Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Are we seiing the end of traditional sectarian politics in Iraq?

Iraqi politics in Iraq has been undergoing some dramatic changes. These changes have become clear as a result of the efforts to introduce a vote of no-confidence in Nuri al-Maliki's government in the Iraqi parliament. While new fault lines have developed, sectarianism in its traditional configuration seems to be on the decline. What are the new political patterns and do they imply any radical departure from politics as usual in Iraq?

On the one hand, the effort to oust Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has generated significant support, including that of Masoud Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), all the parliamentary members of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the Sadrist Trend and its parliamentary delegates, led by Muqtada al-Sadr and the al-Iraqiya Coalition.  The effort to oust Maliki has once again created a united front after al-Iraqiya split into three factions: Ayad Allawi ‘s core supporters, the “White Iraqiya,” which included parliament speaker Usama al-Nujayfi and refused to boycott parliament and Maliki's cabinet, and the “Free Iraqiya."

Opposing efforts to oust Maliki are an equally powerful coalition of forces, including Iraqi president Jalal Talabani, and tribal leaders, such as the paramount shaykh of the Dulaym, and the leaders of tribes around Mosul and Kirkuk. What is particularly interesting is the open conflict between Talabni and the party he nominally heads, the PUK (see al-Hayat, June 9). Tribal leaders fear that Maliki’s fall would open the way for the Kurds to assert themselves in the disputed areas along the so-called Green Line that separates the KRG from the north-central regions which are populated by Arabs and Turkmen.  The paramount shaykh of the Dulaym has argued that Maliki brought stability to Iraq after suppressing the Mahdi Army in 2008 and thus deserves to remain as prime minister.  These tribal leaders want a strong man in Baghdad who will protect their interests.

What is most interesting is the new coalition of political forces which has emerged.  Acknowledging that he has come under tremendous pressure to desist for supporting efforts to topple Maliki, Sadr nevertheless has remained resolute in his opposition to the Iraqi prime minister.  Sadr’s main concern is the spreading influence of the League of the Righteous People (Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq) Sadr was incensed to learn that his forces were accused of giving support to Bashar al-Asad’s Ba’thist regime in neighboring Syria.  According to al-Sadr, these forces were actually members of the League of the Righteous People who were acting under orders from Iran.  The Sadrist Trend’s criticism of the Syrian regime and implicit backing away from its close ties to Iran, which seems more interested in the League, which is acting as its local proxy in Iraq, is a significant development if it persists.

That Sadr is now allied with what was once his arch-enemy, Ayad Allawi, is also quite remarkable given Allawi’s support of the 2004 attack by US forces on the Mahdi Army in al-Najaf when he was prime minister.  That Allawi and the Kurds have joined when it was the Kurds who played the role of kingmakers after the 2010 parliamentary elections which prevented Allawi from becoming prime minister is equally remarkable.  The alliance of Kurds with the Sunni dominated al-Iraqiya is also significant given the suspicions the Kurds maintain of Sunni tirbal elements who they often say as supported of the former Ba'thist regime

Do these new alliances mean the end of traditional patterns of sectarian politics in Iraq?  While it is hard to come to any hard and fast conclusions at this point, they do point to the fluidity of political cleavages and the impact of exogenous factors, especially Iran, on Iraq's changing political landscape.  Clearly, the current political divisions do not reflect the conceptual prism through which most Western analysts seek to impose on Iraq, namely a rigid divide between Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. 

It is important to remember that Saddam Husayn worked closely with the KRG leadership during the UN sanctions of the 1990s to smuggle oil out of Iraq int Turkey and Iran.  This relationship developed after the Ba’thist regime’s genocidal Anfal campaign against the Kurds in the 1980s which resulted in thousands of deaths and the destruction of 175 Kurdish villages.

Barzani had no compunction about inviting Saddam’s army to enter the KRG to help him stave off defeat by the rival PUK in 1996 during the Kurdish civil war.  In return Barzani turned over opposition elements living in Arbil to Saddam’s intelligence services.  Of course, all anti-Saddam elements were summarily killed.

