|Coming apart at the seams
new Iraq may be less a state than an association of communities, argues
Global leaders and citizens have spent this
year anticipating and arguing over what would happen after the 30 June
transfer of power in Iraq. As the days ticked down, bringing the country
closer to the transfer of sovereignty to an Iraqi interim government,
a long-expected run of terror bombings ripped through Iraqi cities, fanning
fears that sovereignty would do nothing to improve Iraqis’ most
frequently articulated complaint, security.
Still, some Iraqis are optimistic about the transfer. They detested rule
by foreigners, particularly the coalition leadership, which was perceived
to be arrogant and unable to admit error. The public irresolution and
private nepotism of the coalition’s appointed Iraqi Governing Council
also sapped their confidence. Many of the optimists have warmed to the
new Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who has gone on television vowing to take
whatever “drastic measures” may be necessary to improve the
security situation. Others have their confidence inspired by the new president,
Sunni tribal leader Sheikh Ghazi Al Yawar, whose stately robes, some say,
show that he is a man at home in a traditional society, who will know
how to wield his authority in a way that people respect.
On the other hand, some feel that the transfer will mean little. Although
the Iraqi public knows that the new government’s composition was
not necessarily to the Americans’ liking—Allawi and Al Yawar
were presented to the coalition by the IGC as a fait accompli—the
coalition was still the final selector of Iraq’s new leaders, however
reluctantly it approved them. Moreover, despite various last-minute concessions,
the sovereignty handed to them is not complete—foreign troops in
the country remain under coalition command and enjoy immunity from Iraqi
Still others believe that the Americans, whatever their faults, are better
equipped to restore security than a scrambled-together Iraqi government,
and feel that order needs to be restored before the foreigners relinquish
In taking over the reins of power, Allawi, Yawar and their deputies are
in a race against time. Allawi has already said that elections scheduled
for January 2005 may be delayed some months. If a vote is delayed much
longer then—given the importance many Iraqis, including Grand Ayatollah
Ali Al Sistani, attach to elections—the new government will face
a serious crisis of legitimacy (this assumes, of course, that the new
leadership wants to hold elections at all).
The most important task in restoring stability will be to end the deadly
run of bombings—in particular vehicle bombings—which have
devastated the country since August 2003. Police stations have recently
become the particular favorite of the bombers, although hospitals, military
recruiting stations and public squares have also been hit. Should these
bombings continue apace through January, electoral polling stations and
voting queues would be equally inviting targets.
What could an Iraqi government do to suppress the bombings? Although Allawi
has stated his readiness to declare martial law, the measures that are
already in place under the occupation—military in the streets with
loose rules of engagement, indefinite detentions without trial—would
be hard to toughen up further. Failure to deal with terrorism is more
commonly seen as an intelligence and political failure to infiltrate the
groups, to encourage ordinary citizens to inform on them and the like.
Iraqi opposition groups such as the Kurdish parties have long claimed
that their intelligence-gathering assets are superior to the Americans’,
although this has yet to be put to the test.
The Iraqis say they cooperate with the U.S. military, but that the Americans
fail to act on their reports while simultaneously denying them access
to resources—prisoner interrogations, for example—needed to
capitalize on their successes. (Some observers also say that Iraqi security
might be able to take advantage of interrogation methods that the Americans
can’t use. However, that line of argument has become less persuasive
after revelations of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib suggesting that the
coalition had plenty of creative alternatives to out-and-out torture and
that human rights abuse is hardly a security panacea).
The Iraqis also say that they would avoid the kinds of mistakes—such
as overly intrusive raids—that have raised the anger of many Iraqis
against the coalition. Also, incursions into urban areas—with their
inevitable civilian casualties—may simply be less offensive if carried
out by local troops.
The main perpetrators of the bombings are thought to be Abu Mousab Al
Zarqawi’s Tawhid Wa Jihad organization, largely but not exclusively
composed of non-Iraqis, the remnants of the formerly Kurdistan-based Ansar
Al Islam and possibly former Baathists. The immediate objectives of the
attacks seem to be both to spread panic and to cripple the interim government’s
ability to project its authority. The long-term objective—if a letter
purportedly written by Zarqawi or an associate is authentic—is to
disrupt the creation of a functioning Iraqi government and to keep the
Americans in the country for an endless jihad. This puts them at odds
with other Sunni Arab insurgents, whose primary goals seem to be driving
the foreigners out and establishing control over their communities (and,
in a few cases, bringing back the Baath Party). However, to survive, the
jihadists almost certainly depend on the tolerance, if not the outright
cooperation, of Iraqi insurgent networks.
OLD ALLIES, OLD ENEMIES
Many of the foreign jihadis are thought to be holed up in Faluja, which,
since the marines called off their April offensive, has become dominated
by a fighting alliance of Islamists and former Republican Guards. Moreover,
the insurgents have co-opted the very Iraqi security units, largely recruited
from the area, formed to pacify them. Republican Guard officers decked
out in their old uniforms walk down the streets being saluted by soldiers
of the Faluja Protection Brigade in U.S.-issued fatigues and flak vests,
while police have been spotted directing RPG fire at marine patrols.
The U.S. military was unwilling to pay the political price to subdue Faluja,
largely because Iraqis with tribal ties to the city, or in some cases
who were simply stirred up by images of foreigners wreaking destruction
on an Iraqi town, were launching solidarity attacks up and down the highways
that formed the coalition’s main supply routes.
