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Iraq's transition to dictatorship

One of the American war aims in Iraq that probably will not be fulfilled is the establishment in that country of a stable market democracy.
At present, it is impossible to predict the form or forms - if the country splits apart - that a future Iraqi regime will take, but it is possible to sketch some plausible scenarios.

The obvious obstacle to democratization in Iraq is the civil disorder there, which is universally perceived and judged to be of overriding significance. It is impossible to hold credible elections in an environment of insurgency, much less to permit the exercise of civil liberties or to nurture a system of free enterprise favorable to investment. Yet concentration on the security issue in isolation from its social context attacks a symptom rather than its cause.

Insurgencies and other kinds of extra-legal opposition do not occur unless a society is divided into groups with conflicting interests on which they are unwilling to compromise. Democracy requires a civil society whose members agree that they should all live together under a common system of rule making and enforcement, despite their differences on any number of particular issues. When such consensus is absent, groups whose aims are thwarted will not obey the rules of the game. That is the case in Iraq.

The roots of insecurity in Iraq go back to the creation of that country out of areas populated by distinct communities with no common history and no shared vision of the future by the European colonial powers after World War I. Iraq never achieved genuine nationhood during the period of indirect British rule through the Hashemite monarchy or the era of Ba'athist rule that succeeded Iraq's anti-colonial revolution. Saddam Hussein's forceful repression of Kurdish and Shi'a rebellions spoke more to the ascendancy of communalism over civil society in Iraq than it did to his brutality. That Hussein failed to impose his view of Iraqi nationalism based on a revival of the glories of ancient Babylon indicates severe divergence in Iraqi society as much as it does his inadequacies.

By removing the Ba'athist formula of secular nationalism, the American occupation has exposed the underlying divisions in Iraqi society between Sunni Kurds, Sunni Arabs and Shi'a Arabs. Hussein was able to suppress the incipient conflict among the three groups with a Sunni-dominated dictatorship functioning through a draconian security apparatus and deals with regional strong men representing tribal interests. As in any long lasting dictatorship, the Ba'athist regime in Iraq made enough of the population dependent on its apparatus to allow it to repress the rest. This is simply how states are held together when communalism trumps civil society -- dictatorship is a symptom of social divergence, the opposite side of endemic civil disorder.

It is unlikely that a Ba'athist regime will reappear in Iraq, but it is highly probable that some form of dictatorship will arise in the country or that it will break up into undemocratic mini-states. If Iraq remains a single state, it will either be a loose de facto confederation of boss-ruled regions or a typical Middle Eastern dictatorship like Egypt or Syria, perhaps disguised as what Fareed Zakaria calls "illiberal democracy."

The future of Iraqi politics will in great part be determined by the fact that the major groups in Iraqi society are more interested in achieving communal aims than they are in living in a market democracy. Although it is correct that most Iraqis would prefer a democratic government, they give their communal identities a higher preference than they give an inclusive civil society, creating the conditions for dictatorship. What form authoritarianism will take in Iraq will be determined by the interplay of the country's major political forces.

Iyad Allawi and the Transitional Government

The most likely possibility for the emergence of a standard Middle Eastern dictatorship in Iraq is the continuation of the present transitional government, with Prime Minister Iyad Allawi as its strong man, after a constitution is written and elections are held. Having taken advantage of America's misplaced support of Ahmed Chalabi and having outmaneuvered United Nations envoy Lakhtar Brahimi's efforts to establish a caretaker regime of technocrats, Allawi has positioned himself as the only convincing national figure in Iraqi politics. An ex-Ba'athist, Shi'a, pro-Western secularist and leader of the Iraqi National Accord during his exile, Allawi now has at his disposal the machinery of government, which permits him to make deals and utilize state security forces. As the best that America can hope for, Allawi has the space to attempt to provide security and form a winning coalition, with covert support from the occupation.

Allawi, who has a reputation as an authoritarian, has already instituted legislation permitting the imposition of martial law and has begun to use the security forces at his disposal to mount raids on criminals and insurgents. On July 15, he announced the formation of a General Security Directorate - a domestic intelligence agency with policing functions - that will serve as a base of his power if he is successful in building it up.

Having proven himself as a successful politician by playing on the interests of the members of the former Governing Council in preserving their power, Allawi now has the opportunity to try to restore civil order. If he is even moderately successful, he will decisively gain the upper hand and will be poised to become a figure like Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, consolidating a political machine dependent on his largesse, with a security apparatus to protect it that would have American aid and support in return for general compliance with American policy. It is Allawi's distance from communal politics and from Iraqi popular opinion that makes him a possible strong man. He is beholden to nothing but the deals he can make and the power that he can deploy.

What makes Allawi's emergence as a strong man problematic is the ineffectiveness of the transitional government's security apparatus. He was able to rush into the power vacuum created by the abrupt handover of sovereignty by the occupation, but he is now faced with having to work with only limited American support. Allawi cannot identify himself too closely with the United States, which, in any case, aims to draw back from a pro-active military role. He is left with an embryonic security system and an array of leaders of diverse groups - both within and outside the transitional government - who have no strong bonds of loyalty to him and who will collaborate with him only as long as they perceive that their interests are being served. Allawi has yet to build his machine and he has an uphill battle ahead of him. Yet he is the only current prospect for national leadership in Iraq.

The Shi'a

Making up sixty percent of Iraq's population, the Shi'a Arabs believe that they deserve to play the dominant role in the Iraqi regime that emerges after the transition. An oppressed majority throughout Iraq's brief history, the Shi'a are now poised to achieve their place in the sun. They are in a period of rising expectations that they will gain power that they have never had before. They have been generally compliant with the occupation and the transition process, because they expect to gain advantages for their community from it. If their expectations are thwarted, they will become militant and uncompromising, determined not to suffer a replay of the aftermath of the first Gulf War, in which the United States stood by while Saddam Hussein crushed their rebellion, which America had abetted.

