Think Again: Iraq

It's not over yet.

Warrick Page/Getty Images
Warrick Page/Getty Images
Warrick Page/Getty Images

"Iraq Is a Democracy."

"Iraq Is a Democracy."

In theory, but it doesn’t work like one. Yes, it has had three, free national elections and a constitutional referendum and there are elements of democracy. I started covering Iraq in 1998, living there from the start of the war until late 2009, and it certainly feels freer than before. Saddam Hussein held his last election, a plebiscite in 2002, and claimed 100 percent of the vote (and maybe it was true — who would risk voting against him?). Under the old regime, even when I could slip away from government minders, people were usually too scared of informants among their family and friends to speak openly. You weren’t even allowed to keep your mouth shut. Failure to join the chanting crowds at pro-government rallies — watched closely by neighborhood-level Baathists — could cost you your job, admission to university, or worse. Now there’s lots of open talk, government criticism, and widespread Internet access.

But Iraq is not democratic in a reliable or deep sense, where people can expect equal rights, legal protections, or access to their leaders. Free speech is still a dangerous pursuit. At least seven reporters or their staff have been killed this year in what appear to be direct attacks on news agencies, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Most others are afraid to get too specific in their criticisms of the leadership. Regulations are tightening, and the track record of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has just maneuvered himself into another term in office, is getting darker. The government has started requiring that news agencies register their staff and equipment. Media regulations ban quotations from anonymous sources. Human Rights Watch recently documented government efforts to ban public demonstrations and encourage security forces to violently disperse attempts at peaceful protest.

Despite vast U.S. training efforts, rule of law is still mostly an abstract concept. Criminals can regularly buy their way out of jail and the falsely accused, or those thousands held for months without charges, often have to resort to buying their freedom as well. Secret prisons have been found where inmates face torture by beating, electric shock, and rape. Maliki — along with other leaders — has used arrest as a tactic to neutralize political opponents. It’s most apparent in the still-dangerous and fluid Diyala province, where several Sunni politicians have been jailed. A leader of the Sunni Sons of Iraq — the militias that helped the United States fight al Qaeda — was also arrested by Maliki’s forces in what one U.S. colonel told me was a case of "collateral political damage." One of the real concerns among opponents and some U.S. officials now is whether, given another term, Maliki’s Dawa Party will consolidate so much power — such as by taking direct control over some military units — that it prevents any future opposition.

Among the many laws held over from the old regime is one that allows the prime minister and cabinet ministers to block investigations into their subordinates, thereby stifling attempts to prosecute corrupt officials. The big money these days is in kickbacks for government contracts. But any business owner can also expect to pay steady handouts to predatory cops and bureaucrats who threaten to yank their permits. Government payrolls — including in the military — are bloated with employees who show up only part time and kick back some of their salaries to their bosses. In July, someone told me about one midlevel ministry official who was finally busted for requiring bribes of people he hired. He apparently got caught only because some who had paid him off complained that he hadn’t put them on the payroll as promised.

As violence continues and the country remains in a state of emergency, most areas, including Baghdad, are under the de facto command of the Iraqi Army, with all local security forces answering to a military strongman who decides who gets arrested, what roads stay open, and when curfews are imposed.

"Maliki Is Iran’s Man."

Not quite. Iraq’s prime minister, stubbornly independent and impetuous, probably causes as many headaches in Tehran as he does in Washington.

True, Maliki lived in Iran for eight years after escaping Iraq in 1979, when the regime wanted him and tens of thousands of other Islamic Dawa Party supporters for arrest and execution. He helped run a military camp in southern Iran where Dawa men trained for their guerrilla war against Saddam. But they constantly clashed with their Iranian hosts over issues of ideology (for one thing, Dawa refused to accept velayat al-faqih, the Iranian model that places government under clerical rule) and tactics. After about a year, Iran evicted Dawa from the camp and gave the compound, as well as money and training, to a more reliable militia under direct Iranian control, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, now a political party known as ISCI. That group became Iran’s malleable proxy against Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War and grew strong while Dawa foundered. The double cross still irks Maliki and others within the tight-knit Dawa cadres, people close to the party have told me.

