New Dawn 2012: An Aborted Democracy


6/7/12: By Richard Weitz

Following a controversial public relations campaign, the United States and its allies launched Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) in March 2003.

The Iraqi regime collapsed in a few weeks. In addition to searching for weapons of mass destruction, the occupation authorities sought to establish a new Iraqi government based on liberal democratic principles.

The Iraqi people are living with fears of the outbreak of sectarian violence, strife between the so-called Islamists and the Shiite militias, and inadequate public services. They also fear their country’s divisions into cantons and the interference of neighboring countries in Iraq’s internal affairs. Credit Image: Bigstock

In contrast to Saddam’s regime, they wanted the new Iraqi government to include all major Iraqi ethnic groups, respect international human rights standards, and pursue a peaceful foreign policy designed to promote regional stability and create a benign environment for the production of Iraqi oil and gas.

But the occupation authorities underestimated the trauma Saddam had inflicted on Iraqi, the damage the country had suffered from years of sanctions, and the ambition of Iraqi politicians and their foreign backers to impose their own vision of a post-Saddam Iraq.

They also made a series of tactical mistakes. In a few years, they confronted a massive insurgency and civil war in Iraq. They subsequently left behind a dysfunctional Iraqi political system that, while an improvement in some respects from Saddam’s regime, nevertheless is an inferior regime to what a great nation like Iraq deserves.

In May 2003, the United States set up a Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) led by Ambassador L. Paul Bremer. Two months later, Bremer established a 25-member Iraq Governing Council (IGC) to provide political guidance to the occupation authorities in the CPA. In June 2004, Bremer transferred some of the CPA’s powers to an appointed Iraqi interim government headed by Prime Minister Iyad al-Allawi, head of the non-sectarian Iraq National Accord. Although a Shiite, Allawi tried to reach out to the Kurds, who were receptive, and the Sunnis, who were not.

The first Iraqi national elections under the occupation occurred on January 30, 2005. Voters chose a 275-seat transitional National Assembly, a Kurdistan regional assembly, and provincial councils in all 18 provinces (including a 51-seat provincial council for Baghdad). The major Sunni parties boycotted the elections. Jalal Talabani, head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, became president, while Ibrahim al-Jafari, a leader of the Shiite Dawa Party, became prime minister

Iraq’s post-Saddam constitution, approved in an October 2005 national referendum despite much Sunni opposition, decentralizes considerable political power on paper. It allows two or more provinces to combine into new autonomous “regions” and permits them to have their own internal security forces, such as the Peshmerga militia in the Kurdish region. The constitution also grants regional authorities some say in determining the use of the revenue generated by local oil and gas fields.

But the imprecision of some of these clauses and other disputes between the central and regional authorities have prevented the enactment of national hydrocarbons legislation. Iraq’s so-called Oil Law has been stalled since 2007 due to political squabbling.  Combined with the debilitating insurgencies and associated terrorist campaign, the lack of an agreed means to share oil and gas revenues among Iraqis has discouraged foreign investors into Iraq and deprived the government of vital revenue.

The December 15, 2005 national elections for a 275-seat national Council of Representatives (COR) again saw the Shiites and Kurds emerge as the dominant ethnic groups. The Shiite bloc chose Nuri Kamal al-Maliki as Iraq’s new prime minister, while Talabani continued as president. Al-Maliki appointed some Sunni Arabs to his cabinet, but many Sunni Arabs were alienated from the national political system and joined the burgeoning insurgency against the CPA and Iraqis trying to work with it.

Led by the self-declared al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), guerrillas bombed, kidnaped, and executed many Shiites, who formed their own militias for self-protection and, eventually, retaliation. The U.S. military waged a vicious counterinsurgency campaign that only succeeded after the Pentagon surged 30,000 additional U.S. forces to Iraq starting in 2007(raising the number of American soldiers to 170,000) and the Sunni tribal authorities (“Awakening Councils”) turned against the viciously brutal insurgents and recruited “Sons of Iraq” fighters to suppress them.

Meanwhile, Iraqi government troops suppressed the Shiite militias in southern Iraq around Basra in March 2008. The success of this latter operation bolstered al-Maliki’s national reputation. He consolidated power by establishing new security structures under his control and securing important victories for his State of Law Party and their Iraqi National Alliance partners in Iraq’s 2009 provincial elections.

According to the United Nations and other international assessments, the March 7, 2010 parliamentary elections were credible and fair.

In the end, 62.4% of eligible Iraqis participated under the observation of large numbers of international and domestic election monitors. All but 10 of the nearly 50,000 polling stations opened on time, with the remaining stations opening later in the day. There was significant political participation from Sunnis and former Shiite militia members who had formerly attempted to derail Iraqi elections.

The ballot confirmed Iraq’s status as a functioning democracy in which multiple candidates and political parties compete for office in accord with international standards for free and fair elections whose results cannot be assuredly anticipated in advance. Neither tribal loyalty, nor sectarian affiliation, nor incumbency decisively determined the results of this voting. Domestic and international observers found no evidence of pervasive and serious fraud that might have substantially affected the outcome.

