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IRAQ'S DANGERS
by Amir Taheri
New York Post
March 19, 2006

March 19, 2006 -- AS the world marks the third anniversary of the Iraq war, the debate about whether it was justified is far from over.

Those who opposed the top pling of Saddam Hussein continue to argue that it was wrong for foreign powers to impose regime change in a sovereign state. And those who supported the war, mostly on the grounds that Iraqis needed help to liberate themselves from a murderous regime, don't appear to have changed position as a result of continued bloodletting.

As British Prime Minister Tony Blair's suggested recently, it may ultimately be up to God to decide whether it was right to topple Saddam.

What matters now is the future of Iraq - which, as war supporters and opponents both admit, will help shape the future throughout the region.

War supporters, this writer included, have been united in advancing one claim: Iraq can be transformed into a modern state, and thus a model for the entire Middle East. Three years later, how credible is that claim?

The war was not designed to impose democracy by force, but to remove most of the structural obstacles to democratization. In that, it has succeeded: The one-party state has been dismantled, along with its octopus-like security services. A system built around the cult of the leader has been discredited in favor of advancing the rights of the individual citizen.

For the first time, Iraqis have a genuine opportunity to build a pluralist system based on the rule of law. But they have made good use of that opportunity?

Yes and no.

ON the positive side, the Iraqis have started to learn the rules of pluralist politics by accepting, if not actually welcoming, diversity of a kind unknown in most other Muslim countries. They have also held a series of municipal and general elections and one constitutional referendum - all certified as free and fair by most observers.

But, although there can be no democracy without elections, one can have elections without democracy. In that sense Iraq's democratization process suffers from three fundamental weaknesses - which, if not addressed, could undermine its success.

The first is the new leadership's failure to develop political bases that transcend ethnic and sectarian boundaries.

For example, Jalal Talabani, the interim president of the Republic, would not win any votes in, say, Basra because he is an ethnic Kurd. And Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the interim prime minister and an Arab Shiite, would find few supporters in Suleymaniah, a Kurdish city in the northeast.

No democracy could be built on ethnic and sectarian bases alone.

Democracy works because a minority always has the hope of one day becoming a majority by persuading a larger number of voters with stronger political arguments and more attractive policy proposals. If people vote exclusively on the basis of ethnic and/or sectarian considerations, the largest community will always form the majority. That, in turn, would leave smaller communities with no interest in prolonging the democratic experience.

What Iraq needs is the creation of political parties or alliances of parties across ethnic and sectarian divides.

The last general election saw some movement in that direction; at least three non-sectarian lists were on offer. In the end, however, only a quarter of the electorate voted across the ethnic and sectarian divides. Thus much more work remains to be done on that score.

THE second weakness of the Iraqi experience to date is the state's failure to impose its monopoly of coercive forces.

By most estimates, at least 11 militia armies are now active in Iraq, with a total of 150,000 men - nearly as many as serve in the new national army. In a few areas, these militia have carved out fiefdoms where the central government has little effective presence.

No one knows quite how much of the current violence in Iraq is imputable to militia activities. But anecdotal evidence suggests that some militia units are involved in racketeering, smuggling and even Mafia-style killing of rivals and opponents.

The third, and perhaps the most worrying, weakness of the Iraqi experience is the attempt by some prominent politicians to derail the democratic process by involving the clergy in decision-making.

There is no doubt that, on balance, Iraq's clergy (both Shiite and Sunni) have played a positive role in the post-war period by reining in extremists in their respective camps and preventing sectarian clashes from developing into civil war. Even those with no religious belief take their hats off to Grand Ayatollah Ali-Muhammad Sistani, the primus inter pares of the Shiite clergy, who has emerged as a strong supporter of the democratization project.

Yet some Shiite politicians seem determined to turn Sistani into a more benign version of the late Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini of Iran. One may like or dislike Khomeini, but it would be unfair to claim that he alone was responsible for imposing walayat al-faqih (clerical rule).

AFTER the 1979 revolution, Khomeini settled in the "holy city" of Qom and tried to resume work as a theology teacher. But the new political elite - starting with Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan - kept flying to Qom to consult the ayatollah on every detail of government work.

Recent revelations show that Bazargan insisted that the new constitution, initially an almost-verbatim translation of the Constitution of the French Fifth Republic, be amended to give Khomeini the final say in key matters of state. Bazargan's calculation was that he could use Khomeini's clout as the father of the revolution against other mullahs and political rivals who wanted to topple the interim government. In pursuit of that tactical gain, however, Bazargan committed a strategic error.

In Iraq today, some Shiite politicians - including al-Jaafari, Jawad al-Maleki, and Ahmad Chalabi - are making a similar mistake. By constantly going to Najaf to meet Sistani, and then claiming that he has endorsed their plan of the day, they are promoting a system of walayat al-faqih in all but name.

My contacts with Sistani tell me that the grand ayatollah is adamant on not intervening in governmental politics and that he does not support any faction against any other. He knows of Iran's tragic experience and does not wish to see Iraq take a similar route. Yet politicians who seem unable to solve their problems insist on presenting him as a player in the political arena. This is bad for Iraq and dangerous for Shiism as a religious faith.

ALL these failures, however, represent a form of progress. When all is said and done, Iraq today is a better place than it ever was under Saddam Hussein. Had the despot not been chased away, there could be no discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of the Iraqi democratic experience so far. There would have been no such experience to start with.

Iranian author Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.

 

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