Maliki plays the United States and Iran against each other for what he sees as Iraq’s or his own interests. Associates say Maliki believes, rightly, that the fighters affiliated with militant cleric Moqtada al-Sadr that took up arms against his government got their weapons from Iran. The prime minister personally led Iraqi forces in fierce battles against them in the spring of 2008 (his security chief was killed when a rocket struck their command center), aided by U.S. troops. Last year, in the approach to the elections, the Iranians pressured Maliki not to split from the main Shiite grouping (with ISCI) and form his own coalition. He did so anyway. Maliki also resisted Iranian arm-twisting in signing the Status of Forces Agreement with the United States in 2008. And, in turn, he used the pretense of Iranian pressure on his cabinet and parliament to get the Americans to agree to tighter deadlines and limits on their troop presence. I wouldn’t be surprised if he eventually turns and decides to tolerate a longer U.S. presence just as a counterweight to Iran.

This year, Iran ended up supporting Maliki for prime minister again — and brokered his latest alliance with Sadr — probably for the same reason U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration belatedly backed Maliki: There weren’t any better alternatives. Iran’s old ally, ISCI, faired too poorly at the polls to contend for the top spot, and Maliki was better for Iran than secular contender and American friend Ayad Allawi. But when Allawi failed to form a viable coalition, the United States eventually aided the formation of a new Maliki government and thus forestalled the prospect of a potentially destabilizing ninth month of government gridlock.

The Iranians will continue to influence Maliki. They’ve got close ties with lawmakers around him, some of whom are probably even some on their payroll. They supply weapons to renegade insurgent groups that can still fire rockets at the Green Zone or throw a city into havoc. And they’ll use the same soft power that Turkey and other neighbors employ through vast commercial contacts, strong-arm diplomacy, subsidies to some of Iraq’s Shiite religious networks, and their shared geography and heritage. But, in general, they use their overall clout in Iraq to control Maliki to a greater extent than they can use Maliki to control Iraq.

"Sadr Calls the Shots."

In his dreams. It was, as widely noted, a disappointment for the United States and a win for Iran that Maliki’s new government includes an alliance with Sadr. The radical anti-American cleric has been living in Iran since 2007, and Tehran funds and arms elements of his militias. Now his movement has helped put Maliki over the top and will hold at least a few cabinet seats. When they were in government before, the Sadrists nearly destroyed the Ministry of Health as they used hospitals for secret prisons or as places from which to hunt down Sunnis. They made a mess of the Ministry of Transportation and the national airlines, and diverted public money to build their party.

But none of that means Sadr can run roughshod over the new government. Remember, Sadr was instrumental in making Maliki prime minister last time, too. But once in office, Maliki turned the tables. Amid their abuses of the ministries they controlled, the Sadrists also demanded more power and then dropped out of the government when Maliki refused them. That’s when Maliki, in the spring of 2008, turned the Iraqi Army loose on the Sadrist gangs in Basra and several other cities. The offensive didn’t crush the movement — many of the militants melted away into hiding while a cease fire was negotiated. But that set back the Sadrists and their leaders vowed never to back Maliki again. (Some militants who Maliki’s found and captured were among those he recently released in exchange for the movement’s renewed support.)

The back-and-forth is a good example of what historian Phebe Marr describes as the age-old pattern for Iraqi politics — "fight and negotiate, fight and negotiate."


"Kirkuk Is a Time Bomb."

Prove it. The prospects of a major conflict between Arabs and Kurds over the northern city of Kirkuk merit concern, as we’ve been warned ad nauseum for the last seven years, but they aren’t any greater than the chances of violence in a lot of other places in Iraq. The good thing about a city constantly being labeled a "potential flashpoint" is that it draws a lot of attention to keep it from erupting. As long as that tendency continues, there are several factors that could keep Kirkuk calm.

Yes, major disputes continue over areas where the Kurdish leadership of the north and the Arabs in Baghdad vie for control. And the downside to any friction is steep. Small skirmishes could escalate into a war between conventional forces with tanks and artillery capable of destroying cities in their path. Another dire scenario could see pockets of ethnic cleansing of whichever side — usually Arabs, where Kirkuk is concerned — is the minority group in the areas in question.

