Something Is Rotten in the State of Iraq
Mini Teaser: Sunni vs. Shia. Kurd vs. Arab. Nationalist vs. Islamist. Iraq circa 2011 is looking an awful lot like Iraq circa 2004. The country is headed back to the anarchic depths from which it ever-so-briefly emerged.
The election produced four major blocs in the parliament—the Kurds with fifty-three seats, the Sadrists with roughly forty seats, Iraqiya and State of Law. It meant that only Iraqiya and State of Law together could pass the 163 seats needed to form a governing coalition. Otherwise, each needed both the Kurds and the Sadrists and a few independents as well. Early on, the U.S. embassy in Baghdad wanted to try to hammer out a compromise between Iraqiya and State of Law for a majoritarian government. This would have excluded the dangerous Sadrists, while the Kurds inevitably would have joined simply to avoid being left out. But al-Maliki and Allawi could not agree on which of them would become prime minister, and the United States was unwilling to take a position and try to impose it upon them. The embassy then floated the idea of having Allawi become president—with expanded powers—while al-Maliki remained prime minister. But this meant that Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani would have to step down from that post, something that he was loath to do, and Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, eventually decided to back him.
With the Americans unwilling to break the political logjam, the Iraqis were left to their own devices. That made the Sadrists and the Kurds kingmakers, and both set out to extract the most they could from the larger parties before committing. To make matters worse, the new Obama administration placed excessive emphasis on having a fully “inclusive” government, which eliminated a number of possible combinations that might have produced a more effective coalition—and done so sooner. For nearly a year, Iraqi politics came to a complete halt. All of the provisions in the constitution regarding the timetables for forming a new government were ignored. It set a terrible precedent, undermining the nascent effort to foster rule of law. It derailed the momentum of Iraqi democracy. And it established a dangerous standard: that what matters most is not how the people vote but rather how the parties politick afterward.
Predictably, the result has not been pretty. Ultimately, al-Maliki did win. Under pressure from, and with the support of, Iran (which he mostly fears and dislikes), al-Maliki reluctantly cut a deal with the Sadrists (whom he detests). With that advantage, the prime minister then sat down with Barzani and agreed to many of the Kurdish leader’s key terms, at which point he had the votes to form a government. But both the Americans and Barzani wanted the mostly Sunni Iraqiya coalition in the government too—Washington to preserve the impression of inclusivity; the Kurds as an internal counterweight to State of Law and the Sadrists, both overwhelmingly Shia parties.
In November 2010 they agreed to a new government with al-Maliki as prime minister and Allawi as the chairman of a new, ill-defined council on strategic policy that has become another source of infighting. The following month the ministries were divvied up and the government seated, mostly. There were no ministers of defense and interior since Allawi and al-Maliki could not agree on who would run those crucial portfolios. It was a sign of things to come. This de facto national-unity government simply took all of Iraq’s political differences and brought them into the government itself, paralyzing the cabinet and much of the bureaucracy.
The reason that Iraqi politics fell apart so quickly is that few Iraqi leaders have internalized the patterns of behavior conducive to democracy, and Iraq lacks the kind of strong institutions that would compel them to behave properly without that internal moral compass. The reason they behaved well during 2008–2009 was that the combination of the new security created by the surge and the greater American involvement in Iraqi politics had imposed a new, external incentive structure on Iraq’s politicians—in effect, forcing them to act like good democratic leaders. Once that pressure began to be removed in 2010, so too did these externally imposed incentives. Not enough time has passed since the ouster of Saddam Hussein for a fundamental change in the psyches of Baghdad’s political elite—let alone the emergence of large numbers of new, better politicians. Not surprisingly, Iraq’s many bad leaders are going right back to behaving badly.
What’s more, without that external American pressure, Iraq’s top politicians have largely abandoned their willingness to make difficult compromises—on anything from the country’s hydrocarbon revenues to the conduct of its security services to the very nature of Iraqi federalism—to enable broader progress. The result has been political paralysis. There is no movement toward overall reconciliation, but there is equally little action to address day-to-day governance or even pressing policy needs. All of the parties are hewing to the terrible Middle Eastern dictum, “When I am weak, how can I negotiate; and when I am strong, why should I?” Those with leverage are trying to dictate policy, and those without are doggedly clinging to their positions in the hope that something will happen to empower them again.
