“Welcome to the world’s next failed state,” writes Ned Parker, the former Baghdad bureau chief for the LA Times. He’s talking about Iraq, a country the US military and countless diplomats tried very hard to mould into a representative, safe, friendly democracy. Though much of the blame rests with Iraqi officials, America’s democratic Iraq project is heading for failure.
In broad strokes, here’s the picture Parker paints of the new Iraq:
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has become a dictator. His office controls or supersedes other, supposedly independent branches of government. He controls militias and security services, and uses them to eliminate or intimidate political rivals. Maliki’s family and friends hold powerful positions in government; his son is perhaps the second most powerful person in Baghdad. Maliki has sidelined, bullied, and occasionally tortured his rivals and consolidated control of government. He uses the state’s anticorruption offices to target political enemies and stocks the Human Rights Ministry with pliant allies. No one now doubts Maliki’s ability to harness the state for his own political gains. He has turned the government into his personal office. His friends and influential allies play within his system. Rivals and those who want to change the system are pushed aside, or worse. (Read Parker’s entire article (paywall alert) here — it’s worth it.)
The Obama administration is partly to blame. In the twilight of US involvement in Iraq, American officials turned a blind eye as Maliki consolidated his power. Vice President Biden, Obama’s leading figure on Iraq policy, was “largely absent” during the crucial time when American officials mediated a power-sharing agreement among Iraqi political groups and negotiated the withdrawal of troops. Washington’s focus was on a security arrangement with Baghdad. American officials needed a powerful figure on whom to rely. Not a peep was uttered in public when Maliki’s security forces beat democracy activists in broad daylight. No complaints were formally submitted as Maliki harassed and arrested his rivals. One day after the last American soldier left Iraq, Maliki charged his vice president — who then fled for his life to Iraqi Kurdistan — with “running death squads.”
It increasingly seems like the Iraq Washington wanted to shape will never exist. Maliki’s Iraq looks a lot like a less brutal (and Shiite dominated) version of Iraq under Saddam. And in fairness to the incumbent, none of Maliki’s rivals look as if they would have behaved any different as lords of the Green Zone.
“Federalism,” as Parker calls it — an Iraq made up of autonomous states — might be the future.
Iraqi Kurdistan is already nominally independent. The southern, largely Shiite province of Basra chafes under Maliki’s dominance. Though Basra supplies 70 percent of the country’s oil, revenues are not shared equally. Electricity is spotty. Basra’s governor and head of the provincial council, both members of Maliki’s party, resigned in late 2010 after popular demonstrations called for better services and less corruption. It’s not just Basra: regional governors in other provinces, also Maliki’s allies, have resigned recently. In October 2011, Salahuddin Province became the first Sunni region to call for a federal, decentralized political system.
Is “federalism” or “regional autonomy” a bad thing? Perhaps not. If the central government is so dictatorial, as it was under Saddam and is again becoming, the provinces quite reasonably seek more freedom. This was once what Joe Biden, before he was VP, wished for Iraq — to partition it into three states: Sunni, Shiite, Kurdish. That was before the civil war. Things have changed. Washington — with Biden leading the charge — threw its weight behind Maliki in what seemed like the only way to stop the violence: with strong and sometimes ruthless force, and by drawing in and rewarding allies while marginalizing and punishing enemies. Maliki took Washington’s support and has run away with it. In trying to establish a coalition that can wield power effectively, maintain stability, and foster a profitable economy, he threatens to return Iraq to authoritarianism. Perhaps he has forgotten the past, or thinks he can do better. We’ll see.
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