Thursday, December 09, 2010

Iraq: Why Hasn’t the US Been Able to Foster Democracy in Iraq?

Source: International Relations and Security Network (ISN)

The US-led intervention and efforts to promote democratization in Iraq upended relations among Iraq’s three principal communities. While the US succeeded in ending Arab Sunni minority dominance, it failed to establish peace among the country's three main communities – suggesting that stable democracy is unlikely to take root anytime soon.

By Mark N Katz for ISN Insights

It must be said to begin with that the US did achieve some important successes in Iraq. It destroyed the brutal regime of President Saddam Hussein - something that the Iraqi population had been, and may have long continued to be, unable to do on its own. If Saddam had managed to successfully transfer power to his sons (who were reportedly just as, or even more, vicious than their father), the regime may have survived for years or even decades.

In addition, the US-led intervention helped the Kurds in northern Iraq (who had suffered terribly under Saddam) solidify the tenuous autonomy they had achieved (also with US help) after the 1990-91 Kuwait conflict, and even to build stability and prosperity in their zone.

Although Iraq's Arab Sunni tribes were initially hostile to the US-led intervention and fought an insurgent war against it, US forces were eventually able to make peace and work with most of them.

And most importantly, the US organized and protected the holding of relatively free and fair elections at both the national and local level that have allowed Iraq's Arab Shi'a majority (which had also suffered dreadfully under Saddam) to play a leading role in Iraqi politics for the first time.

Coming up short

In addition to these successes, however, the US has had some noteworthy failures in Iraq. The first of these (literally) was the failure to halt the massive violence, looting and infrastructure breakdown that took place in much of Iraq immediately after the downfall of Saddam's regime. This was caused by the Bush administration's failure to anticipate and plan for the aftermath of Saddam's downfall as well as to deploy enough troops to maintain order. As a result, the initial gratitude displayed by much of the Iraqi population toward the US for delivering it from Saddam quickly disappeared.

Further, despite a massive troop presence, the US was unable to prevent or stop the large-scale ethnic cleansing campaigns that violent Arab Sunni and Arab Shi'a groups conducted against each other's communities. These campaigns were so successful that some observers attributed the decline in violence in Iraq in 2008-09 not to the US troop surge ordered by Bush, but to the ethnic cleansing campaigns having largely completed the violent work of segregating the Arab Sunni and the Arab Shi'a communities from each other in much of Iraq.

Finally, while the US created the conditions that have allowed Iraq to hold two national elections for its parliament, the US has not been able to persuade or cajole important Iraqi groups to fully - or even less than fully - cooperate with one another. The Arab Shi'a-Arab Sunni rivalry is especially important. There are also differences within the Arab Shi'a community. And Arab-Kurdish divisions have not disappeared either. The inability of a government to be formed after the 7 March 2010 parliamentary elections bodes ill not just for the prospects for democracy, but even for stability in the country.

The US certainly bears responsibility for some of these failures. The Bush administration could have sent more troops to keep order in Iraq after the downfall of Saddam as well as planned more carefully for the transition afterward. The US also could have done much more to prevent and halt the ethnic cleansing campaigns that took place. And if America had done these things, it may have been easier for Iraqi politicians from different communities (as well as political parties) to work together cooperatively.

The weight of history

The US, though, is not responsible for the hostility that exists among Iraq's three main communities. This is something that pre-dated the US-led intervention that began in 2003. As is well known, Saddam's regime was based on and privileged the Arab Sunni minority, which dominated the Arab Shi'a majority, the Kurdish minority and Iraq's many other smaller communities. What is less well known (at least in the West) is that Arab Sunni minority dominance did not begin with Saddam, but long pre-dated him. As Hanna Batatu wrote in his book, The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq (1978), the Ottoman Turks up through the end of World War I and the British as well as the British-installed Iraqi monarchy until its overthrow in 1958 also relied on Arab Sunnis to maintain their rule over Iraq's other communities. The 'Free Officers' who overthrew the monarchy in 1958 were also predominantly Arab Sunni.