It is important to remember that in 2003 Muqtada al-Sadr stated that only those who were born in Iraq were entitled to make policy statements about Iraqi politics.  This was clearly an attack on Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani who was born in Iran, a call for Iran to not interfere in Iraqi politics, and an argument that Arab Shiite clerics should dominate the main Shiite religious institution, the al-Hawza al-‘Ilmiya.  Yet al-Sadr later went to Qum to enhance his religious credentials and developed close ties to the regime in Teheran.

When it comes to politics, power will trump ethnic and confessional considerations in all instances.  Whether the changing political alliances in Iraq will present an opening for democratic forces among youth, professionals, the educated middle classes and the upstart Gorran (Change) Party is doubtful.  The forces behind building civil society and promoting democracy in Iraq still are not well organized when compared to Iraq’s dominant and rapacious political elites.

Nevertheless, what the effort to oust Maliki demonstrates is that power is too diffuse and fragmented in Iraq to allow a dictator on the model of Saddam Husayn to reappear on the Iraqi political stage..  While few Iraqis are pleased with the state of politics today, at least the possibilities of protest and political organization are available to Iraqi citizens in a manner that would have been brutally suppressed under the Ba'thist regime.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Could deposing Maliki be a step towards democracy in Iraq?

Current efforts to introduce a vote of no-confidence in the Iraqi parliament which would bring down Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government has raised many questions.  Should he be removed? Is there a suitable replacement?  If there is a change in government, would that be a step towards promoting national reconciliation or would it create more ethnic and confessional tensions?

Perhaps the most intriguing question is whether Maliki's removal would constitute a step towards democracy in Iraq?  A second equally important question is whether in the distribution and exercise of political power in Iraq as structured by its ethnoconfessional makeup may be a positive rather than a negative factor the country's political dynamics.

The dispute over Maliki's rule, which has continued since the March 2010 parliamentary elections which were won by the la-Iraqiya Coalition (91 seats to 89 for Maliki's State of Law Coalition), is a result of the Iraqi leader's heavy handed policies.  These policies have involved Maliki's efforts to eliminate as many checks and balances in the Iraqi political system as possible.   A number of security organizations have been created that report directly to the prime minister's office. In effect, Maliki now controls Iraq's security system.

Maliki has undermined the autonomy of the judiciary, harassed oppositional political parties and civil society organizations, taken over control of the central bank, and placed the Independent High Election Commission under his control.  In a recent interview with Niqash (May 30), the head of the Election Commission, Faraj al-Haydari, asserted that Iraq was on the road to dictatorship.  Haydari himself has been forced to appear in court on trumped up fraud charges and to post $12000 bail.

The perception that Maliki is trying to recreate dictatorial rule in Iraq has been fueling efforts to oust him.  Certainly he overplayed his hand.  His most egregious error was to underestimate the power of the Sadrist Trend.  The Sadrists have no love lost for Maliki given his suppression of their former militia, the Mahdi Army (Jaysh al-Mahdi), in 2008.  In an effort to undermine the Sadrists power, Maliki began supporting a rival militia, the League of the Righteous People (Asa'ib Ahl al-Haqq) led by Qais Khazali, a former Mahdi Army commander.

Maliki's other mistake was to alienate the Kurdish leadership.  Rather than try and negotiate an agreement on the exploration and sale of oil in the KRG, Maliki has been very belligerent towards Kurdish efforts to sign contracts wealth foreign oil companies and upgrade the oil infrastructure within the KRG.  His recent trip to Kirkuk, amid extraordinary security measures given the conflict that affects the ethnically mixed city, rubbed alt in the KRG wounds.

