Can Iraq be saved?

With October being the deadliest month in recent years, Iraq seems no closer to being a functioning democracy.

The failure of nation-building has led to the continuing bloodshed in Iraqi cities [AP]

By passing a new law on the allocation of seats in parliament, on November 4, the Iraqi parliament ended a lingering dispute among the country’s feuding ethno-sectarian factions, and cleared the way for polls to be held next year. The breakthrough, however, could be just another half-step that creates only hot air in the rivals’ endless bargaining for consensus, instead of real problem-solving progress.

Iraq’s disruption since the US invasion in 2003 is a national, if not an existential, quandary of great proportion that cannot be assessed by a vote on new election laws, or even by the election of a new parliament. It is the predicament of the massive failure to rebuild the Iraqi state and society after they were ruined by more than a decade of occupation, civil strife and mismanagement.

On the brink 

In a rare analytical and courageous testimony on post-US occupation era, Kurdish politician and one of the architects of the transition, Barham Salih, described Iraq as being “in a very worrisome situation”.

“Iraq is moving from a perilous situation to another which is more perilous. From bad to worse,” Salih told the London-based Asharq al-Awssat in an interview on November 9. Other Iraqi leaders can hardly pretend otherwise.

Today Iraq stands on the brink of being a failed state, and its fall into the abyss has so far been averted due to a wide-range geopolitical and geostrategic factors that depend on Iraq’s stagnancy rather than watching it be torn to pieces with spill-overs into all its neighbours, and probably beyond. Is this downward slide irreversible and can Iraq be saved from this disaster?

Many of Iraq’s problems stem from its political leaders who are exploiting the ethno-sectarian divisions in their favour to grab more power.

Iraq’s problem is that of transition. The scale and scope of the transformation that the country embarked on after the demise of Saddam Hussein’s autocratic regime by the US, is unprecedented. Iraq has had to wrestle with political, social and economic transformations to clear the legacy of both Saddam’s era and the US occupation. Analysis of the transitional process, however, shows that the outcome has been abysmal, underscoring a gap between aspirations and achievements.

The clearest manifestation of this problem is the failure of nation-building following Saddam’s ouster. This factor contributed to the disastrous ethno-sectarian conflicts and their violent ramifications. While the US’ failures in nation building are well documented, there is much evidence that the new rulers in post-Saddam Iraq are also to blame. Their biggest problem remains to be incompetence, mismanagement, corruption, and indulgence in self-interests. Their lust for power, sectarianism and lack of leadership skills are largely responsible for Iraq’s poor governance and the failure of the transitional period.

Failed leadership

Iraq’s main ethnic and sectarian groups – Kurds, Shia Muslims and Sunni Muslims- each with its own militias, have to share power. Iraq cannot be ruled by one side, nor divided among all. It was in dire need of visionary, credible and strategic leadership to unite people and lead the transition to democracy. That collective effort was, and still is, absent, creating competitive and even violent approaches to power. One of the enduring sources of instability in Iraq is the policies and tactics of the political class to either maximise gains, or stop the other side from doing so, all at the expense of the common good.

Many of Iraq’s problems stem from its political leaders who are exploiting the ethno-sectarian divisions in their favour to grab more power. Their failure to craft an inclusive democracy has deepened rivalries and given rise to sectarianism, ethnic chauvinism and authoritarianism. Even the constitution which has established a term of reference to solve the power-sharing problems, has been breached time and again.

Among key violations are the absence of a functioning Constitutional Court and a Supreme Federal Council, which would ensure that constitutionally established rules are applied and that the government functions according to the law of the land which stipulates separation of powers. Perhaps the most immediate effect of the lack of these two institutions in a federal system such as Iraq’s, is the absence of basic democratic rules and institutions in which the power to govern is shared between communities. This situation allows authoritarianism to permeate all levels of government.

Moreover, the parliament has failed to pass legislation regarding political parties, a prerequisite for a sound multi-party and democratic system. In the absence of such a law no one is sure how current political blocs function, what the source of their financing is, and what boundaries separate them from the government apparatus which they control.

There have been more constitutional missteps along the way which make a travesty of the much talked about constitutional democracy. Though the jurisdiction of the parliament includes checks on the government, lawmakers have not been able to question Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki or any of his ministers on essential matters, such as security, corruption and lack of basic services. Their initiatives for legislation have often been challenged by the government or its supporters in the judiciary.  

Iraq is experiencing what is called the “conflict resources”, a complex phenomenon which argues that while revenues from resources extracted in conflict zones may delay or stop the collapse of the state, it perpetuates the fighting.

A farce of a democracy

The extent of these autocratic practices has turned democracy into a farce. The result is that Iraq’s legislative and executive branches of government which have been designed to work on consensus have been dysfunctional and gridlocked in ethno-sectarian struggles. The Iraqi national state has been reduced to fiefdoms run by entrenched political groups. A decade-long failure in good governance and the long standing confessional conflicts have mutilated into an existential crisis.

A natural outcome of this simmering crisis is destabilisation. Iraq is already gripped in its worst sectarian violence since 2008, a surge in bloodshed that has killed more than 6,000 people this year. The Sunni insurgency, against what they see as marginalisation by the Shia-led government, has shown no signs of abating, despite a deployment of nearly one million-strong security men using hard-line tactics towards so-called “terrorist incubator” areas. Also, there is a great sense of frustration by Kurds, which often translates into tensions and standoffs.

Unless Iraq’s community leaders rise above partisanship and engage in a fair and equal partnership, the violence will continue in order to influence decisions over their lives and the future of their country. Unfortunately, there are no signs that these leaders are acting wisely to formulate a comprehensive strategy to address the underlined problems.

Plenty of Iraqis, mostly disgruntled Shia Muslims and Sunni Muslims, have lost their faith in Iraq’s democracy and say they may boycott next year’s election because they think it will produce the same irresponsible oligarchy which has dominated the Iraqi political arena for the last decade.

On November 9, the Friday prayer imams in several Sunni-dominated cities, warned their congregations against re-electing the same politicians who “betrayed” them, while Shia imams warned against boycotting the elections. A large scale boycott may erode legitimacy of the political process and a delay or cancelation, as some have threatened – by submitting a court appeal against the new law – could result in far more bloodshed.

Does oil mask the problem?  

While this crisis continues, the lager problem of Iraq’s survival as a state remains in question.

If there is anything that keeps Iraq together, it is oil. In the interview with Asharq al-Awssat, Salih acknowledged that, “Without the high prices of oil, the Iraqi state would have already collapsed.” Iraq is the second largest exporter in OPEC with an average state export of 2.4 million barrels per day this year. Additionally, hundreds of thousands of barrels are believed to be smuggled daily through traffickers operated by non-state actors.

Oil money pours in abundance to both the government budgetary allocations and the coffers of the feuding factions. The money allows the parties to guarantee funds to buy off opponents, and it helps maintain prosperity and supports a massive internal security apparatus. Iraq is experiencing what is called “conflict resources“, a complex phenomenon which argues that while revenues from resources extracted in conflict zones may delay or stop the collapse of the state, it perpetuates the fighting. In other words, Iraq might be able to survive the chaos as long as oil prices remain high. Yet, there is no guarantee that different dynamics would not leave it in a freefall. 


Salah Nasrawi is a veteran Iraqi journalist who worked for international media, including the Associated Press and the BBC in the Middle East. He wrote for leading Arab newspapers and periodicals.