Global Policy Forum

How US is Sowing Gridlock in Iraq


By Juan Cole

Mercury News
March 14, 2004

New constitution poses obstacles for nation's three political factions.

A year ago this weekend, the Bush administration was making its final plans for its March 20 "shock and awe" bombing blitz.

Publicly, the administration continued to pitch the main reason for war as the need to wipe out Saddam Hussein's alleged arsenal of weapons of mass destruction before terrorists could get their hands on them.

But another key, if less highlighted, goal was to transform the Middle East's dictatorships -- a fertile breeding ground for terrorists -- into democracies. Iraq was going to be the demonstration project for democracy, as well as America's new best friend in the region now that the Saudis were suspect in certain circles.

Among the rewards of friendship: The United States would be able to move the troops that guard U.S. interests in the region -- including oil -- from Saudi Arabia to Iraq. As the other justifications for the war, such as Iraq's weapons of mass destruction stockpiles, evaporated like mirages in the desert, the goal of establishing democracy took on even more importance as a justification for the venture. But a year later -- and just months before the United States plans to hand over sovereignty to the Iraqis -- we are left with a muddle.

The administration may well get that long-term military base it wanted -- we disbanded Iraq's army and Iraqis may be too fearful of Turkey and Iran to demand that U.S. troops pull out entirely anytime soon. The prospect of our sowing democracy in Iraq, however -- never mind the rest of the Middle East -- remains chancy.

Violence in Iraq remains endemic, and the longstanding animosity among its major ethnic factions -- Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds -- remains strong and the biggest roadblock to stability.Iraq's just-signed interim constitution is the latest example of the problems democracy faces in a country where the three major factions dread being overrun by each other. It is clear that the Shiites approved the document only grudgingly, after significant U.S. pressure -- and on Friday, more than 1,000 Shiites took to the streets to protest the constitution. But that problem is just one of many for a document meant to provide a stable foundation on which Iraq can build its democracy.

The constitution attempts to ensure fair representation for the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, but its often-baroque or unimaginative solutions may prove unworkable, leading to a failed state.Take the executive branch. The constitution specifies that the yet-to-be-elected parliament will choose a president and two vice presidents in a single vote; the president will be the candidate with the highest number of votes and his deputies will be the two runners-up. The implicit expectation is that the three will include one Shiite, one Sunni Arab, and one Kurd.

The idea, of course, is to keep all three groups happy, but you don't need a degree in political science to know that having three leaders is unwieldy, at best, and impossible at worst. Confusing matters further, the presidential council will have to make its decisions unanimously, a requirement that could hobble that body from making important decisions at all.

But the complications don't stop there. This presidential council will appoint a prime minister, who will run the government on a day-to-day basis. The presidential council can also dismiss the prime minister, a system that has failed elsewhere because of power struggles between the leaders.

In Pakistan, a similar provision allowed presidents to dismiss two elected prime ministers in the 1990s, helping derail Pakistan's fragile recovery from military dictatorship. In Iran during the 1980s, factional fighting between the prime minister and the president grew so fierce and proved so counterproductive that the office of prime minister was abolished.

Possible Fatal Flaw

The constitution also prescribes a parliament with only one house -- a possible fatal flaw in a country with a majority population, the Shiites.

If Shiites mainly vote for Shiite parties, they may well be able to dominate parliament, allowing them to control all the major committees and legislation. The beauty of a two-house structure, as in the United States, is that one chamber can be set up so as to overrepresent minorities and less-populous provinces, giving them more of a say.

Iraq's unicameral structure is sure to exacerbate fears by Sunnis and Kurds of what they have come to call "a tyranny of the Shiite majority." The members of the presidential council cannot form the same brake on such tyranny, if it occurs, because they will be elected by the parliament and so will tend to make campaign pledges pleasing to the bulk of legislators.

The interim constitution also appears to have left many controversial questions to be resolved later, among them the exact role religion will play in Iraq. Already the young clerical firebrand Moqtader al-Sadr has said the Islamic legal code, or Shariah, must be implemented as the law of the land. Friday, Sadr called the constitution the "sale of Iraq" and "a stamp of shame." And other fundamentalist Muslims are likely to denounce the constitution and any secular laws it produces as imperialist impositions and to appeal for Islamic law as more authentic and indigenous.

Kurds, secularists, most women and religious minorities would all reject such a drive.Even a flawed constitution can get a country on the road to democracy, but the chances of success are significantly improved if political parties can work cooperatively to smooth the rough edges. In the case of Iraq, however, parties are likely to be divisive rather than sources of compromise.

Because Saddam's Baathist one-party state took over for its own purposes the universal ideologies available to Iraqis, of socialism or Arab nationalism, dissidents -- fearful of his secret police -- turned inward, to narrow ties of family, clan, tribe and religion.

As a result, all of the major political parties now active in Iraq, with grass-roots organizations and the capacity to mobilize large numbers of voters, have a narrow ethnic base. It is worrisome that most of those parties also have paramilitary branches or militias. This observation holds true for the two major Kurdish parties, for Shiite groups like Al-Dawa and the Supreme Council, and for the small Sunni parties, whether they are Arab nationalist or Islamist in orientation.

The inability of Iraqis in the past 10 months to form any major political party that has a realistic hope of competing for votes throughout the country and of appealing across ethnic lines has substantially set back the prospects for democracy. The Communist Party is the only nationwide organization, but it is small.

A Huge Gamble

The fragmentation of the political scene could mean that numerous small parties gain representation in the parliament, which will have difficulty cobbling together a unified ruling coalition that can last beyond the first vote on a divisive issue. In other words, deep ethnic divisions in the larger society may just be acted out in parliament, producing paralysis.

The Bush administration has taken a huge gamble in Iraq. The Iraqis may just muddle through in returning to a parliamentary system. But the rest of the Arabs, who resent centuries of Western dominance, will probably resist Iraqi democracy as a model, since it will have a "Made in America" tag on it.

Given its unwieldy constitution and its outstanding ethnic disputes, Iraq could instead fall victim to gridlock or become another Northern Ireland. If it does, the administration may well have discredited democracy in the region.

Juan Cole is professor of modern Middle Eastern and North African history at the University of Michigan and author of "Sacred Space and Holy War."

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