Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Iraq: 10 Years after the invasion

Mass grave discovered south of Baghdad May 27,2003
As we mark the 10th anniversary of the American invasion of Iraq, many would argue that the country is in no better condition than it was in 2003,and indeed maybe worse.  Is this in fact the case?  Would it have been preferable for Saddam Husayn's Ba'thist regime to remain in power?  More to the point, why has Iraq not made more progress towards establishing a democratic and stable political system over the last 10 years?

Answering the question of whether it would have been better had Saddam Husayn not been removed from power cannot be boiled down to a simple yes or no.  To fully answer this question requires assessing the the US role in Iraq in 2003 and after, as well as Saddam's policies.

Saddam Husayn was guilty of massive human rights violations.  Overwhelming evidence for his genocidal policies was already in the hands of the international community when over 20 tons of state documents were obtained after Iraq was defeated in the January 1991 Gulf War.

These myriad documents indicated that Saddam had authorized a wide variety of policies designed to eliminate actual and suspected political opponents.  The documents provided evidence for the atrocities of his infamous Anfal campaign during the mid-1980s which destroyed 175 Kurdish villages and led to the deaths and displacement of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Kurds.  Other documents showed Saddam's brutal methods of suppressing the February-March 1991 uprising (Intifada) in southern Iraq.

How anyone can argue that it would have been better to leave in power a ruler who led his country into two disastrous wars, killed between 2-3 million Iraqis during Ba'thist rule between 1968 and 2003 (10-15% of the population), and imposed extensive psychological trauma on Iraqi adults and especially children, from which many will suffer from for the rest of their lives, is incomprehensible.

The 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, which Saddam began, led to hundreds of thousands of Iraqi deaths and cost an estimated $600 billion dollars.  The 1991 Gulf War led to Iraq's industry and national infrastructure being bombed back to levels of the 1940s.   While the Iraqi government admitted killing 300,000 Iraqis during the March 1991 Intifada, the total was no doubt much higher.  The UN sanctions regime of the 1990s - a result of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program - decimated the middle and professional classes, forced the poor to turn to criminal activity in the face of a collapsed economy, and deprived an entire generation of Iraqi children of their education as the national education system shut down.

Women, who had gained rights during the 1970s and 1980s, lost those rights as Saddam sought to gain the support of Iraqi males when his regime was weakened after the Gulf War uprising.  Forced to leave their jobs, and having no access to education, Iraqi women were in an extremely difficult position when the US invaded in 2003 and have still not been able to gain the status they once enjoyed prior to the Iran-Iraq War.

At the same time, the US's unilateralism in invading Iraq in March 2003 was a violation of international norms.  If the US had been serious about removing Saddam from power, it would have allowed the Iraqi Intifada to overthrow Saddam's regime in the spring of 1991.  Instead, the US allowed Iraqi helicoptor gunships to take to the air which turned the tide of the conflict, ordered American troops to destroy weapons depots so that they would not fall into insurgent hands, and forbade US troops on Iraqi soil from intervening in the uprising.  Just think how much blood, toil and human sacrifice could have been avoided had Saddam been ousted by his own people in 1991.

The Bush administration should have used international law to remove Saddam from power which would have been totally appropriate given his huge massive rights violations directed against his own citizenry. Saddam and his henchmen could have been tried in absentia and, if found guilty, forcibly brought to trial  by the same type of military coalition that the US helped organize under UN auspices in the fall of 1990 to oust Iraqi forces from Kuwait.  An international policy, such as that which brought Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic to trial in an international court, would have been the proper course for bringing Saddam to justice.

The Bush administration's ordering of the dissolution of the Iraqi conscript army and firing of the national police in May 2003 was a major blunder.  The 385,000 man army was comprised of an ethnically integrated officer coprs.  Both officers and conscripts disliked if not hated Saddam's regime for its poor treatment of the conscript army, including sub-standard weaponry and intermittent pay, and for it having been left to be carpet bombed in Kuwait during the January 1991 military campaign.  While the conscript army was being bombed in Kuwait, Saddam's elite Republican Guard units had been withdrawn into Iraq to protect Saddam from a potential uprising.

While it was necessary to dissolve the Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard units in 2003, since they were loyal to Saddam and his regime, had the US left the conscript army intact, it could have played a salutary role in suppressing the Ba'thist inspired insurgency - one that quickly attracted radical Islamists as well - that began in the fall of 2003.  By firing members of the conscript army, the US provided the insurgency with added forces since the Ba'th had not only buried weapons but money which many former conscript army members now needed to feed their families.

The Bush administration's de-Ba'thification policy was likewise self- destructive.  Under Saddam's regime, anyone who wanted a government or public sector job, e.g., university professors, was required to join the Ba'th Party (similar to what was required under Nazi rule in Germany).  The failure to differentiate between committed and nominal Ba'thists by mass firings of party members deprived Iraq of needed professional and technical expertise as Iraq began a process of reconstruction following the ouster of the ancien regime.

The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), which which governed Iraq from May 2003 though June 2004, created the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC), the first government explicitly organized along sectarian lines since the founding of the Iraqi state in August 1921.  The formation of the IGC sent a message to Iraqis that sectarian criteria constituted the new organizing principle for Iraqi politics.

Bringing a large number of Iraqi expatriates with the American invasion force in 2003 turned Iraqi politics over to politicians who had personal rather than civic agendas and often sought to enact revenge for having been forced to leave Iraq during Ba'thist rule.  These included 'Abd al-'Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), Nuri al-Maliki, a leader of the Islamic Call Party (hizb al-da'wa al-islamiya), and Ahmad Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Conference (al-mu'tamar al-watani al-'Iraqi), none of whom have worked to establish democratic governance and promote national reconciliation.

