Thursday, March 17, 2011

'The Best Antidote To Extremism'

By Michael Jansen
This commentary was published in The Jordan Times on 17/03/2011
On the 8thanniversary of the US invasion of Iraq, it is bitterly ironic that while Tunisians, Egyptians and Libyans have been rising up against authoritarian regimes backed by the US and its allies, Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki has been deepening his control over the Shiite-Kurdish authoritarian regime Washington installed in Iraq.

Following the examples of former Tunisian president Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali and former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, Maliki cracked down on Iraqis protesting the lack of electricity, water and jobs, as well as mismanagement and corruption. He has blamed Al Qaeda, Sunni extremists and “Saddamists” - former Baathists - for the protests.Everyone but himself and the governments he has headed for the past five years.

After all the ballyhoo over last year’s parliamentary election, Iraqis expected the quick formation of a representative government and improvements in basic living conditions. But little has changed. The regime continues to be dominated by sectarian Shiites and separatist Kurds.It took nine months for Maliki, leader of the Dawa Shiite fundamentalist party, to form a Cabinet, touted as a “national unity government”, because his main rival for premiership, Iyad Allawi, whose Iraqiya bloc won most seats in parliament, agreed to join at the end of last year. Allawi did so under pressure. Members of his party were defecting because they wanted lucrative jobs in the government and he was promised chairmanship of a national security council which would have powers to curb the prime minister.

However, last week Allawi rejected the post of head of this council because, he argued, it had been stripped of all authority. He dismissed the notion that there is a power-sharing deal between himself and Maliki. Allawi also stated: “It’s a joke to say that we have democracy.”

His absence means that this government has only weak representation of secularists and Sunnis. Allawi not only stood aside, but has supported the protesters whom Maliki seeks to crush. Allawi is also courting radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Al Sadr who is also displeased with Maliki’s performance and policies.Sadr is not a comfortable Maliki ally, but was induced to back his bid for the premiership by Tehran. The volatile Sadr could very well bolt the coalition, thereby depriving Maliki of his majority in parliament.

After becoming premier in 2006, Maliki created military forces loyal to himself. Units attached to Maliki’s office - the Baghdad Brigade, the Counter-Terrorism Bureau - not only operate under his orders but also run secret prisons, one of which was at the old military airport in the capital. Torture was rife at these prisons. Furthermore, his office is in charge of Camp Honour, a prison with 170 inmates located in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, which hosts US and other embassies. Like the secret prisons run by his office, Camp Honour is notorious for abuse and mistreatment.
Due to pressure from international humanitarian agencies and the Iraqi parliament, the closure of the facility was announced on Monday. Its inmates will be distributed amongst prisons said to be supervised by the justice ministry.

When naming ministers to his new government, Maliki held onto the interior and defence portfolios, on a temporary basis, until he could find suitable candidates to fill the posts.He has retained these key ministries for three months now and shows no sign of giving them up. Without proper oversight by competent ministers, the army and police are becoming as harsh and abusive as they were during the latter years of the reign of Saddam Hussein.

In January, Iraq’s supreme court - which is not at all independent - allowed Maliki to take control of the central bank, the election commission, and the anti-corruption commission. Last year, the court ruled that only the premier and his ministers could initiate legislation. He has, effectively, negated the separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.

Meanwhile in the north, the Kurdish autonomous regional authorities have cracked down hard on demonstrators protesting cronyism and corruption, while 4,000 Kurdish peshmerga militia have taken up strategic positions outside the Kurdish region around the city of Kirkuk, in the oil-rich province of Tamim.

Perhaps trying to deflect attention from the Kurdish protests, which have taken place in Suleimaniyah, his stronghold, Iraq’s President Jalal Talabani has staked the Kurdish claim to Kirkuk, claiming that it is the “Jerusalem of Kurdistan”.This has infuriated both Sunni and Shiite Arab Iraqis, 87 per cent of the population, who not only refute the Kurdish claim but also insist that peshmerga be withdrawn back across the border into Suleimaniyah and Erbil, and that Maliki act to prevent the Kurds from making a grab for territory outside their recognised region.

Last week, Iraqi legislators summoned Talabani to testify before the national assembly about his statement. On Monday, hundreds of Iraqis gathered in Baghdad to demand Talabani’s resignation.More than 20,000 have signed a petition calling for his dismissal if he does not apologise.His removal would, however, collapse the Shiite-Kurdish partnership which has ruled Iraq since the US occupation and kept Maliki in power. Consequently, he is certain to ignore the petition and even take strong measures against those circulating it. Without the Kurds, Maliki would be nothing.

It may be significant that when Iraqis were staging protests in Tahrir Square in Baghdad and in the streets and squares of other Iraqi cities, including in the Kurdish region, there was a reduction in Al Qaeda and other attacks on regime targets. Since Maliki ordered the security forces to suppress protests, insurgent operations have resumed.

It must be noted that Al Qaeda and Salafist elements have not asserted themselves in Arab countries where secular, populist democracy risings took place. The lesson to be learnt is that democracy is the best antidote to extremism.

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