The Middle East Channel

A decade of democratic transition in Iraq

Following the successful ousting of the Baath regime on April 9, 2003, Iraq began its transition toward a process of democratization that gradually achieved important gains in transferring some powers to the previously disenfranchised population. This transition has progressed from direct U.S. rule to partial Iraqi participation, and finally full Iraqi administration of the country. ...


Following the successful ousting of the Baath regime on April 9, 2003, Iraq began its transition toward a process of democratization that gradually achieved important gains in transferring some powers to the previously disenfranchised population. This transition has progressed from direct U.S. rule to partial Iraqi participation, and finally full Iraqi administration of the country. Since Iraqis reclaimed sovereignty in 2004 they have managed to write and ratify a constitution, hold regular provincial and general elections, and begin to establish a tradition of peaceful transfer of political power and parliamentary life. This is a very significant reversal of the authoritarian rule in Iraq between 1958 and 2003, when governments were only replaced by violence and coups.

However, the slow transition to democracy and the many setbacks in the process are still frustrating to many Iraqis. This is mainly because Iraqis have no consensus on the shape of their future regime. They are divided on the questions of federalism and the scope of the central government’s powers; a majority government versus a power-sharing arrangement; the identity of Iraq as a neutral state with policies driven by its national interests or as a part of some larger regional context (Arab, Islamic, etc.); among many other disputes. 

As far as electoral politics are concerned, Iraqi politicians and the electorate have not matured enough to trust the performance-based appeal and leave the comfort zones of ethnic and sectarian affinities. So far, all Iraqi election results have followed the country’s sectarian and ethnic composition. This social comfort zone has encouraged Iraqi political players to take their constituents for granted and lose the sense of urgency to improve the country’s conditions or curb the epidemic of corruption. Additionally, electing candidates on the basis of sub-identities has denied Iraq a national leader, who could inspire a majority of Iraqis from all ethnic and sectarian backgrounds. Conversely, it is possible that the lack of such an inspiring statesman in Iraq has left the electorate with solely ethnic and sectarian leaders. Whatever the case might be, such a leader is desperately needed to lead the country with genuine authority.

Although it is fashionable to condemn everything that happened in Iraq post-2003, there are signs of hope for a progress toward a successful democratization. The U.S. withdrawal has removed one of the major obstacles prohibiting a faster transition toward democratization, because the United States has often interfered to secure political outcomes that have guaranteed the safety of U.S. troops or long-term interests in Iraq, but not necessarily in order to help a healthy transition toward democracy. Also, the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces took away any legitimacy from the calls for violent opposition to the political process. With the "occupation" out of the way, all that is left for the detractors of the political process is the debate over policies, like the protests in the three Sunni Arab provinces held over the past weeks.

Another good sign is the improving performance of the Iraqi judiciary and its independence, despite the occasional accusations of being otherwise. So far, the judiciary has ruled in favor of almost every group that has presented a strong case and disappointed every group when the claims were not based on solid grounds. Even Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, often accused of manipulating the judiciary, has suffered some significant defeats in court, the latest of which was his attempt to challenge the law limiting his terms. This trend, if it continues, is a strong sign of rule of law, which in turn will forward the democratization process.

One final sign of hope is the new culture of subordinating the armed forces to civilian control. The Iraqi military, which has had an awful history of destructive involvement in politics since the 1936 coup, is following a strict professional policy of adhering to civilian command. If this culture is maintained, Iraqi forces will be an important supporter of the democratic system, when it is finally consolidated.

So far, Iraqi forces have been effective in providing protection for major events in Iraq, with many cities becoming areas of responsibility: regions during countrywide election days and several southern cities during religious rituals, where millions of Iraqis and foreigners gather to commemorate the martyrdom of historic Shiite Imams. However, on the external front, the Iraqi Armed Forces are very far from being ready to defend the country against a foreign aggression. After being a cause of concern for all Middle Eastern countries, the Iraqi Armed Forces are not in a position to hold their ground against any of their neighbors. 

One of the most disturbing negative aspects the post-2003 period is the level of corruption in Iraq. There are three forms of corruption currently plaguing Iraq: political, administrative, and financial. Each form contributes in its own way, and in collaboration with the others, to the failure of the country in its pursuit of progress and development. The ultimate result of this failure to curb corruption can be seen in the rising apathy of Iraqis and their lack of confidence in their government and the future of the country. In a country like Iraq that exists in severe post-conflict conditions and significant internal discord, corruption takes a secondary level of importance for the government, after the more pressing issues, such as the lack of security, economic hardship and high unemployment, the collapse of services, and the lack of effective governance. 

More dangerous still is the contribution of corruption to the country’s instability and the continued political violence. In addition to causing the lack of services, lack of economic progress, and poor governance, it is clear from the empirical evidence that all three forms of corruption have contributed greatly to the deterioration of security in post-2003 Iraq. Corrupt politicians at all governmental levels have sponsored terrorism, collaborated with insurgents, or looked the other way in exchange for political gains to themselves or their respective political parties.

Does the United States have a coherent policy to help steer Iraq toward the path of transparency and democratic governance? It is hard to say. The post-Saddam U.S. policy has been more focused on keeping Iraq’s various factions glued together, while lack of efficiency, transparency, and good governance are highly tolerated. The U.S. obsession with the political process and the "democratization" of Iraq has caused a troublesome deficit in the attention paid to combating corruption. To make matters worse, the current U.S. administration has turned away from full engagement with Iraq. Even the implementation of the Strategic Framework Agreement that was signed between the two countries in 2008 is hardly visible for the most informed observers of U.S. and Iraqi relations. One cannot pass any opportunity to note that there is still a window of opportunity for a higher level of positive engagement with Iraq, especially on this front.

Abbas Kadhim is a senior fellow at the Boston University Institute for Iraq Studies. He is the author of Reclaiming Iraq: the 1920 Revolution and the founding of the modern state, University of Texas Press (2012).

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