Iraq: July 29, 2005


It's out in the open now. American commanders are making plans to reduce troop levels next year. That all depends on Iraqi security forces being able to get sufficiently trained and organized to deal with the political and criminal gangs. Over two years of recruiting and training new soldiers and policemen, coalition military advisors believe that the Iraqis can do the job. But the problems the Iraqis face are more than dealing with criminals, it's dealing with a criminal (to Western eyes) mentality that pervades much of society. 

While the political gangs get most of the media attention, especially al Qaeda terrorists, the criminal gangs are a bigger long term threat. Like many parts of the world, Iraq does not have the kind of national unity and sense of community that we take for granted in the West. It's a matter of culture, and you can see the many varieties of non-democracy all over the world. It's no accident that totalitarian governments have been so common in this region. Either that, or a strongman, often a monarch, who negotiates deals with the various groups, and enforces them with lots of threats and guns. This is accompanied by lots of corruption. Just about everything, except control of the government, is for sale. The government, however, is seen as the ultimate scam, a means to steal as much as possible for those in charge.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq upset a centuries old political arrangement. For all that time, the Sunni Arab minority was in charge. This seemingly illogical setup was the result of religious and ethnic politics in the region. It was all about Sunni versus Shia Moslems, and Arabs versus Iranians. The Arabs were Sunni, and represented the majority religious thinking in the Moslem world. The Iranians were Shia, a minority sect they embraced partly to be different from the Arabs. Most of the time, during the last five thousand years, the Iranian tribes dominated the region, with Iraq being a border area between the Iranian and Arab heartlands. Since the Iranians controlled the area most of the time, their cultural and religious influence predominated. Thus most Iraqi Arabs are Shia, as are many other Arabs along the Persian (another word for Iranian) Gulf coast. 

Shias were tolerated in countries run by Sunnis as long as the Shias "knew their place." But in the last few decades, Shias throughout the Middle East have been getting more assertive. They are no longer willing to be second-class citizens. This is the root cause of much of the bloodshed in Iraq today, and for the last few decades there as well. It's no secret that Sunni Arab governments in the region (especially Syria, Saudi Arabia and Jordan) have tolerated the Sunni Arab terrorists fighting in Iraq. This, despite the public stance by these governments that they support American efforts to pacify Iraq. The Middle East wants peace in Iraq, but is not really comfortable about the Shia majority running the country. It just doesn't seem right. It smacks too much of the beginning of another Iranian invasion, and age of Shia domination. Few Sunni leaders want to say this out loud. But on the street and in the coffee shops, you hear it a lot. It's a real fear.

As if ancient politics weren't enough of a problem, an even larger one is the corruption endemic to the region. One big advantage of democracy is, if it is to work, you get rule of law. That means a lot less corruption. Westerners who spend any length of time in the Middle East, soon become aware that just about everything is for sale, including whatever laws were on the books. You can't make a democracy work with this attitude, and it's uncertain if the Iraqis will be able to change their habits quickly enough to establish a stable government. 

The corruption has many negative effects. It makes the police less effective in going after the gangs. It makes reconstruction less effective, because much of the money goes into the pockets of dishonest officials, rather than into building public works. Corruption discourages initiative and the founding of new business. All of the economies that made spectacular advances in the last half century, did it via rule of law and education. This pattern has been noted in the Middle East, and there is a movement to give that approach a try. This, oddly enough, is one of the appeals of Islamic radicalism. Al Qaeda wants strict rule of law. That catch is, it must be Islamic law. That means education that is heavy on religious instruction, and not much for girls at all. Islamic law, after several attempts, has proved not very hospitable to economic progress. This has been noted in the Middle East as well. As a result of all this, many Iraqis are more comfortable with  the corrupt old ways, than with proposed alternatives like Islamic dictatorship or democracy. 

But Iraqis have to decide. There is already jostling between factions in the Shia Arab community, with the idea being one of them would dominate and establish a Shia Arab dictatorship. Many Iraqis are ready to live with another dictator, as long as it's one that is like them. The Sunni Arabs and Kurds fear a Shia Arab dictatorship, and all the coalition can do is encourage all Iraqis to get behind a democracy. Everyone in Iraq, except for the Islamic conservatives, say that democracy is the way to go. But, so far, not enough Iraqis have walked the walk and come down on corruption in a big way. Too many people are willing to offer, or take, a bribe. What could happen in Iraq is a democracy in name only. A strongman gets elected, and then re-elected via rigged elections. You could see this pattern in many of the new countries carved out of the former Soviet Union. Then again, many of these new countries did turn into well run and prosperous democracies. What's Iraq going to turn into? An Arab version of corrupt Belarus, or democratic and prosperous Estonia? No one knows yet, and everyone is nervous about finding out. 


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