Friday, July 13, 2012

A review of new publications on Iraqi politics

The following is a review which will appear in the International Journal of Contemporary Iraq Studies
Juan Romero, The Iraqi Revolution of 1958: A Revolutionary Quest for Unity and Security, Lanham, MD:  University Presses of America, 2011, pp. 241. Bibliography 221-223.

Hamid al-Bayati, From Dictatorship to Democracy: An Insider’s Account of the Iraqi Opposition to Saddam, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011, pp. 347.  Notes, pp. 315-321.

Ali Paya and John Esposito, eds., Iraq, Democracy and the Future of the Arab World, New York: Routledge, 2011, pp. 220.

While preparing for my first research visit to Iraq in May and June of 1980, I was taken aback by the few studies of Iraqi politics and society that could guide my work.  Hanna Batatu’s massive study, The Old Social Classes and Revolutionary Movements of Iraq, has just been published by Princeton University Press in 1978, and there were the 3 volumes by Iraqi expatriate scholar Majid Khadduri, Independent Iraq, Republican Iraq, and Socialist Iraq.   

Beyond a few essays by Elie Kedouri, likewise an Iraq expatriate, and works by former British colonial officials, such as Gertrude Bell and Philip Ireland, there was little to help the non-Iraqi researcher unlock the complexities of Iraqi politics .

Iraq’s 1980 invasion of Iran, the seizure of Kuwait in 1990, two wars which resulted from these attacks, the massive uprising (Intifada) which followed the Gulf War of January 1991, the severe UN sanctions regime imposed on Iraq between 1991 and 2003, and the US toppling of Saddam Husayn’s Ba’thist regime in 2003 has produced a deluge of writings on Iraq.  The key question is what have we learned from this outpouring of studies?

Three recently published studies offer insights into our understanding of Iraq.  Treating them chronologically, Juan Romero’s study, The Iraqi Revolution of 1958: A Revolutionary Quest for Unity and Security, is one of the first works to focus specifically on the  Revolution, especially the causal factors leading up to it.   

Hamid al-Bayati’s From Dictatorship to Democracy: An Insider’s Account of the Iraqi Opposition to Saddam, is exactly what the title implies, a detailed account of an important political actor who exercised significant influence in Iraqi politics both before and after the overthrow of Saddam Husayn’s regime.   

Finally, we have Ali Paya and John Esposito’s edited volume, Iraq, Democracy and the Future of the Muslim World, which includes a number of important essays on the democratization process in Iraq after 2003.

Professor Romero’s study, which is based on a rich database of Arabic and archival resources, begins with an excellent theoretical discussion which poses the following question.  Did the overthrow of the Hashimite monarchy in July 1958 constitute a true revolution?  The author’s answer is an emphatic yes.  He uses six criteria to make his argument, including popular participation in the Revolution, its extensive impact on Iraqi society, the subsequent expanded role of the state in the economy, a dramatic transformation of Iraq’s foreign policy, important changes in the form of government, and, finally, a fundamental shift in the social psychology of Iraqi society.

Despite the conceptual and theoretical sophistication of the author’s introduction, the study fails to consider a number of counter-arguments which belie his arguments,  Unlike the Bolshevik or Chinese revolutions, for example, the large landowning class and its political influence was not affected in any significant fashion by the Qasim regime’s policies, as Professor Romero himself notes (208).   Further, the author fails to acknowledge that many of the Revolution‘s accomplishments were undone by the brutal Ba’thist regime which overthrew ‘Abd al-Karim Qasim in February 1963, a period which Hanna Batatu refers to as “the bitterest of years.”

One of the volume’s most serious shortcomings is the author’s failure to address the argument that the Revolution actually paved the way for dictatorship as seen in the Ba’thist regime which came to power in 1968.  The 1958 Revolution was part of a political struggle which extends back to the early years of the 20th century and which continues until today, namely the ideological struggle over Iraqi identity.  This struggle pitted al-wataniya al-mahaliya or “local nationalism” (or what I have referred to elsewhere as Iraqist nationalism), which viewed Iraq as a multi-ethnic and confessional society, against a much smaller group of Pan-Arabists who wanted to make Iraq part of a larger Pan-Arab nation-state.   

This tension, I would argue, was the main driver of the political and social cleavages which developed after the Revolution.  These cleavages pitted Qasim and his allies in the powerful Iraqi Community Party (ICP) against Colonel ‘Abd al-Salam ‘Arif and the Pan-Arabists in the officer corps, namely those who either supported the Ba’th Party or Egypt’s Jamal ‘Abd al-Nasir.

Qasim was never, as the author asserts, a Pan-Arabist.  While it is true that he was chosen to lead the Revolution due to his outstanding military performance in Palestine during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, he was of the opinion that Iraq faced too many domestic problems to add to them by becoming involved in Pan-Arab politics.   Qasim also feared Iraq’s becoming subordinated to al-Nasir if it chose to join the United Arab Republic.

