Coming apart at the seams

The new Iraq may be less a state than an association of communities, argues Steve Negus

Global leaders and citizens have spent this year anticipating and arguing over what would happen after the 30 June transfer of power in Iraq. As the days ticked down, bringing the country closer to the transfer of sovereignty to an Iraqi interim government, a long-expected run of terror bombings ripped through Iraqi cities, fanning fears that sovereignty would do nothing to improve Iraqis’ most frequently articulated complaint, security.
Still, some Iraqis are optimistic about the transfer. They detested rule by foreigners, particularly the coalition leadership, which was perceived to be arrogant and unable to admit error. The public irresolution and private nepotism of the coalition’s appointed Iraqi Governing Council also sapped their confidence. Many of the optimists have warmed to the new Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who has gone on television vowing to take whatever “drastic measures” may be necessary to improve the security situation. Others have their confidence inspired by the new president, Sunni tribal leader Sheikh Ghazi Al Yawar, whose stately robes, some say, show that he is a man at home in a traditional society, who will know how to wield his authority in a way that people respect.
On the other hand, some feel that the transfer will mean little. Although the Iraqi public knows that the new government’s composition was not necessarily to the Americans’ liking—Allawi and Al Yawar were presented to the coalition by the IGC as a fait accompli—the coalition was still the final selector of Iraq’s new leaders, however reluctantly it approved them. Moreover, despite various last-minute concessions, the sovereignty handed to them is not complete—foreign troops in the country remain under coalition command and enjoy immunity from Iraqi courts.
Still others believe that the Americans, whatever their faults, are better equipped to restore security than a scrambled-together Iraqi government, and feel that order needs to be restored before the foreigners relinquish power.
In taking over the reins of power, Allawi, Yawar and their deputies are in a race against time. Allawi has already said that elections scheduled for January 2005 may be delayed some months. If a vote is delayed much longer then—given the importance many Iraqis, including Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, attach to elections—the new government will face a serious crisis of legitimacy (this assumes, of course, that the new leadership wants to hold elections at all).
The most important task in restoring stability will be to end the deadly run of bombings—in particular vehicle bombings—which have devastated the country since August 2003. Police stations have recently become the particular favorite of the bombers, although hospitals, military recruiting stations and public squares have also been hit. Should these bombings continue apace through January, electoral polling stations and voting queues would be equally inviting targets.
What could an Iraqi government do to suppress the bombings? Although Allawi has stated his readiness to declare martial law, the measures that are already in place under the occupation—military in the streets with loose rules of engagement, indefinite detentions without trial—would be hard to toughen up further. Failure to deal with terrorism is more commonly seen as an intelligence and political failure to infiltrate the groups, to encourage ordinary citizens to inform on them and the like. Iraqi opposition groups such as the Kurdish parties have long claimed that their intelligence-gathering assets are superior to the Americans’, although this has yet to be put to the test.
The Iraqis say they cooperate with the U.S. military, but that the Americans fail to act on their reports while simultaneously denying them access to resources—prisoner interrogations, for example—needed to capitalize on their successes. (Some observers also say that Iraqi security might be able to take advantage of interrogation methods that the Americans can’t use. However, that line of argument has become less persuasive after revelations of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib suggesting that the coalition had plenty of creative alternatives to out-and-out torture and that human rights abuse is hardly a security panacea).
The Iraqis also say that they would avoid the kinds of mistakes—such as overly intrusive raids—that have raised the anger of many Iraqis against the coalition. Also, incursions into urban areas—with their inevitable civilian casualties—may simply be less offensive if carried out by local troops.
The main perpetrators of the bombings are thought to be Abu Mousab Al Zarqawi’s Tawhid Wa Jihad organization, largely but not exclusively composed of non-Iraqis, the remnants of the formerly Kurdistan-based Ansar Al Islam and possibly former Baathists. The immediate objectives of the attacks seem to be both to spread panic and to cripple the interim government’s ability to project its authority. The long-term objective—if a letter purportedly written by Zarqawi or an associate is authentic—is to disrupt the creation of a functioning Iraqi government and to keep the Americans in the country for an endless jihad. This puts them at odds with other Sunni Arab insurgents, whose primary goals seem to be driving the foreigners out and establishing control over their communities (and, in a few cases, bringing back the Baath Party). However, to survive, the jihadists almost certainly depend on the tolerance, if not the outright cooperation, of Iraqi insurgent networks.

