Iraq: It's All About Thieves and Iranians

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April16, 2006: Making democracy work is proving to be a difficult for Iraqis. Before 2003, pundits (and most Arab governments) insisted that Arabs could not handle democracy. Arabs were too fractious and could not form the coalitions, and negotiate the compromises, that make democracy work. Arabs needed a strong leader, a monarch or dictator, to rule them. This was all said with a straight face.

The pundits were not entirely wrong. When given the opportunity. Iraqis formed over a hundred political parties. That has since shrunk to a few dozen, but the friction these parties create has continued to prevent the formation of a government. Compromise, the Iraqis are finding, is hard, especially when it comes to sorting out who gets what ministry. Unlike in the West, there are fewer price tags on items in stores, leading to haggling over what an item is worth. Arabs see this as sport, but in politics it can stretch things out for a long time. In Iraq these days, that time is also measured in lives lost. One of the key decisions the government-that-doesn't-exist-yet has to make, is what to do with the Shia and Kurd militias. There are two each, and the two Shia militias, those of the Badr and Sadr organizations, both backed by Iranian factions, are the most dangerous. The Shia militias represent Shia political parties that want to run the government. Not a democratic government, but a religious dictatorship

The two Shia militias are basically religious gangs, whose crimes are now seen as more of a problem than the declining violence of the Sunni Arab terrorists. For nearly three years, these Shia religious radicals were considered an asset. While the Shia radicals in southern Iraq are protected by the 10,000 armed men of the Badr Brigade (a part of (SCIRI, or the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq), a smaller, but similar organization exists in central Iraq. This is the Mahdi Army, led by Muqtada al Sadr. This group tried to fight the U.S. forces, and lost big time. The Mahdi Army only has a few thousand armed men, and they have made themselves very popular in the Shia community by fighting the Sunni Arab gangs and terrorists that went after the millions of Shia Arabs living central Iraq. There are several other small Shia paramilitary organizations in central Iraq, most of which could be described as local self-defense forces. There is one exception, and these are police battalions recruited from Shia Arab areas and usually led by Islamic conservatives. The most notable of these is the Wolf Brigade, a force of some 2,000 well trained and disciplined police. These have been used in operations in Sunni Arab areas, to find and arrest or kill terrorists.

While there are several hundred Sunni Arab officers in the new army, the force is dominated by Kurds and Shia Arabs. Iraqis are worried about who controls the army and, more to the point, whether the army will try to control the country. For all of Iraq's short (80 year) history, and for thousands of years before that, the region has been ruled by generals. Democracy is the new kid on the block, and many Iraqis are uncertain if democracy can control the generals. The elected politicians aren't sure either. But as long as the Americans are around, Iraqi generals won't be running things. So the main concern of Iraqi politicians is how best to divide up the booty. That's another ancient custom in this part of the world. Saddam wasn't the first strongman to take over, and steal as much as he could for himself and his henchmen.

Electing people is easy, getting those elected officials and legislators to run the country effectively is hard. This is complicated by the fact that the Shia Arabs and Kurds have never been allowed to participate in the running of the country. All these newly elected politicians are inexperienced at doing what they are supposed to do. From afar, what the democracies of the West do looks easy. But it isn't. Moreover, the Iraqi politicians are being influenced by family and tribal loyalties. The idea of "serving a higher power" has not fully established itself in Iraq. We take "civic duty" for granted. To Iraqis, this concept is new, and unproven. Better to trust your family, tribe, and bodyguards. This was how Saddam survived for so long. Iraqis know and remember that.

It's corruption that Iraqi politicians understand as well as their Western counterparts. Get elected, get access to public money, and steal as much as you can without getting punished. This is where the real war for Iraq's future is being fought. There will be some corruption, that is understood. No government on the planet is completely free of it. But too much, and the government does not work. The voters become unhappy, unrest grows, and you end up with another dictator. Right now, the politicians are so corrupt that they could drive the country back to a dictator in less than a decade. Many Iraqis are aware of this. The question is, will enough honest Iraqis step up, at great risk to themselves, to establish and maintain a viable (relatively honest and efficient) government? No one knows, and the politicians are still arguing over who will have what ministry so that we can start ruling, and dealing with some very pressing problems.

The government has to deal with corruption, in the long run, and the militias, in the short run. The Sunni Arab terrorists and Saddam loyalists are still fighting, but they have lost. Most Sunni Arab leaders are now more concerned about protecting their people from the Iraqi army and police. These security forces are not only dominated by Kurds and Shia Arabs, but are strong, and growing stronger. Iraq's Sunni Arab neighbors have given up any ideas of actively supporting putting the Iraqi Sunni Arabs back in power. Instead, the neighbors are hoping the Shia Arabs and Kurds running the new Iraqi government will help containing Iran. That is the major goal of the Arab nations of the region. That sometimes gets forgotten in the West. They never forget it in the Persian Gulf.

 

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