Iraq: A Model Young Democracy

12 November 2010

Iraq: A Model Young Democracy

By Gwynne Dyer

“There are things we got wrong in Iraq, but the cause is eternally right,” wrote George W. Bush in his recent memoir. “The region is more hopeful with a young democracy setting an example for others to follow.”

Meanwhile, back in the real world, the “young democracy” has finally got a new prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. He’s the same one who led the last government, although every party (including much of his own) wanted to get rid of him after the election last March. Iraq’s ethnic and religious rivalries have become so fierce that no new and more inclusive coalition of parties could be agreed on.

It’s taken eight months of tortuous negotiations to get this far, a world record for the length of time taken after an election to create a new government. And the job’s not actually done yet. Maliki now has a month to form a cabinet, which means fierce rivalry between and within the parties for control of the ministries that are the main source of wealth and power in Iraq. Even now, the deal could still fall apart.

And what about the al-Qaeda terrorists whose supposed links with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein were one of Mr Bush’s pretexts for the US invasion of the country in 2003? (The other pretext was Saddam’s alleged “weapons of mass destruction”, but the less said about that the better.)

Osama bin Laden’s Islamist extremists actually had no links at all with Saddam Hussein, nor any presence in Iraq until 2003; it was the invasion that gave them a role there. And although al-Qaeda’s fanatical desire to kill Shia Muslims and Christians, rather than concentrate on the American occupation forces, eventually alienated even the Sunni minority from them during the “surge” period in 2007-08, that has changed too.

“Now they’re back,” said General Hussein Kamal, the head of the intelligence division at Iraq’s interior ministry, in an interview with The Guardian. “It’s like 2004 again….They are pure al-Qaeda, not a mixture of groups like before.”

2004 was the year when Iraq began its descent into hell. The invasion killed a lot of people, but the resistance really only got underway in the following year, when the Sunni Muslims started attacking US troops – and the al-Qaeda volunteers among them also began murdering Shia Muslims in industrial quantities.

That triggered the Sunni-Shia civil war of 2005-2007, which the Sunnis decisively lost. So the Sunni community turned against the al-Qaeda fighters who had brought this disaster upon them, and that in turn enabled the US “surge” to succeed for a while. But the subsequent years have seen the Sunnis systematically excluded from any meaningful share of power, and the clock is turning back to 2004.

At no time in the past few years has the killing stopped in Iraq, but now it is ramping up again fast. On 31 October, al-Qaeda gunmen stormed a Christian church in Baghdad, killing 58 worshippers and security officers. On 2 November there were fifteen almost simultaneous bombs in Shia districts of the capital that killed scores of people and injured hundreds.

On 10 November there were eleven more bombs, this time targeting Christians in their homes. Half of Iraq’s million-strong Christian minority has already fled the country, and the rest are thinking seriously about following suit. And Iyad al-Allawi, whose party got most of the Sunni vote in the election and actually won the largest number of seats, has effectively been frozen out of power by a Shia-Kurdish alliance. Just like after the previous election.

Under huge US pressure, Allawi has been persuaded to become “chairman of the National Council for Strategic Policy,” a new body that has been created precisely to give him a job. But it is a pretty poor consolation prize, and may turn out to mean nothing at all. The United States has lost almost all influence in Baghdad (although there are still 50,000 American troops in the country), and Iran rules the roost.

From the moment that George W Bush decided to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein, it was certain that Iran would be the big winner. Almost two-thirds of the Iraqi population, although Arab, belongs to the Shia sect of Islam, and Iran is the one great Shia power. When the post-invasion scramble for power began in Iraq, it was perfectly natural for Iraqi Shias to turn to Tehran for support against Sunnis in their own country.

During the eight months of haggling and stonewalling that preceded the deal on 11 November, both Maliki and Allawi spent more time seeking support in Tehran and the capitals of Iraq’s Sunni neighbours to the south than negotiating with their rivals in Baghdad itself. The country has become a pawn in the confrontation between Iran and the Arab countries, but Iran has emerged as the clear winner.

Meanwhile, Iraq may be sliding into another mini-civil war, and there is no reason to think that the quite astonishing level of corruption in the ministries is going to decline. There are not many countries in the region that want to follow the example set by this “young democracy.” They are just hoping that the bloodshed and the hatred do not spread.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 11. (“It’s taken…apart”; and “Under…roost”)