Many of the foreign jihadis are thought to be holed up in Faluja, which, since the marines called off their April offensive, has become dominated by a fighting alliance of Islamists and former Republican Guards. Moreover, the insurgents have co-opted the very Iraqi security units, largely recruited from the area, formed to pacify them. Republican Guard officers decked out in their old uniforms walk down the streets being saluted by soldiers of the Faluja Protection Brigade in U.S.-issued fatigues and flak vests, while police have been spotted directing RPG fire at marine patrols.
The U.S. military was unwilling to pay the political price to subdue Faluja, largely because Iraqis with tribal ties to the city, or in some cases who were simply stirred up by images of foreigners wreaking destruction on an Iraqi town, were launching solidarity attacks up and down the highways that formed the coalition’s main supply routes.
The new Iraqi government might be able to convince the public that subduing Faluja is worth it, although it might have difficulties finding Iraqi troops willing to do the job. More likely, it will have to convince Faluja’s new rulers—and influential figures in other towns in the Sunni Triangle—that harboring bombers that strike at the rest of the country is not in their interest. An Iraqi government may also be better placed than the foreigners to strike a deal with the Islamic Scholars’ Front—to which many of the insurgents nominally give their allegiance—which has condemned many of Zarqawi’s tactics but which is also implacably opposed to foreign military occupation.
Situations similar to that in Faluja exist in parts of the predominantly Shia south. In the town of Al Majar Al Kabir, which has resisted central authority since Saddam’s time and where arms are sold in an open-air market in clear defiance of the state, tribesmen who believe their relatives were mutilated by British troops after a 14 May skirmish swear vengeance on any coalition vehicle that comes their way.
In the northeastern slum of Sadr City, meanwhile, the Mahdi Army loyal to radical Shia leader Moqtada Al Sadr, son of the neighborhood’s martyred namesake, until recently patrolled the streets and threatened swift execution to any coalition “spy.” Sadr declared a unilateral ceasefire with the coalition and ordered his followers to cooperate with the police on 25 June—a deal suspected to have been brokered by omnipresent arbitrator Ahmad Chalabi—but the Sadrists are still the dominant force in the area. Sadr has established himself as a patriotic icon by declaring the April uprising and is now thought to be remaking himself as a statesman, perhaps to join with Kurds, secular Shia and Sunni leaders in an electoral front. In fact, a recent coalition survey put his approval numbers second only to the venerable Al Sistani’s.
A pattern has emerged of leaders with neighborhood or provincial political machines tailored to a particular ethno-confessional group, working in partnership with similar political bosses from other groups in competition with other integrated alliances. One theory of how Iraqi national politics will operate in the years ahead is that this trend will dominate.
In the north, the Kurdish autonomous zone, formed after the 1991 Gulf War, will remain in force, the status quo guaranteed by Iraq’s interim constitution. Allawi did manage to broker a deal calling for the demobilization of militias, including the Kurdish Democratic Parties’s (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’s (PUK) peshmerga. However, it is likely that they will simply be redesignated counter-terrorist units, mountain rangers or given some other paramilitary cover.
Despite the continuation of their de facto autonomy, Kurds in the north are furious that UN Resolution 1546 does not mention the status of the Kurdish zone. Ever since the March and April dispute over the adoption of an interim constitution, when Shiites resisted provisions that would have given the Kurdish provinces the power to stop the adoption of a permanent constitution, many Kurds have feared that the Shia majority wants to exert central state power over them.
Their leaders, Massoud Barzani of the KDP, and Jalal Talabani of the PUK, sent a letter to Washington threatening de facto secession if guarantees of their autonomy were not forthcoming. The letter, however, was not originally made public, and many Kurds feel that their leaders betrayed them for not taking an early and public stand for their rights. In what can partly be read as a gesture of no-confidence in the Kurdish leadership, a grassroots movement claims to have collected 1.7 million signatures on a petition calling for a referendum of Kurdish independence. Kurds are also pushing for the return of tens of thousands of refugees to the disputed city of Kirkuk and other areas from which they were ethnically cleansed under Saddam, and often replaced with Arab settlers. Given ongoing ethnic unrest in this city, Allawi might try to defer settlement of this issue as long as possible, although the need to take a pre-election census might bring it to the fore.

In other words, Iraq seems to be fracturing fast, with every community, and in some cases every neighborhood, falling under its own informal self-government. This might not be such a bad thing.
Iraq has little in the way of a national identity, and thus no central government will have much legitimacy. It may be best in the medium-term for the regions to form ties with the center as they need them, rather than the center force itself on the provinces. Although such a state may be weak, ridden with corruption and, in places, in thrall to tribal or religious mafias and political machines, it might still be an improvement on a Baathist-style tyranny. Furthermore, in the long run—as civil society grows and the public becomes more politically sophisticated—it may prove more economically and politically dynamic than over-centralized states, where non-responsiveness to local concerns can prove paralyzing.
For this to work there needs to be a national government regulated by nominally democratic rules, wherein regional bosses compete peacefully for their share of the federal pie. It could be derailed if Allawi or other leaders succumb to the temptation to exploit the security situation to perpetrate their stay in office. But, given the weakness of Iraq’s government and its desperate need for legitimacy, this scenario is unlikely. A more likely scenario would be a vicious circle—the bombings will prevent elections, but without elections the new government’s legitimacy will dwindle to the point that the regions simply ignore the central government—that could see Iraq heading toward failed statehood.
Or, it may be that Allawi and his colleagues will be able to prove the assertion that an Iraqi hand at the helm will resolve the country’s security woes. If that is the case, Iraq may move toward a government which, though far from perfect, will be much more democratic and responsive than any it has had in the past.

Issue 15 vol 8
Photograph from AFP

Any comments?

Main Page