The new Iraqi government might be able to convince the public that subduing
Faluja is worth it, although it might have difficulties finding Iraqi
troops willing to do the job. More likely, it will have to convince Faluja’s
new rulers—and influential figures in other towns in the Sunni Triangle—that
harboring bombers that strike at the rest of the country is not in their
interest. An Iraqi government may also be better placed than the foreigners
to strike a deal with the Islamic Scholars’ Front—to which
many of the insurgents nominally give their allegiance—which has
condemned many of Zarqawi’s tactics but which is also implacably
opposed to foreign military occupation.
Situations similar to that in Faluja exist in parts of the predominantly
Shia south. In the town of Al Majar Al Kabir, which has resisted central
authority since Saddam’s time and where arms are sold in an open-air
market in clear defiance of the state, tribesmen who believe their relatives
were mutilated by British troops after a 14 May skirmish swear vengeance
on any coalition vehicle that comes their way.
In the northeastern slum of Sadr City, meanwhile, the Mahdi Army loyal
to radical Shia leader Moqtada Al Sadr, son of the neighborhood’s
martyred namesake, until recently patrolled the streets and threatened
swift execution to any coalition “spy.” Sadr declared a unilateral
ceasefire with the coalition and ordered his followers to cooperate with
the police on 25 June—a deal suspected to have been brokered by
omnipresent arbitrator Ahmad Chalabi—but the Sadrists are still
the dominant force in the area. Sadr has established himself as a patriotic
icon by declaring the April uprising and is now thought to be remaking
himself as a statesman, perhaps to join with Kurds, secular Shia and Sunni
leaders in an electoral front. In fact, a recent coalition survey put
his approval numbers second only to the venerable Al Sistani’s.
A pattern has emerged of leaders with neighborhood or provincial political
machines tailored to a particular ethno-confessional group, working in
partnership with similar political bosses from other groups in competition
with other integrated alliances. One theory of how Iraqi national politics
will operate in the years ahead is that this trend will dominate.
In the north, the Kurdish autonomous zone, formed after the 1991 Gulf
War, will remain in force, the status quo guaranteed by Iraq’s interim
constitution. Allawi did manage to broker a deal calling for the demobilization
of militias, including the Kurdish Democratic Parties’s (KDP) and
Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’s (PUK) peshmerga. However, it is likely
that they will simply be redesignated counter-terrorist units, mountain
rangers or given some other paramilitary cover.
Despite the continuation of their de facto autonomy, Kurds in the north
are furious that UN Resolution 1546 does not mention the status of the
Kurdish zone. Ever since the March and April dispute over the adoption
of an interim constitution, when Shiites resisted provisions that would
have given the Kurdish provinces the power to stop the adoption of a permanent
constitution, many Kurds have feared that the Shia majority wants to exert
central state power over them.
Their leaders, Massoud Barzani of the KDP, and Jalal Talabani of the PUK,
sent a letter to Washington threatening de facto secession if guarantees
of their autonomy were not forthcoming. The letter, however, was not originally
made public, and many Kurds feel that their leaders betrayed them for
not taking an early and public stand for their rights. In what can partly
be read as a gesture of no-confidence in the Kurdish leadership, a grassroots
movement claims to have collected 1.7 million signatures on a petition
calling for a referendum of Kurdish independence. Kurds are also pushing
for the return of tens of thousands of refugees to the disputed city of
Kirkuk and other areas from which they were ethnically cleansed under
Saddam, and often replaced with Arab settlers. Given ongoing ethnic unrest
in this city, Allawi might try to defer settlement of this issue as long
as possible, although the need to take a pre-election census might bring
it to the fore.
COMING APART AT THE SEAMS
In other words, Iraq seems to be fracturing fast, with every community,
and in some cases every neighborhood, falling under its own informal self-government.
This might not be such a bad thing.
Iraq has little in the way of a national identity, and thus no central
government will have much legitimacy. It may be best in the medium-term
for the regions to form ties with the center as they need them, rather
than the center force itself on the provinces. Although such a state may
be weak, ridden with corruption and, in places, in thrall to tribal or
religious mafias and political machines, it might still be an improvement
on a Baathist-style tyranny. Furthermore, in the long run—as civil
society grows and the public becomes more politically sophisticated—it
may prove more economically and politically dynamic than over-centralized
states, where non-responsiveness to local concerns can prove paralyzing.
For this to work there needs to be a national government regulated by
nominally democratic rules, wherein regional bosses compete peacefully
for their share of the federal pie. It could be derailed if Allawi or
other leaders succumb to the temptation to exploit the security situation
to perpetrate their stay in office. But, given the weakness of Iraq’s
government and its desperate need for legitimacy, this scenario is unlikely.
A more likely scenario would be a vicious circle—the bombings will
prevent elections, but without elections the new government’s legitimacy
will dwindle to the point that the regions simply ignore the central government—that
could see Iraq heading toward failed statehood.
Or, it may be that Allawi and his colleagues will be able to prove the
assertion that an Iraqi hand at the helm will resolve the country’s
security woes. If that is the case, Iraq may move toward a government
which, though far from perfect, will be much more democratic and responsive
than any it has had in the past.