Iraq’s Political Disarray Likely to Remain After U.S. Departure

Iraq’s democratic system is in trouble. That much was acknowledged for the first time on Monday by U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill. The immediate cause for his concern was the decision by Iraq’s Supreme Court to uphold the disqualification of 52 candidates who ran in the March 7 parliamentary elections — two of whom had won seats — on charges that they had ties to Saddam Hussein’s banned Ba’ath party. Because most of those disqualified were Sunni Muslim members of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiya party, the decision was widely viewed as an attempt by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to try and regain the lead before the election results are finally accepted. Maliki’s Shi’ite-dominated State of Law coalition came in second in the poll, two seats behind Iraqiya, but the court’s decision could put it back in front to form a new coalition government.

But the deeper worry for Ambassador Hill was that seven weeks after the election, Iraq’s politicians have not yet accepted the poll results, much less begun negotiating in earnest to form a new government. “We are now approaching the two-month period [since the election], and we are concerned the process is lagging,” Hill said at a briefing for foreign journalists. “We share the concern of those who believe that it’s time that the politicians got down to business and started forming a government. This is a country that has been beset by some of the worst violence that anyone has ever seen in peacetime. This is a country that needs to move ahead.”

The fact that America’s man in Baghdad was reduced to asking Iraq’s politicians to perform their basic duties should be a warning sign to anyone hoping the U.S. will leave behind a stable democratic Iraq when its last troops are scheduled to depart at the end of next year. U.S. combat troops are scheduled to withdraw by the end of August, and U.S. officials have begun to doubt whether Iraq will have a government in place by then. In the past, U.S. officials have indicated they might slow the timetable of troop withdrawals should Iraq’s election process not proceed smoothly. But even if the Pentagon puts the brakes on and keeps combat troops in country, there may not be much they can do to fix Baghdad’s political mess.

Safeguarding Iraq’s government and citizens from insurgent attack has been the job of Iraqi forces since January, while the U.S. forces are predominantly involved in training Iraq’s army and police, and guarding the country’s borders. They’re also there to undergird civilian democracy by preventing coups d’etat — it’s unlikely that any Iraqi group will try to storm the proverbial palace when the rightful government can easily be restored on the back of an American tank. This is no small matter in a country with a history of dictatorships and violent changes of regime.

However, even before this year’s election began, Iraq’s politicians were covertly undermining the country’s tender democratic norms, while the U.S. had to sit back and watch. In January, the Justice and Accountability Commission, a shadowy government de-Ba’athification panel originally created by the U.S. government after the 2003 invasion, banned some 500 candidates, most of them Sunnis, from participating in the elections without ever presenting evidence against them. “The Americans say they came here to build democracy, but what kind of democracy is this?” Saleh al-Mutlaq, the leader of the country’s second largest Sunni Muslim party and one of the banned candidates, asked TIME not long after the ban was imposed. “They should solve this problem, or they should just leave.” Needless to say, the U.S. hasn’t solved the problem of the de-Ba’athification commission. U.S. officials spoke out loudly against the candidate ban, but it was upheld by the courts. Saleh al-Mutlaq’s brother, Irbrahim, who replaced him on the ballot, was one of the 52 candidates banned on Monday.

Part of the difficultly facing U.S. officials is that almost every major political party has demanded a recount of the vote in areas where they fared poorly, despite the fact that international observers declared the poll largely free and fair. A recount would be more open to fraud than was the original poll.

Then there’s the fact that those responsible for the breakdown can hide behind the trappings of sovereignty, security and due process. Though Prime Minister Maliki, in particular, has appeared willing to go to extra lengths to stay in power — critics charge that he has used a special anti-terror unit under his authority to jail political opponents, has orchestrated the candidate bans and the Baghdad vote recount ordered by a judge earlier in April — he has been able to cast these actions as safeguarding Iraqi laws and institutions.

The most depressing aspect of the current machinations is that they’re unlikely to change the basic reality of Iraqi politics: The election was very close, and no one party will be able to form a government without building a broad-based coalition. Yet the behind-the-scenes maneuvering is destroying what little spirit of compromise and cooperation existed in Baghdad before the election, when U.S. officials had predicted Iraqi politicians would demonstrate a new willingness to work together, thanks in part to the security achievements of the surge of American troops in 2007. But forging an Iraqi political consensus may be a mission beyond the capability of the U.S.

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