Instead, Qasim’s promoted of a new inclusive political identity which referenced ancient Mesopotamia, the Kurds and Pan-Arabism.  These themes can be seen is his creation of a new national flag centered on the star of Ishtar, which referenced the Kurds through its yellow sun, and included the black, white, green and red colors of Pan-Arabism.  The many parades in Baghdad during Qasim’s rule, which included floats portraying themes from ancient Iraq, as well as his emphasis on the shared folklore of all Iraq’s ethnoconfessional groups which he saw as a means of overcoming Iraq’s political and social cleavages, demonstrated a new and sophisticated way of addressing Iraq’s complex identity politics.

Professor Romero fails to address in a meaningful way the negative side of the Revolution.  Despite his commitment to the interests of the Iraqi people, especially the less fortunate members of society by whom he was much beloved, Qasim was a dictator.  He systematically dismantled civil society, including Iraq’s powerful labor movement, banned political, parties, and largely muzzled the press.  These actions facilitated the rise of Ba’thist dictatorship and one party rule a decade after Qasim and the Free Officers seized power.  In this sense, the Revolution left a very negative legacy, one which the author fails to recognize.

Despite some of these shortcomings, Professor Romero’s study provides a detailed analysis of the politics that led up to the Revolution.  One of the most important themes is the extensive discussion of the impact of the international politics on the Hashimite monarchy and on the mobilizing the Iraqi populace against the Iraqi strongman of the period, Nuri al-Sa’id.

Dr. Hamid al-Bayati, currently Iraq’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, has written an important memoir about his experiences while in opposition to Saddam Husayn’s regime.  Dr. al-Bayati, who has already published a number of important studies in Arabic on modern Iraq, was closely associated with the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which later changed its name to the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SCCI).   This factor influenced opposition politics as the US felt uncomfortable with SCIRI which had been formed in Iran in 1982 and led by Iranian Revolutionary Guards for the first two years of its existence.

This is a very different study from much of what has been published on Iraq since 2003.  Rather than dwell on the negative, the author emphasizes the strides which the Iraqi people have made since the Ba’thist regime’s downfall.  Rightfully, he cites the positive outcomes of the elections in 2005, 2009 and 2010 and the enthusiasm with which Iraqis have generally embraced democratic politics.

As a central figure in the Iraqi opposition movement that developed during the 1990s, the author had meetings with many important American officials and other Iraqi opposition figures.  We learn about the inner dynamics of the Clinton administration’s policies towards Iraq.  For example, unlike the Bush administration, it was loathe to support Ahmad Chalabi’s Iraqi National Conference (INC) over other opposition groups, preferring to engage the opposition movement as a whole (90).  Although he does not go into detail, it is also clear that Iraq’s neighbors, especially Saudi Arabia, played a critical role in fashioning US policy towards Iraq during the 1990s (93).

While the Iraqi opposition could do little to influence Saddam’s regime militarily, it did influence international public opinion, often making it difficult for regime officials to travel outside the country.  ‘Izzat al-Duri, Barzan al-Tikriti and Tariq ‘Aziz all found their ability to travel hampered the effective INDICT Internet campaign which highlighted the regime’s human rights abuses and filed charges against Ba’thist officials once they travelled abroad (110).

The Clinton’s administration cautious approach to toppling Saddam – too timid in the view of many – contrasts sharply with that of the  Bush administration.  Here the author holds no punches in criticizing the Bush administration for ineffective planning and not taking advantage of assistance by the Iraqis who would have helped the US after Saddam was toppled.  Dr. al-Bayati asked why the US forces only secured the Ministry of Oil and the Ministry of Defense in Saddam’s Republican Palace once they arrived ion Baghdad.   He never could find an answer (189).

It is odd that Dr. al-Bayati fails to analyze in any detail the sectarian dimensions of Iraqi politics in any comprehensive manner both prior to and following the overthrow of Saddam’s regime.  He discusses the anger of the Shi’a towards Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) leader, Masoud Barzani, for accepting military assistance from Saddam’s army in 1996 when his forces were about to be defeated by those of the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).  Because they defended the KDP, Barzani allowed Saddam’s forces to seize Shi’a opposition figures in Arbil. 
While the author remarks that the Kurds and Shi’a have historically had good relations, despite the anger that the killings caused, he fails to note that the KDP and Saddam cooperated extensively to smuggle oil out of Iraq under the UN sanctions regime (137).  This cooperation is all the more remarkable given the notorious Anfal Campaign that Saddam directed against the Kurds during the late 1980s, including the bombing with chemical weapons of the Kurdish city of Halabja in 1988 with massive deaths and injuries to the populace.  