The failure of a single party to receive anywhere near a 163-seat majority during the national legislative elections of the 325 contested seats for the COR—the two highest party vote totals were 91 and 89—reflected the pluralistic nature of contemporary Iraqi society. But it also paved the path toward political stalemate. In terms of election procedures, the open-list system used for the ballot, which permits voters to cast votes for individuals no matter where they rank on the party lists, has weakened the role of Iraqi political parties.

As a result, voters often chose on the basis of the personalities of the candidates rather than their nominal party affiliation. The campaign promises by winning candidates mattered little after the election, since they could freely form new legislative coalitions and allegiances once in parliament.

In addition, voter turnout in past elections has shown that the Iraqi government has to improve its election procedures.

A majority of registered voters did not cast ballots in the 2009 elections because of security issues and alienation from the political process. In order for Iraq to have more successful elections, voter safety and polling station security must be enhanced. Voting procedures also should be reviewed. The country has used both closed- and open-list voting formats. The closed-list format allows voters to support parties rather than individuals. In the early elections, it was instrumental in reducing the number of candidates so that parties could achieve proportionate bloc representation.

The move toward the open-list format used by a majority of democratic countries signals a transition to more direct voter control and candidate accountability. Iraq, as a fledgling democracy, must establish and strengthen voting procedures that mitigate the risks of political splintering, stalemated government, and persistent underrepresentation of genuine representatives of minority groups in the governing coalition.

As the U.S. military was completing its withdrawal in late 2011, Prime Minister al-Maliki’s authoritarian tendencies had its impact.  These tendencies were manifested in his refusal to share power equally with his coalition partners.  These partners were also political rivals such as the members of the Iraqi National Movement bloc led by Allawi.  This finally drove his political opponents to boycott parliament and support efforts within Sunni-dominated provinces to assert their autonomy, as provided for in the Iraqi constitution.

Opposition complaints ranged from al-Maliki’s monopolizing all key national security posts in the hands of his Shiite-dominated State of Law Coalition, to his removing leading Sunnis from national and local offices on the grounds that they either supported Saddam’s deposed Baathist regime or were aiding the Sunni insurgents.

Al-Maliki subsequently further inflamed Sunni passions by trying to arrest Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi.  The Vice President was the highest-ranking Sunni official in the Iraqi government, on charges of using his security guards to run a terrorist death squad against Iraqi government officials, their security forces, and Shiite pilgrims during the height of the civil war in 2006-2007.

Al-Maliki also tried to orchestrate a parliamentary no-confidence vote to remove another prominent member of the Iraqiya List, Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq. The feuding has extended to encompass the Kurdish regions of northern Iraq, whose leaders have provided al-Hashemi sanctuary in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) on the grounds that he would not receive a fair trial in Baghdad. KRG officials are alarmed by al-Maliki’s moves to consolidate power in his hands, Baghdad’s efforts to control the region’s oil policies, and other efforts to reign in their autonomy.

A power-sharing agreement brokered in December 2010 at Erbil should have allowed Allawi’s party to appoint Iraq’s defense minister with the check that al-Maliki would have to approve the candidate.

Additionally, Allawi was supposed to have become the head of a new, but vaguely defined, strategic council designed to check the prime minister’s (al-Maliki’s) power and broaden representation in policy making.

But al-Maliki himself assumed control over the interior and defense ministries, claiming that Iraq’s precarious security situation required such a step and that all of Allawi’s proposed candidates were unsuitable.

In January 2012, the international NGO Human Rights Watch warned that Iraq was again becoming a police state in which citizens were denied, or afraid to exercise, their basic civil rights.

Iraqi authorities’ response to criticism, Human Rights Watch warned, was to “abuse protesters, harass journalists and torture detainees.” The organization also accused Maliki of creating extra-legal security units under his authority and re-establishing secret prisons and the other hated features of the Saddam regime.

As of mid-2012, instead of law and order, the new Iraq is marked by corruption and chaos.

Justice is perverted because the law has become an instrument to hobble political rivals and exploit opportunities for corruption. Political parties are weak while clan, sectarian, and especially family ties are strong, resulting in family fiefs and nepotism throughout the bureaucracy.

And when the law proves inadequate, then the political leaders and factions employ their ruthless security forces to suppress adversaries, sometimes torturing them in private detention centers, and to cow the population at large.

Politicians aspire to become another Saddam Hussein, if not in all Iraq, than at least in those parts that fall under their control.

As Ned Parker, one of the foreign journalists most knowledgeable about Iraq, observed, “Each politician grabs as much power as he can, and unchecked ambition, ego, and historical grudges lead them all to ignore the consequences of their behavior for Iraq’s new institutions and its society.”

The Iraqi people are living with fears of the outbreak of sectarian violence, strife between the so-called Islamists and the Shiite militias, and inadequate public services.

They also fear their country’s divisions into cantons and the interference of neighboring countries in Iraq’s internal affairs.