Shi'a politics runs the gamut of Islamism, from the moderate stance of the Dawa Party to Moqtada al-Sadr's confrontationalism. The failure of the occupation to eliminate al-Sadr, who had mobilized the poorest of the Shi'a community, from the political picture and the willingness of moderate Shi'a to bargain with him indicates that the moderates are using him as a warning of how the Shi'a community as a whole will respond if they are not the dominant force in a new Iraqi regime.

Shi'a rule over a unified Iraqi state would mean the dominance of one of Iraq's communities over the others, repeating the familiar pattern of Iraqi politics with a different group in charge, deploying its own machine. Such a regime would face continuous resistance from the other two communities, forcing a choice between decentralization tending toward break up, or the imposition of a dictatorship with less flexibility than the standard Middle Eastern bureaucratic and crony model that Allawi would install.

Due to the importance of religious leaders in the Shi'a community, a Shi'a-dominated regime would have theocratic tendencies, hindering compromise with the two Sunni groups. Shi'a ties to Iran, which sees itself as a protector of Shi'a interests in Iraq and a possible dominant influence in the country's south, also would contribute to resistance to Shi'a rule. Post-transition Iraq will almost certainly have Shi'a leadership, whether of secular or religious leanings. That leadership will have to satisfy its constituency's rising expectations of power, forcing conflict with the other two communities.

The Kurds

Unlike the Shi'a, who expect an improved power position, the Kurds already have their place in the sun and seek to defend and hold on to what they have. Under the protection of the no-fly zone imposed by the United States after the first Gulf War, the Kurds achieved an autonomy unparalleled in their modern history, creating a mini-state controlled by their two nationalist movements, the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. They now face the prospect of diminished power in a new Iraq and are determined to keep what they have won.

With twenty percent of Iraq's population, concentrated in the country's north, the Kurds do not expect to dominate an Iraqi state. They would prefer to have their own national state, but are willing to settle for the autonomy that they currently have, which they perceive to be under attack. The failure of the Kurds to occupy either of the two major offices in the transitional government and the rejection of their demand for veto power over provisions of the planned constitution has placed them in a position of vigilant defense.

That Kurdish interests must be reckoned with is indicated by the fact that the transitional government agreed not to apply its new security law in Kurdish areas without the consent of local authorities. Just as the Shi'a are ready to become militant and uncompromising if their aspirations are not fulfilled, the Kurds are ready to resist if their autonomy is threatened. Their nationalist movements are militarized and disciplined after decades of guerrilla war, and their bargain to share power will hold as long as the Kurdish community perceives that it is under siege. The Kurds have been more cooperative with the occupation than any other community, but that is only because their aims have been fulfilled so far. As attempts are made to force compromises on them, the Kurds are likely to be the community that resists national integration the most. Kurdish nationalism has been beaten back by force by Turkey and Iraq in the past. The same scenario is likely in the new Iraq unless the divergence in Iraqi society pulls toward a weak confederation.

The Sunni Arabs

If the Shi'a are expansive and the Kurds are defensive, the Sunni Arabs are seeking to win back what they have lost. The dominant minority throughout Iraq's history, they are now the weakest political force, divided between tribal collaborators with the transitional government and insurgent rejectionists. The appointment of Ghazi Mashal Ajil al-Yawar to the presidency of the transitional government indicates an attempt to placate Sunni Arabs at the expense of the Kurds. Just as Saddam Hussein was constrained to rule through tribal bargains in his last years in power, the transitional government is trying to do the same.

With twenty percent of Iraq's population, Sunni Arabs have the advantage of disproportionate representation in the professions and administrative cadres necessary to run a modern state, but their political organization is inferior to those of the other communities. The formal destruction of the Ba'ath Party has driven their potential leadership underground, which has led to the insurgency. Whereas the Shi'a and Kurds are ready to fight if their demands are not met, the Sunni Arabs are already fighting. The insurgents' aim of regaining the power that they once had is probably doomed to failure, but their guerrilla war could force concessions from a Shi'a-dominated government, further alienating the Kurds and frustrating the Shi'a public.

The Sunni Arab collaborators with the transitional government seek the best deals that they can make to secure their regional control. The insurgents are attempting to destabilize Iraq to the point that once the United States withdraws there will be an opening for restoration of a Sunni Arab ruling class. Which way the Sunni Arabs will go depends upon what the other communities do -- how much they are willing to concede. Iraq is already in a state of limited civil war. The insurgents would welcome its spread.

The United States

With Iraq's three communities on a collision course and the only prospect for an effective state a standard Middle Eastern dictatorship, the United States has little choice but to play into the hands of Iyad Allawi. He would promise to be an Iraqi Mubarak, which would be acceptable to American interests.

Despite its military commitment, its economic aid and its massive diplomatic presence, the United States has limited political influence in the new Iraq. Any American moves that seem to impose political solutions will impair the legitimacy of the intended beneficiaries and will threaten to set off resistance by those whom the policies would disadvantage.

Those who believed that the transition would be the occupation under another name were mistaken. The future of Iraq is, indeed, falling into the hands of the Iraqis, and they are poised to create forms of order and disorder that were never envisioned by Pentagon planners.

Dr. Michael A. Weinstein

The article was republished by PRAVDA.Ru on the agreement with the Power and Interest News Report (PINR) -  an analysis-based publication that seeks to, as objectively as possible, provide insight into various conflicts, regions and points of interest around the globe. PINR approaches a subject based upon the powers and interests involved, leaving the moral judgments to the reader. This report may not be reproduced, reprinted or broadcast without the written permission of inquiries@pinr.com. All comments should be directed to content@pinr.com.

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