Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Holding the Government to Account

Leading academic and writer Kanan Makiya argues that without a leadership ready to move beyond sectarian politics, nothing is possible, least of all the defeat of the insurgency. <i><b><a href="">Iraqi Governanc
To understand the depths of the abyss that Iraq is about to fall into, one must begin with the mistakes and miscalculations made by the Coalition forces, led by the United States - particularly in underestimating the number of troops necessary for the occupation.

From the first day of liberation, April 9, 2003, security could not be delivered - as evidenced by the looting. And without security, democracy and the rule of law are rendered meaningless.

Yet these errors mainly relate to the first year of the transition from the Ba’ath regime. Since June 2004, Iraq has been run by Iraqis, and responsibility for escalating sectarian violence, and the catastrophic position the country finds itself in today, no longer falls on the Coalition; it falls on the new Iraqi political elite created by the ouster of the dictatorship.

Both the Coalition and the Iraqi government constantly emphasise that the focus now is - or ought to be - on defeating the insurgency. But this is no longer - if it ever was - the central question of Iraqi politics. Lacking a programme, policy or any viable political alternative, the insurgency is bound to fail in the long run, even if it takes years.

The prospect of either al-Qaeda or a metamorphosed version of the Ba’ath party ever ruling Iraq is still, at this late point, a fantasy. The real priority - and the necessary precondition for the defeat of the insurgency - remains what it has been from the day after the fall of the Ba’ath: a functioning and accountable central Iraqi government.

Without that, without a leadership ready to move beyond sectarian politics and represent the country as a whole, nothing is possible, least of all the defeat of the insurgency.

The inability of the Shia-led government to distance itself from the militias of its own constituent members and their sympathisers, and to lead a genuinely all-Iraqi government that can be trusted by all Iraqis, has become the main obstacle to defeating the insurgency and restoring security and public services to the people of Iraq. The militias are a scourge that have to be purged from all government institutions, especially the interior ministry and the armed forces.

This might have seemed obvious to the great beneficiaries of the 2003 Iraq war - the Kurdish and Shia elite that today control the very state power that is daily undermined by their own militias. However, the performance on the ground has been very disappointing.

Consider, for instance, the botched trial and execution of Saddam Hussein.

The design for the trial that was put in place during the time of the Coalition Provisional Authority, and the assumptions made by American officials before the transfer of sovereignty in June of 2004, encouraged an ethnic and confessional way of looking at and adjudicating the criminality of the former Iraqi regime.

These came to a head in the manner of the execution itself, beginning with the apparent lack of control exhibited in the very execution chamber with Shia guards - militia members not government officials - taunting the former dictator. After all, as has been observed by many commentators, if a government cannot control a gallows chamber containing 20 people, how can it hope to manage a country caught up in the throes of sectarian war?

Then there is the larger issue of the rush to execution after Saddam’s conviction only on the basis of the Dujail trial.

The Dujail judgment hinged on the execution of 148 people in the town of al-Dujail, following an attempt on Saddam Hussein’s life in 1982. But what about all the other trials that have yet to take place, say for the nearly 200,000 Kurds killed in the Anfal campaign of 1987-88? Or the 1.5 million Iraqis who have in one way or another died violently through the wars and repressive actions of the regime since 1968. What about their right to accountability and a sense of justice?

This was a dictator who directed his violence at Iraqis of all walks of life and from all ethnic and religious communities.

The execution of Saddam for only the al-Dujail atrocity has diminished the scale of the former president’s crimes, instead of enhancing them. And in so doing the government that insisted on rushing the execution has also diminished itself.

In the end Saddam did not appear to have been executed because of his record of genocide, extreme repression and waging wars on other countries, but out of motives of revenge. And so the impossible has been achieved: Saddam Hussein, a dictator comparable to the greatest tyrants of the 20th century, has begun to re-emerge as a kind of hero in parts of the Arab world.

The mismanagement of the execution epitomizes the sectarianism and narrow-mindedness of the new Iraqi political elite put in power by the American-led coalition.

• • •

The Iraqi people who emerged from under the blanket of Saddam’s brutal regime are today an unknown quantity. To be sure, the millions of men and women who took their lives in their hands as they went out to vote in the historic January 2005 elections behaved heroically in a way that it is difficult for people like us who have not been subjected to such abuse and intimidation over 30 years to understand. Because of their liberation from tyranny in 2003, they began to take their lives into their own hands and act on what had been done to them. And that is a good thing; it is after all what politics in its best sense is all about.

