Re-Occupy Iraq?

July 1, 2007 Topic: Security Regions: Persian GulfMiddle East Tags: Golan HeightsIraq War

Re-Occupy Iraq?

Mini Teaser: If the United States seeks to quell the civil war in Iraq, re-occupation may be the answer.

by Author(s): Jeffrey Stacey

The eternal rules of the Iraqi political game remain unchanged. These compel the factional leaders, each tied to militias and dressed up as ministers, to grab maximum power by dominating any opposition-with violence if necessary. It doesn't matter which particular social, economic or political aspect of Iraqi civil society is involved-be it a gas station, a union, a school, a newspaper or the parliament itself-the factions do not stop competing or fighting until one gains control and immediately thereafter operates in a winner-take-all fashion, providing all the jobs or money or positions to individuals of the same sectarian group. In the worst scenarios, deaths for members of minority groups have been the tragic result. The on-the-ground reality in Iraq belies the myth that the government is anything but a slim façade of infighting.

Violent clashes to gain control of the Iraqi health ministry earlier this year, for example, should have struck American commanders and political leaders as not only telling but also alarmingly ominous. The government ministries of Iraq have all been divvied up by faction, with the health ministry landing in the hands of Moqtada Sadr's faction. Widely suspected of being turned into a Mahdi Army fief-from the storage of weapons and their transport by ambulances to the planning of attacks and the channeling of millions of dollars to the militia-Sunni insurgents attacked the building in November; the result of which was a huge gun battle that coalition forces eventually responded to after the attack had largely been repelled. In February, U.S. and Iraqi units raided the building to arrest the deputy health minister, a Sadr loyalist suspected not only of large-scale embezzlement but also planning the killings of a series of health-ministry officials.

The war is replete with examples of the carving up not only of the Iraqi government, but every other sector of society as well. To mention a few of the many examples, all non-members of the KDP and PUK have been purged from top administrative positions in universities throughout the northern Kurdish region; Sadr's Trend movement-inseparable from the Mahdi Army-controls all the production and revenue of liquid propane gas in central Iraq; in a dramatic showdown, the Shi‘a faction's Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) took over control of the Basra port facility earlier in the occupation. Likewise, Sunni tribal factions gained control of all the contracts for guarding Iraq's oil pipelines; faction militias at different universities in Baghdad intermittently prevent students from different sects from taking their final exams; and journalists viewed as writing something critical about the sect in control of the board, editor or publisher positions get routinely threatened.

For the most part, local U.S. decision-makers, from L. Paul Bremer through Ambassador Khalilzad, along with Generals Sanchez and Casey, have watched these trends without directly intervening to thwart them. Their goals have been stability and at least a low threshold of governance, at the direct cost of creating a viable civil society in Iraq-in other words, at the cost of a foundation for actual democracy. Allowing the carving up of Iraq has not always been palatable to these officials, but in practical terms they have found no other model for achieving their immediate aims. It is tantamount to Mayor Bloomberg's allowing mafia families to control the provision of a range of city services in pursuit of predictable outcomes rather than effective governance. As one local Iraqi has observed, taking note of the ten major factions competing for influence today: "This is the way Saddam did it-you've created ten little Saddams."

Related to this scenario is a phenomenon occurring lately in southern Shi‘a-dominated Iraq. Competition rages not only across sectarian divisions in Iraq, but also among them. Kurdish factions may have temporarily ceased killing each other, but Sunni Al-Qaeda regularly targets rival Sunni insurgent groups. For example, the reported May death of Al-Qaeda leader Abu Ayyub al-Masri apparently came at the hands of a rival Sunni tribal militia. And in the south, with a much higher death toll, the Shi‘a Mahdi Army and Badr Brigades have been violently clashing. Their affiliated political parties-Sadr's Trend and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim's sciri, as well as Iraq's Prime Minister Maliki's Dawa party-have been fiercely competing in the political arena at all levels of government, particularly in towns like Diwaniyah, Samawah, Nasiriyah and Basra. The intensity of this competition has been matched only by the violence of their affiliated militias, with average Shi‘a, as well as Sunnis, often caught in the crossfire. Some of the most intense fighting took place in April between the Mahdi Army and Fadhila, another Shi‘a party with its own well-organized militia, in Basra; and also between the Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigades in May in the town of Diwaniyah.