Of greatest concern, this breakdown in Iraq’s democratic political process has begun to reengage the dynamics that drove the country to civil war in the first place. All of the mistrust, fear and desire for revenge that fueled the conflict remain—Sunni vs. Shia, Arab vs. Kurd, secular vs. religious—and the factions are beginning to cave in to their own extreme chauvinists. Naturally, some, perhaps many, of those extremist groups have begun to resort to violence to try to break the political logjam in their favor, causing others to worry that this is the wave of the future and to consider rearming as well. It is the most dangerous pattern for Iraq. The kind of behavior that, if it is allowed to fester, could drive the country right back into civil war.
ALI FAISAL al-Lami represented everything wrong with Iraqi politics. He was a vindictive, partisan hack—a Shia in this case, but just as bad as various Sunnis, Kurds and Turkmen, the kind of people who seem determined to destroy Iraq to suit the most craven desires of their kith and kin. Al-Lami was the person who publicly led the bid to use Iraq’s poorly designed de-Baathification laws to disqualify many important Sunni leaders before the March 2010 elections. He was believed to have been connected with some of the Shia “special groups,” terrorists-cum-death-squads by another name. Iraq would have been undeniably better off without him.
Someone else apparently thought so too, and in May 2011, that someone killed him. As bad as al-Lami was, his death may prove even worse for Iraq than the continuation of his political career. His was the first high-profile political assassination in a very long time. It marked an important escalation in a growing trend. The Americans honestly don’t know who is doing all the killing, but it isn’t just al-Qaeda. Sunnis, Shia, Kurds, Turkmen, Christians and others are all targets. They’re being shot, knifed, blown up and murdered in various other ways with no discernible pattern. It suggests the reappearance of a propensity to employ assassination to advance political agendas and then to retaliate for other people’s murders.
Most of those killed so far have been low- or mid-level officials. Few with a profile like Ali al-Lami’s. But his death was the predictable next step in the re-creation of the vicious cycle that once plunged Iraq into the maelstrom of civil war. Once people begin to kill each other to push political agendas, if no outside authority steps in to stop it—the state or a third-party peacekeeper—it becomes the norm. The assassins and their victims realize that they can get away with it; the targeted groups often decide to become killers themselves. Then it’s only a matter of time before it escalates horizontally, with more and more people dying, and vertically, with more politically important people getting killed.
When I went to visit the prime minister’s office in June, my friend and fellow traveler, the great Iraq expert Raad Alkadiri, pointed out a poster on the walls of the compound. It mourned the death of the “martyr,” Ali al-Lami. That’s not good. In Iraq, them’s fightin’ words. It is the kind of public pronouncement that could easily incline others to seek vengeance on whomever they think might have murdered al-Lami. And if they do, they probably won’t be content to kill someone low on the totem pole as payback for such a high-profile villain.
THE BIG losers are the Iraqi people. They got exactly the opposite of what they voted for. They wanted an effective, technocratic government free of sectarianism and warlords. They wanted leaders who would concentrate on rebuilding Iraq and improving their lives. They got none of that.
Iraqis wanted change, and instead they got more of the same. Although voters threw out 75 percent of the incumbent parliamentarians in the election, virtually the same constellation of leaders is still running the country as if nothing happened. Far from the government becoming more effective, it remains largely inert. There are some good new ministers who are trying to do things, but some good old ministers lost their jobs. It is hard to know whether Iraq came out better in the end. The government is just as paralyzed as before, with little expectation that it will be able to address the vast, crucial issues still confronting Baghdad like the nature of federalism, the governance of Iraq’s phenomenally valuable oil sector, and the relationship between the central government and the provinces. In the meantime, it is difficult to the point of impossible for other government officials to address more immediate needs. Consequently, public-opinion polls show Iraqis becoming increasingly frustrated with the ruling elite. Not surprisingly, al-Maliki’s popularity has plummeted while Ayad Allawi’s has soared even though many Shia (and even some Sunnis) argue that everyone is equally culpable for the current state of affairs.Image: Pullquote: If American forces cannot enforce the rules of the game, they should not be in Iraq, period. Essay Types: Essay