaie, former security adviser

He succinctly describes Iraq’s challenges: “A terrible triangle of corruption, a dysfunctional state, terrorism and militias.” Each of the elements feeds off the others, and Iraq’s intelligence agencies remain inefficient and inadequate. “When I left the government in the summer of 2009, the violence started to escalate,” he says. “It is not magic; counter-terrorism is an intelligence-led war. To be effective, it has to be made up of human, signal and cyber intelligence, and the coordination between the intelligence agencies.”

Al-Rubaie argues that coordination between the elements throughout the intelligence system, from defence and interior ministers down to battalion commanders, is crucial to maintaining a more stable level of security in the country.

“Now, Iraq’s intelligence agencies don’t share information; they don’t cooperate and the situation is spiralling downwards,” he says. “Some believe it is just a security or military problem, but it is a different vision.”

Overworked forces

The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a US think-tank, describes Iraq’s counter-terrorism forces as overworked, lacking manpower and unable to match the vast intelligence resources that the US brought to bear in its fight against insurgents in the country from 2006 to 2010. Under pressure, Iraq’s security forces have fallen back on old habits such as mass arrests and collective punishment.

We need to rewrite [the constitution] to protect the rights of all the communities, including the Sunni Arabs

Mowaffaq al-Rubaie, former security adviser

Events in the west of the country show these tactics have been counterproductive. Protests have spread across Iraq’s Sunni Arab provinces since the end of 2012, following the arrest of Rafee Issawi, the Sunni former finance minister, on charges of corruption and terrorism. What began as calls for greater inclusion in governance, appealing for the repeal of the de-Baathification laws, which sought to exclude former members of Saddam Hussain’s party from power, have evolved into full-fledged demands for autonomy. Tensions between the Shia-dominated government and the Sunni population have been on the rise since then.

Amid all this, Al-Qaeda made a remarkable comeback at the beginning of 2014, with its affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) seizing control of the city of Fallujah, which lies less than 60 kilometres west of Baghdad. The group still holds some of the city. The government’s response has so far been restrained, giving local forces time to eject the terrorists and evacuate civilians. While Iraqi special forces will carry out operations against specific Al-Qaeda targets, the government’s plan is to surround Fallujah, after which it will lay siege and leave the city for what Al-Rubaie calls “spontaneous self-degeneration”.

“The plan is to encircle it, and leave the city to its own devices,” says Al-Rubaie. “There will be splits in leadership, conflicts over logistics, direction and funding. The city will disintegrate from within.”

Holistic approach

At the same time, Al-Rubaie adds that it is critical the government also takes a longer-term, holistic approach, which includes political measures and the integration of the Sunni Arab community. “But the plan still needs time and the will to implement it, not just to pay lip service,” he says.

Despite the failure to ensure security of economic development, Al-Rubaie is confident Al-Maliki will win another term in office. “The result of the election will depend on how many seats the SOL coalition wins,” he says. “If they get 50 seats, which seems unlikely, then it will be difficult for Al-Maliki to stay. It they get more than 100 seats, then the SOL will win easily. I expect the SOL to get more than 70 seats.”

The withdrawal of one of Al-Maliki’s key Shia rivals, Moqtadr al-Sadr, from politics is likely to boost the prime minister’s ambitions. Al-Sadr made his surprise announcement in mid-February, citing his disillusionment with an Iraqi political scene mired in corruption, sectarianism and the scandal of excessive salaries for MPs. His Sadrist movement currently holds 40 seats in the 325-member parliament, as well as six ministerial positions, and Al-Rubaie expects most of Al-Sadr’s followers to shift their allegiance to the SOL.

But there are risks too. Al-Sadr’s abrupt departure has left a vacuum of influence for many Iraqi Shias. The politician, whose family resisted the regime of Saddam Hussein, formed the paramilitary Mehdi Army and resolutely opposed the US occupation. Although his militia forces have been at the heart of some of Iraq’s sectarian troubles, Al-Sadr’s tone has moderated and he now says he is seeking to break the grip of sectarianism before it spreads to the street level.

The Kurds also have a key role to play, although Al-Rubaie doubts there will be any breakthrough in their key dispute with the government this side of the elections. The semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has been in a long-standing dispute with the federal government in Baghdad over the payment of revenues from the federal budget and Kurdish oil development. “They will have a strong say in the makeup of the new government, however, and will push for concessions,” says Al-Rubaie.

Nevertheless, the process of forming a government will take time. In 2010, negotiations took more than nine months after the elections failed to yield a clear winner. Al-Rubaie says this time it could be even longer, unless the SOL wins by a landslide.

Bridging divisions

He outlines the priorities for the new government, once political deals have been made, alliances forged and it can actually get down to work. Foremost is the fundamental reform of the constitution, which was hastily written in 2005 with little input from the country’s Sunnis. This would set the state back on a path towards national reconciliation and bridge its sectarian and ethnic divisions.

“The old logic of Kurds, Sunnis and Shias cannot hold Iraq together,” he says. “The current constitution was written to protect the rights of two of the three counterparts; it is not for a united country. We need to rewrite it in a way to protect the rights of all the communities, including the Sunni Arabs.”

A constitutional committee was formed in 2005 and given six months to prepare amendments for approval by parliament. But no progress was made and the process was frozen as Iraq entered a period of intense sectarian violence between 2006-08. Al-Rubaie is now calling for the committee to be reformed and for work to start again.

This can only be done, however, if Iraq’s big issues, from security to oil and the economy, can be tackled without factionalism. The immediate problem, says Al-Rubaie, is that “everything in Iraq, from drainage to oil, is politicised”.

Key fact

Iraq’s constitution was written in 2005 with little input from the country’s Sunni population

Source: MEED