The way to change this seemingly endemic Iraqi political culture is to actively monitor and pressure civilian decision-making, by force if necessary, until faction leaders prove their concern for the national interest and minority rights. Iraqi people and associational groups-particularly the factions-need, quite simply, to learn how to behave in a democratic manner, not because Iraqis can't handle democracy but precisely because historically all they have ever known is varying degrees of autocracy. Changing this "normal" dynamic will take not months but years, and U.S. forces will have to work hand-in-hand with civilian specialists to accomplish what is indeed a daunting task.

American leaders and observers fail to see this phenomenon for what it is, naively believing that once a constitution is in place and elections have occurred that Iraqis will behave like Westerners and all will be well, not recognizing that average Americans and Europeans grew up accustomed to peace and democracy amid thriving civil-society networks. Both our president and the average person in the street are inclined to view elections as a panacea-whether in Afghanistan or Iraq. But in both places, intractable problems with deep historical roots exist amid a marked absence of civil society, hugely complicating the task of nation-building. It is time to take off the rose-tinted glasses.

Indeed, the Panglossian Western belief that Iraqi factions are heeding electoral mandates to serve others, not themselves, has taken a serious toll. It has signaled to all Iraqi factions that American actions are all aimed at securing a rapid U.S. withdrawal. Therefore, fomenting violence is akin to making a "can't lose" bet. While average Americans have grown tired of hearing the president talk about "staying the course", ill-fated U.S. efforts all along have been aimed at getting out of Dodge. In straightforward bargaining terms it is totally rational for insurgents and militias to wreak havoc simply because high U.S. casualties and a low-grade civil war in Iraq puts major pressure on the United States to withdraw, thereby achieving their ultimate goal. Continually ceding more authority to the highly partisan Iraqi government-instead of working to forge a real representative central government-sends a strong signal to the factions that if they continue down their blood-soaked path, they will succeed. As things stand, they are already fairly convinced of this.

The crux of all this for the American administration is that it has to commit either to getting out of Iraq or to making the occupation work. However, if the United States truly values achieving a lasting, stable democracy, it has to make a series of sobering commitments instead of continually pretending that such a grand project can be accomplished on the cheap. Making this level of commitment will change the overall political dynamic in Iraq and very well may be the only hope the United States has of even achieving a Pyrrhic victory.

For Iraqis to have a viable chance at success, they need a lasting power-sharing agreement. The essential way to achieve this is literally for the United States to re-take previously transferred power whenever factions defect from the national interest and harm minority groups. This needs to happen without exception in tit-for-tat fashion. For example, the government needs to understand that hanging Saddam in defiance of a U.S. dictum will cost the government a piece of its sovereignty-starting with loss of control over the Iraqi armed forces. It could proceed, if necessary, all the way to the dissolution of the current Iraqi government, bringing back the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). Ultimately this power would be re-transferred, but in the short to medium term there appears no other way of changing the behavior of the militias.

In order to change their behavior, the United States needs to send a completely different signal: If you don't suspend violence and visibly disarm your militias, then you won't get the control you seek. This will be made credible precisely by taking power back. While not a foolproof solution-and certainly an unpalatable path for democratic purists-reconstituting the CPA is not only necessary but crucial for achieving the administration's and Congress's benchmarks, in particular the ultimate measure of success: a stable, lasting democracy marked by the regular non-violent handover of power. Crucially, genuine ideological-sectarian divisions would be marked by nonviolent resolution of conflict.

The basic question is this: How do you gain the loyalty of average Iraqis? The answer patently does not involve building them a new bridge or soccer field, or even decreasing power outages. Average Iraqis will be wooed away from supporting the current set of parties or joining their militias when corruption is tackled directly (i.e. the practice of allowing a single faction to gain total control of a particular asset or organization and handing all the spoils exclusively to its loyalists). Thus, a reconstituted CPA will need to give positions to unaffiliated technocrats-possibly Ba‘ath Party members given a second chance-and contracts to factions only with a strict set of guidelines that will be regularly assessed with absolute consistency of penalties when the guidelines are breached.

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