These shortcomings notwithstanding, From Dictatorship to Democracy is must reading for anyone interested in the inner workings of the Iraqi opposition prior to the US invasion of Iraq. How that opposition interacted with the American occupation, especially during the period between 2003 and 2004, and the highly flawed US policy towards Iraq, tells us much about why Iraq developed such political and social instability following the American invasion. 
Ali Paya and John Esposito’s Iraq, Democracy and the Future of the Muslim World, suffers from the problem of many edited volumes, namely thematic coherence.  The chapters in the volume do not fit entirely comfortably under the three rubrics which divide the book: “Iraq,” “Democracy,” and “the Muslim World,” nor do the three rubrics themselves provide a coherent structure to the volume.
Nevertheless, the volume contains a number of excellent essays.  In reviewing them, I will focus on those which deal explicitly with Iraq.   

Abbas Kadhim’s elegantly titled essay, “Forging a Third Way: Sistani’s marja’iyya between quietism and wilayat al-faqih,” draws attention to one of the greatest ongoing threats to the development of Iraqi democracy.  If the Iranian regime, which recently appointed Iraqi born Ayatollah Mahmud Hashimi al-Shahroudi ostensibly to oversee the interests of Iranian pilgrims, is able to influence the successor to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, then the efforts of the Iraqi marja’iyya to prevent the politicization of Shiism – a process that is already evident among the so-called Sadrist Trend – could introduce a serious “fifth column” into Iraqi politics.

Dr. Kadhim’s essay offers many insights into Ayatollah Sistani’s socialization.  More importantly, it examines the origins of the so-called “quietism” of the marja’iyya, a process which began when the British arrested and deported Shi’i clerics who participated in the 1920 Revolution.  However, it was the brutality of Saddam’s dictatorship which cemented the “extreme measures of self-restraint” followed by the Shi’i clergy between 1974 and 2003 (68).

The chapter ends with a discussion of Ali al-Sistani’s role in promoting tolerance, non-violence and democracy in Iraq, a topic which has still not been adequately analyzed.  al-Sistani has been instrumental in expanding suffrage for women, reducing violence, and forcing the Iraqi government to follow the Constitution, as he did in cooperation with Grand Mufti Ahmad ‘Abd al-Ghaffur al-Samara’i, during the March 2010 elections.

The role of the Kurds in democratization has likewise not been given enough attention, particularly the positive impact of the Gorran (Change) Movement which made its appearance on the political stage in the 2009 Kurdish Regional Parliament elections.  Salah Aziz’s essay, “Kurdistan: democracy and the future,” covers a broad range of issues which treat the Kurds response to the development of democracy in the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), both before and after 2003.
Human rights issues, violence against women, civil society organizations, federalism, 
the conflict over oil, and accountability and transparency in governance provide a comprehensive overview of Kurdish politics in the first decade of this century. It is also helpful to have voting data for the Kurdish region drawn from the 2005 parliamentary elections.

Laith Kubba’s “Lessons from Iraq” offers an excellent thumbnail sketch of the problems which plagued the American occupation of Iraq after 2003.  He details the lack of knowledge possessed by Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) administrator, L. Paul Bremer, and makes clear that a more planned and hence more effective US occupation policy could have prevented many of the problems Iraq subsequently experienced.  The marginalization of the Sunni community and reliance on “carpetbaggers” (to use a phrase of Tariq and Jacqueline Ismael) argues that many of the key players in the post-Saddam period were expatriates who used their ties to the US to promote selfish and narrowly construed agendas, rather than help rebuild Iraqi society. 

The author spares no criticism of the so-called Islamist movements which sprang up with the insurgency that developed in late 2003 and 2004.  al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI) and Ba’thist supported militias which adopted Islamic names made little headway among the largely pragmatic Iraqi people.  Indeed, they eventually provoked tribesmen in al-Anbar to develop the “Awakening Movement (al-Sahwa) which quickly marginalized these insurgent groups.

Faleh A. Jabar’s excellent chapter, “Religion, sect, ethnicity and tribe: the uncertainties of identity politics in the new society,” presents a nuanced and analytically sophisticated overview of the dynamics of change in Iraqi communal identity politics, especially after 2003.  Dr. Jabar sums up the dynamics succinctly when he states “The Kurdish catchword was federalism, that of the Shi’is was demography was democracy (the Shi’is being a majority of the nation), and that of the Sunnis was restoration.” (21)

The author’s analysis is crisp and to the point.  His commentary on the impact on the middle classes of the post-Saddam era is one missing from most discussions of post-Ba’thist politics.  The general tenor of Dr. Jabar is that efforts to subsume Iraqis politics under rigid social and political categories grounded in religion, sect, ethnicity and tribe – especially after the damage wrought on Iraqi society by the 1990s sanctions regime which upended much of the social order, is doomed to analytic failure.  As such, the author calls for a new conceptual framework for Iraqi politics based in political sociology.  In this sense, this chapter is analytically very provocative.

All three of these studies teach us much about the dynamics of pre- and post-Ba’thist Iraq.  They point to the failure and the potential of Iraqi politics since 1958.  If nothing else, they offer a cautionary tale.  Politically, Iraq is still very unsettled, and making hard and fast assertions about the nature of its political life should be done with a concern for the dynamics of change, one that avoids a focus on the statics of sectarianism and communal identities.


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