But the combatants here, unlike al Qaeda or the Sadrist militias, answer to formal authorities — like the Baghdad government and the Kurdish political leadership. The United Nations has been deeply engaged in proposing solutions and trying to build trust between the two sides. After a series of near skirmishes along the seams between the two sides, U.S. soldiers now patrol several areas with Arab and Kurdish troops to protect against any accidental friction. Yes, last year Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani and Maliki feuded. But this month it was Barzani’s mediation, endorsed by the United States, that helped pave the way for Maliki’s new term in office.

Neither side has an incentive for all-out war. The Kurds have the clear upper hand in Kirkuk and already de facto control over other disputed areas that are predominantly Kurdish. They’ve been getting away with steady and often effective intimidation to drive Arabs away from some areas since 2003. It’s horrific for the victims. This summer, near Baquba, a town northeast of Baghdad, I visited an old Iraqi Army garage complex where 600 Arab families have lived in squalor since Kurds displaced them from a northern area within days of the U.S. invasion in 2003. But as ugly as the expulsions are, they haven’t come with the kind of above board violence that would draw a forceful Baghdad response. Nor does it make sense for Baghdad to start a new conflict while it’s still dealing with violence in several other provinces.

But the biggest test yet is on the way. A nationwide census scheduled for the end of this year will likely aggravate ethnic tensions. It could prompt Kurds to push more Arabs out — to run up the Kurdish numbers — or lead to a defensive outburst of violence from minority Arabs. It could provoke either side to overreach. The census was originally scheduled for 2007, then pushed ahead to this October and then again to December. The International Crisis Group has called for the census to be delayed further until the big issues can be resolved by the leadership.


"The Iraq War Is Over."

Which one? What Americans call "the Iraq war" has really been a series of conflicts, sometimes overlapping. There was the U.S. invasion, then the Sunni insurgency and al Qaeda-type mayhem, followed by the sectarian war between Sunnis and Shiites that led to the U.S. troop surge in 2007. There was also the war in which mainstream Sunnis fought, with U.S. help, against al Qaeda-linked extremists. And there has been sporadic but fierce fighting among Shiite groups. This is partly what makes it so hellish for average Iraqis who are trying to work, keep their kids in school, and just survive: Front lines, threats, and enemies keep changing without notice.

The killing sure hasn’t stopped, though it’s much less frequent than the all-out mayhem of 2007. While 3,000 people died in a few months in 2007, now the number of deaths usually ranges anywhere from a couple of hundred to a few hundred a month. And it’s worth noting that the violence has remained around those lower levels even as the United States has pulled out nearly 100,000 troops since early last year. Only around 20 Americans have been killed by hostile fire this year. But there are multiple bombings weekly and still frequent horrors — such as the attack on a church last month that killed about 60 congregants. Iraqis in that tortuous middle ground where it’s not coming apart in geopolitical terms but is still traumatically violent for those who have to live there.

Most of the bloodshed is still caused by groups loosely affiliated with al Qaeda-type extremists (more local than linked to the international al Qaeda). Former Baathists also carry out attacks and there is still a trickle of foreign bombers coming in from Syria — about five to 10 a month, according to a U.S. military official I interviewed in late September.

The point is that several groups still apparently believe that Iraq can be destabilized to their advantage and it probably can. Looking ahead, there are the major Kurdish-Arab issues still to be settled. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, whose revered and patient guidance has cooled off several crises, is in his late 70s and ailing: Any successor will need years to accumulate influence matching his. Sadr is ambitious and unpredictable. Neighboring Sunni Arab regimes remain hostile to the idea of a Shiite-led government controlling Baghdad for the first time in centuries. It will take concerted diplomacy, economic development, and probably thousands of U.S. troops on the ground — even if they’re just in bases — to make sure all these tensions don’t pull the country and the region into chaos. The last thing Americans want is to have to return to Iraq and stitch it back together.

Larry Kaplow is a freelance journalist in Mexico City. You can follow him on Twitter: @larrykaplow.

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