But they are also victims. What had been done to them over decades was not erased overnight. In spite of what so much of modern Arab culture has been trying to persuade us of in recent years, there is no virtue in being a victim; it is a terrible condition, not a great and uplifting quality. It takes decades if not generations to come to terms with such victim-hood. Iraqis have yet to reconcile this terrible legacy, or affliction, with the political attributes of citizenship in a new Iraq.

Given this legacy, a special responsibility fell upon those Iraqis who were going to lead them in the transitional period.

The lesson of the politics of the Arab-Israeli conflict of the last several decades is that a leadership that elevates victim-hood into the be-all and end-all of politics brings untold suffering and misery upon its own people. Given political power, this kind of a leadership will in turn victimise, as a whole body of knowledge in sociology, political psychology and history will confirm.

Even the insurgents in Iraq fully understand this dynamic; in fact they have been counting on it. That is why their goal was never to win over Iraqi hearts and minds; it was - and continues to be - to inculcate a state of pervasive physical insecurity conducive to the eruption of the most irrational forms of behaviour.

Theirs is a politics of fear and intimidation borrowed from that of the former regime which produced them, and it is a politics designed to create a backlash among those very Iraqis who in 2005 so magnificently wore the blue-black stain on their right index finger as a badge of honour as they braved the bombs to go out and vote.

Since 1968, the Ba’ath have been trashing the only idea that can hold the great social diversity of Iraq together: the idea of Iraq. Their answer to the question “Who am I?" was: you are either one of us, or you are dead.

True to their word, they killed anyone who dared to say he was a Kurd or a Shia or a leftist, or a democrat or a liberal.

Contrary to what those in the leadership of Iraqi Shism tend to argue nowadays, the Ba’ath never wanted to build a Sunni confessional state in Iraq. Anti-Shia sectarianism was introduced on a mass scale only after the uprising of 1991. The state that the Ba’ath built in Iraq up until the 1991 Gulf war was in fact worse than sectarian. It thrived on the distrust, suspicion and fear that it went about inducing in everyone.

In this sense it was consistently egalitarian. Atomising society by breeding hate and a thirst for revenge was the regime's highest ambition and principal tool of social control. Every Iraqi Kurd or Arab, Muslim or Christian, Shia or Sunni became both complicit in the Ba’athist enterprise and its victim at the same time.

Once the Shias became the majority in the Iraqi National Assembly, and began to run the government, they inherited this great burden of a fractured and deeply atomised country filled with minorities, all of whom have known suffering of one sort or another. How they shouldered that responsibility was going to determine the course of politics in Iraq.

The paradox is that the idea of Iraq as a pluralist and accommodating whole is at odds with the Shia sense of political entitlement arising from their own previous suffering. The most fundamental truth of post-Saddam politics in Iraq is that only the Shia can stop the current destruction that is the legacy of dictatorship. By virtue of their numbers, the Shia in the first place carry the greatest responsibility for this transition period, more so than any other ethnic or sectarian group in Iraq.

They also have far more to lose than anyone else, and this too is a lesson the insurgents have understood well. That is why they are targeting Shia, and blowing up mosques, like the Askariyya in Samarra, that are very dear to the Shia.

The fact that Iraqis are still competing with each other over who has suffered the most, and who did or did not collaborate with Saddam, is a sign that whether Saddam is in jail, what he represented still lives on inside Iraqi hearts. Herein lies the greatest danger of all for Iraq's future.

Politics, it has been said, is the art of possible. But that is only so when there is a large vision of the future - one bigger than one’s own self-interest -guiding the practitioners of this art.

In the case of the big beneficiary of the Iraq war - the Shia elite empowered by the 2005 elections - visionary leadership has been totally absent. The result is a Shia-led government that is itself a part of the problem and not the solution to the crisis of Iraq.

At the end of the day, it is the poor, impoverished and disenfranchised Shia of Iraq - nearly 60 per cent of the population - who will pay the biggest price for the failure of all those politicians who claim to speak in their name. The failure of the Shia leadership in Iraq, duly elected and wholly legitimate, has already begun to unleash dark forces. Unless that leadership can adopt a broader vision, and accept a deeper accountability, the country we all fought so hard to liberate is today heading for dark and unpredictable times.

Kanan Makiya is a professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Brandeis University; founder of the Iraq Memory Foundation; and author of The Republic of Fear: The Politics of Modern Iraq, among other works.

This article has been produced with support from the International Republican Institute (IRI).

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