Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Iraq: A Broken Country Begins The Slow Process Of Healing

This article was published in The Independent on 9/11/2010

Iraq inevitably looms large in the memoirs, published today, of the former American President, George Bush. And Mr Bush might be tempted to regard this as happy timing since, after eight months of political deadlock, Iraq's political leaders finally appear to be on the verge of establishing an administration of national unity.

Yesterday Nouri al-Maliki's Shia bloc entered talks with the Kurdish parties of northern Iraq. Negotiations with the Sunni-backed Iraqiya party of Iyad Allawi are expected to follow later this week. If these talks are successful (and there are still hurdles to be overcome) Iraq's new government will have the support of all three of the country's major power blocs.

Though this would represent progress, Mr Bush, and the other architects of the invasion of Iraq, should be wary of citing these developments as a vindication of the 2003 mission. Violence in Iraq has fallen sharply since 2006-7, when the Sunni and the Shia were locked in a brutal civil war. But Iraq remains an exceptionally dangerous place, as two car bombs targeting Shia pilgrims in Kerbala and Najaf yesterday demonstrated. Al-Qa'ida might have lost the support of the mainstream Sunni community after overplaying its hand three years ago, but it manifestly retains the ability to mount deadly attacks. And for Iraq's religious minorities, circumstances remain as brutal as they were at the height of the civil war. A leader of Iraq's Christians, Athanasios Dawood, called on the entire community to flee the country at the weekend. The Iraqi state, he argued, is simply incapable of protecting them.

This is the crucial point about the present condition of Iraq. While Western leaders such as Mr Bush trumpet Iraq's staging of elections, they ignore the fact that the administrations produced by those polls have been corrupt and dysfunctional. The country's political leaders are regarded by much of the Iraqi population as a bunch of racketeers whose greed is matched in scale only by their incompetence.

A new administration is unlikely to mean any improvement on the governance front. Though a national unity government should reduce the chances of Iraq slipping back into civil war, such a diverse coalition is also likely to move at a glacial pace on every important economic decision regarding Iraq's future. Those politicians who have been handed lesser jobs than they expected are likely to regard themselves as still in opposition, rather than as a part of the government. The deadlock could continue. And there is no reason to expect that the mass plundering of the state's resources by corrupt ministers will now cease.

Another factor that should give supporters of the 2003 invasion pause is that neighbouring powers such as Syria and Iran have more influence in the country than does the US, despite the residual presence of American troops in Iraq. It was Iran that persuaded the cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr, to support his old nemesis, Mr Maliki, thus consolidating the Shia bloc prior to this week's negotiations. And the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, appears to have helped to persuade the Allawi political alliance to enter serious talks with Mr Maliki. The Western invasion of Iraq has ended up strengthening the hands of the very regimes that it was designed to undermine.

Iraq remains a broken society, traumatised by sectarian bloodshed and hollowed out by the mass flight of its middle classes. If there are tentative signs that the country is, finally, beginning to right itself, that is not something from which Mr Bush and his fellow neoconservatives should draw any personal sense of vindication.

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