While in Kirkuk, Malikli remarked to al-Hayat that the city represented a "Microcosm" of Iraq's ethnic diversity.  Superficially, this remark sounded conciliatory.  However, the real message was that Kirkuk would never be allowed to come under Kurdish control, effectively saying the Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution, which calls for a referendum on Kirkuk, will never be implemented

The tragedy for Maliki is that he could have followed a very different trajectory after 2010.  He could have included Ayad Allawi's al-Iraqiya Coalition which would have ameliorated much of the lack of trust in the Suinni Arab community over whether Maliki was sincere about giving them a place at the political table.

Maliki could have attempted to use Iraq's oil wealth to create a massive jobs program.  This would have dramatically increased popular support for him and underlined the support for militias like Asa'ib al-Haqq and the Sadrists.  Instead, Malikli has tolerated the spread of corruption in his ministries, further alienating the Iraqi public.  He could have created a number of high profile meetings with the KRG and include the parliament in mediation efforts to find a mutually acceptable solution to the problem of oil wealth and its distribution.

Maliki looked like he could have his way when he was able to coopt a number of Sunni Arab politicians such as parliament speaker Usama al-Nujayfi.  However, those al-Iraqiya members who broke with Ayad Allawi and his attempts to boycott the parliament in response to Maliki's refusal to cede any power to the coalition was always opportunistic.  The so-called "White Iraqiya" bloc has now joined the efforts to remove Maliki whose State of Law Coalition has called for al-Nujayfi's removal based on his "no longer being a neutral party" (al-Hayat, June 2).

Despite the fears of new sectarian conflict as an al-Hayat article of June 3rd tries to argue, I would argue that the current crisis presents new opportunities for democratization in Iraq.  In the early decades of the 20th century, the concept of democracy understood as popular control of representatives in their daily law making activities was challenged by a group of elite theorists, Gaetano Mosca, Robert Michels (who developed the famous "iron law of oligarchy"), Vilfredo Pareto and Charles Beard (who is known for his famous The Economic Interpretation of the Constitution).

Many social scientists conclude that Tocquevillian notions of democracy - namely that citizens had direct control over their representatives through elections, and lobbying for specific policies was a myth.  In response, the famous American political economist, Joseph Schumpeter developed the "theory of democratic elitism."  Schumpeter and others argued that, even if citizens did not control their elected representatives on a daily basis, they still retained the right to remove elites on a periodic basis through elections.  Thus elites were forced to compete for votes in anticipation of elections, preserving what we might call a "minimalist" definition of democracy.

The theory of democratic elitism applies to democracies which still have not developed a strong civil society where citizens can use extra-governmental organizations to gain greater control over the political process.  Still, Iraq demonstrates that the possible withdrawal of confidence from Nuri al-Maliki's government, through democratic procedures, indicates that no one elite can dominate Iraqi politics.  Power in post-Ba'thist Iraq is much more diffuse, as Maliki is discovering to his great chagrin.  There are multiple players in the new Iraq and they are not going allow a new dictatorship to replace that which existed under the ancien regime.

al-Hayat's concerns about renewed sectarian conflict notwithstanding, we see that the diffusion of power among Iraq's three main ethnic groups may actually serve the cause of democracy.  With no one able to dominate the system, political elite are going to be required to go to the public on regular occasions and compete for their support in parliamentary elections.

If Maliki is removed and the specter of a new dictatorship is removed,n the next strep in Iraqi politics will be the mobilization of the populace at large to begin to use new political movements and civil society organizations to exercise more control over elected leaders, such as bringing the country's massive corruption under control.  Certainly, the Integrity Committee in the Iraqi Parliament which has been trying to address this issue can us more popular support.

Already in the Kurdish Gorran (Change) Movement, the Iraqi blogosphere, and organizations which have emerged to protest government policies on a regular basis - not just corruption, but the failure to provide needed social services in an economy awash with oil revenues - we see the potential of the second stage of democratization in Iraq.  For the moment, the inability of any one political elite to reimpose authoritarian rule means that the "theory of democratic elitism" is alive and well in Iraq.  It represents an imperfect form of democracy, but at least a bulwark against the reemergence of a new Saddam Husayn