Before it came to power, the Ba'th Party primarily attracted members from Iraq's dispossessed Arab Shi'a and other communities. But as the Ba'th succeeded in recruiting Iraqi army officers, its military wing came to be increasingly dominated by Arab Sunnis. Between the downfall of the first Ba'th regime (which only held power for a few months in 1963) and the rise to power of the second Ba'th regime in 1968, a sectarian power struggle (in which Saddam played a leading role) occurred within the party's ranks, which resulted in the triumph of the predominantly Arab Sunni military wing. Saddam, of course, especially favored Arab Sunnis from the region he grew up in - Tikrit. In general, though, his regime did not change, but reinforced the existing pattern of Arab Sunni dominance over Arab Shi'as, Kurds and others.

By allowing the Kurds to solidify their rule over northern Iraq and by organizing national elections in which parties representing the Arab Shi'a majority gained the most seats, the US ended the Arab Sunni dominance over these two communities, as well as over Iraq, that had been in existence since the Ottoman era. Deeply resenting this, it is not surprising that Arab Sunnis in particular fiercely resisted the US occupation at first. Fueling this resistance was the firmly held belief of many Arab Sunnis that they were not a minority, but the majority in Iraq. And whether they had benefited from or suffered under Saddam's rule, Arab Sunnis came to fear - often with good reason - how they would be treated by the resentful Arab Shi'a empowered by the US intervention.

Since Saddam's regime was dominated by Arab Sunnis, the US occupation authorities' de-Ba'thification campaign and decision to disband Saddam's armed forces most strongly affected Arab Sunnis (and most especially elite Arab Sunnis). The Arab Shi'a-dominated Iraqi government's continued pursuit of former Ba'thists is seen by many Arab Sunnis as an effort to exclude them from the political process.

The Arab Shi'a majority, of course, is pleased that the US-led intervention has finally resulted in its ascendency to power. This does not mean, however, that the Arab Shi'a (or factions within this community) approved the continuation of the US occupation. Having been dominated so long by the Arab Sunnis, the Arab Shi'a very much fear a reversion. While the US military congratulated itself on having turned many of the previously hostile Arab Sunni tribes into allies fighting alongside it, many Arab Shi'a saw this and US efforts to integrate Arab Sunnis into the Iraqi armed forces as presaging the return of Arab Sunni dominance over them. During both the Ottoman and British periods, cooperation with external forces was what allowed Arab Sunnis to dominate other communities in Iraq. Arab Shi'a politicians feared that Arab Sunni cooperation with the US could lead to a similar result, and so they resisted US efforts to integrate its Arab Sunni tribal allies into the new Arab Shi'a-dominated Iraqi security forces.

Kurdish aspirations for independence have been frustrated not just by the Arab Sunnis of Iraq, but also by Turkey and Iran (where large numbers of Kurds also live in regions bordering northern Iraq) and by internecine conflict among the Kurds themselves which others have exploited. The Kurds were able to take advantage of US hostility toward Saddam to create their own autonomous zone in northern Iraq after the 1990-91 Kuwait conflict, and to solidify their rule over this region after the US invasion. Although nominally still part of Iraq, Baghdad does not exercise authority in the Kurdish region. Kurdish politicians, though, do play an important political role in Baghdad both through controlling a key bloc in the parliament and through Kurds holding important offices, such as those of the Vice President and Foreign Minister.

Thus, the US-led intervention and efforts to promote democratization completely upended relations among Iraq's three principle communities. US actions ended Arab Sunni domination over both the Arab Shi'a majority and the Kurdish minority, and created a situation in which the Arab Shi'a majority dominates the national government, the Kurdish minority dominates its homeland in northern Iraq, and even the Arab Sunni minority holds sway in its tribal heartland in western Iraq. As was mentioned earlier, the US did succeed in holding and protecting relatively free and fair elections in Iraq. Unfortunately, the US did not succeed in establishing genuine reconciliation among Iraq's three main communities. Nor did, of course, they do so on their own. And if national reconciliation did not occur when the US maintained a large military presence in Iraq, it does not appear highly likely that this will occur as the US military presence declines and perhaps even ends.

The future of Iraq and the balance of power among its three main communities is not clear at present, and may not be for a long time. The US' ending of Arab Sunni minority dominance over the country but inability to establish peace among Iraq's three main communities, though, suggests that stable democracy is not likely to take root in Iraq anytime soon.

Mark N Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University.