Iraq: The New Dictator Beckons


April 20, 2006: The country's most respected cleric, Shia Grand Ayatollah Ali Husaini Sistani is widely praised by Coalition leaders and foreign observers for having the "the coolest and wisest head in Iraq." Even when confronted by outrageous provocations, such as widespread attacks on Shia religious processions and the destruction of the Golden Mosque in Samara, Sistani has been a strong voice for clam. This may be changing. Reportedly critics of Sistani's support for the Coalition-backed notion that Iraq's future lies in a broadly based accommodation that includes the country's Kurdish and Sunni minorities is growing even among religious Shia. Several lower-ranking ayatollahs, such as Muhammad Yaqubi, as well as Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari, who is widely viewed as the principal obstacle to forming a broadly-based government, have become increasingly vocal in their criticism of Sistani's "blindness to the realities" of the current situation in the country.

This criticism of Sistani is also, not so indirectly, a criticism of the policies of the U.S.-led coalition. Yaqubi, Jafari, and others, are increasingly open in their opposition to Coalition efforts to "reach out" to Sunni leadership, and some are openly suggesting it's time American forces leave, a call which radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has been making openly for some time.

It's now the Sunni Arabs who are calling for American troops to remain, for the Shia Arab dominated police and army are strong enough to defeat any Sunni Arab militia. Only the Americans are able to protect Sunni Arabs from attacks by vengeful Kurds and Shia Arabs.

Such is the disdain for Sunni Arab military force, that much of the current violence is between Shia Arab factions. The Badr and Sadr militias, in particular, are often battling each other for control of territory. The fighting is rarely in the open. The more traditional methods involve intimidation. This takes the form of verbal or written threats, followed up by kidnapping, arson, drive-by shootings or murder. Criminal gangs use the same tactics for their extortion or turf protection operations.

All of this is the legacy of Saddam. In his efforts to hang on to power, despite two lost (and very expensive wars) wars (the invasion of Iran in 1980 and of Kuwait in 1990), Saddam exploited the tribal, ethnic and religious divisions in the country. He sanctioned groups (mainly Sunni Arabs) who were willing to back him, and allowed the exploitation of those who opposed him. Throughout all this, the illusion, that a functioning government existed, was maintained. The police patrolled, criminals were arrested, and the courts operated. But many real criminals had deals with Saddam. Kickback some of the take to Saddam, and do the dictators dirty work, and you were free to do what you wanted. A generation grew up in this lawless environment, and many of these guys are now indignant at police attempts to enforce the law.

For the average Iraqi, it's the lawlessness that causes the most anxiety. Extortion, especially in the form of kidnapping, is a constant threat to anyone with money, living in central Iraq (where the lawlessness is greatest.) The government is reluctant to come to grips with the crime problem, because that would put the police into direct confrontation with gangs and militias. That's very messy politics, and potentially fatal for the politicians involved. But until the rule of law, and not lawlessness, is established, there will be no peace. That means delays in reconstruction, and growth of oil exports and the return of the prosperity Iraqis knew before Saddam's wars.

The current deadlock over the formation of a new government is partially because of disagreements over how best to handle the law & order issue. The elected officials know they are going to be held responsible for any failures in this area, and many of the recently elected are scared to death about the consequences of any actions they take. Ominously, one of the contenders in this debate are Islamic conservatives, who propose the establishment of an Islamic Republic, complete with the familiar dictatorship and police state. Hey, it worked in Iran. But that's what worries most Iraqis. Trading one dictator for another somehow seems wrong. But making democracy work is no easy task either.


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