While the US government began giving subsidies to American farmers in the 1920s, the CPA eliminated government subsidies to Iraqi agriculture in August 2003, disingenuously arguing that the state have no right to use public funds to subsidize farmers.  With Iraqi fruits and vegetables even less competitive than before with those imported from Iran and Syria, many more (young) farmers migrated to urban areas where they joined sectarian militias and criminal organizations hostile to the United States.

Under the direction of General David Petreaus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, the Bush administration changed course in Iraq in 2006.  In conjunction with the 2006 "Surge," which sent 30,000 additional troops to Iraq who were embedded in neighborhoods threatened by sectarian violence, the security situation began to improve.

One key variable in improving the security situation was a new policy of listening and respecting Iraqis and letting them define the reconstruction agenda.  The development of Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), which provided technical personnel to help Iraqis to achieve goals that they set, rather than those set by Americans, changed the perception of many Iraqis that the US was an arrogant power that sought to force its policies on Iraq.  As Iraqis felt more respected by Americans, relations with the US improved substantially.

The Obama administration comes in for its own share of criticism.  Rather than holding then Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to his own promises to implement democratic reforms if he won the March 2010 national parliament elections, the US has done little to counter the increasingly authoritarian polices that Maliki has followed since retaining his position as prime minister after the elections.

The outcome of the US' failure to pressure Maliki in 2010 to "walk the walk," and not just "talk the talk," is evidence that US still has not learned that support for authoritarian rulers is not only bad for local populaces but a policy that consistently comes back to bite the US.  If the US hasn't learned by now from its experiences with the Shah of Iran, Egypt's Husni Mubarak, Tunisia's Zin al-Din bin Ali, and Yemen's Ali Abdallah Salih, just to name a few bad "political investments," then it has no one  to blame but itself for the continued failure of its foreign policy in the Middle East.

Worse still, the US did little when Maliki tried to circumvent the Iraqi constitution after the March 2010 elections.  Because the al-Iraqiya Coalition headed by Ayad Allawi received more votes and thus seats than Maliki's State of Law Coalition (91 to 89), Allawi should had been given the first opportunity to form a new government. 

Instead of supporting the constitution, which would have sent a positive message to the Iraqi people about playing according to democratic rules, the US tried to have Alawi assume a role as head of a new national security council which it proposed and which Maliki agreed to form if he could continue as prime minister.  It was not much of a surprise when Maliki subsequently reneged on his promise to the US and al-Iraqiya by refusing to give the new security council  any power.

While Allawi would not have necessarily been a less corrupt prime minister, as head of a multi-ethic coalition which attracted the votes of Arab Sunnis, Kurds and secular Shiites, his government would have not have been as sectarian as Maliki's has proved to be.  Since March 2010, Maliki has taken control of Iraq's Independent Higher Election Commission, and its Central Bank, and has intimidated judges to force them to adjudicate legal matters in ways that support his interests.  Maliki has also attacked many prominent Arab Sunni politicians which has angered Iraq's Sunnis who feel he is trying to marginalize them.  He has appointed military and intelligence service commanders who are loyal to him.

It is interesting to note that it was the heads of Iraq's two major religious communities - Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, head of Iraq's Shiites, and Ahmad 'Abd al-Ghaffar al-Samara'i, head of Iraq's Arab Sunni community - not the US, that forced Maliki not to postpone the March 2010 elections.  Maliki sought a postponement so he could improve his position in the polls.

The two religious leaders also forced Maliki to use an open rather than a closed list ballot system.  Because Iraq's constitution requires that 25% of parliamentary seats go to women, a closed list system would have allowed political parties to put up women candidates who were under the thumb of the male heads of these parties, such as their wives, daughters, sisters and other women who would follow party dictates.  Instead, a number of strong and independent women won seats in Iraq's parliament.

Maliki's authoritarian and increasingly sectarian policies have led to a national outcry, not just among Iraq's Sunni population but among Shiites as well.  One of the most vocal opponents of Maliki's policies is the Shiite Sadrist Trend, led by the young cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, which holds 40 seats in parliament.  The Shiite Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council and the Badr Organization, two other powerful Shiite parties, likewise oppose Maliki.  The three main Kurdish parties oppose Maliki's policies as well.

All these parties are trying to depose Maliki through a parliamentary vote of no confidence and recently organized a successful vote in parliament to impose term limits so Maliki cannot run for office again in 2014.  Because Maliki controls Iraq's Supreme Court, the parliamentary vote on term limits will undoubtedly be declared unconstitutional. 

It would be totally unwarranted to assign all the blame to the United States for the political instability and sectarian tensions that are currently bedeviling  Iraq.  In my forthcoming, Taking Democracy Seriously in Iraq, I analyze extensively the domestic problems facing a transition to democracy in Iraq, along with negative "neighborhood effects,"particularly Iran's meddling in Iraq's internal affairs.  Clearly, much of what ails Iraq today was not caused by the United States.

Nevertheless, when Americans pick up a newspaper, journal or turn on the television and come face to face with the spread of violence and political tensions in Iraq, they should resist the temptation to sit back and opine that the Iraqis are an unstable people who do not know how to run their political affairs, let alone establish a democratic form of government.  Instead, Americans would do well to look in the mirror to learn the sources of many of the problems that face Iraq today.


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