Thursday, June 9, 2011

A President Who Let Many Down In Iraq

By Michael Jansen 
This commentary was published in The Jordan Times on 09/06/2011 

While the Iraqi government is increasingly in disarray, it is held up by US President Barack Obama as a model for Arab countries to emulate.

Obama takes the view: “In Iraq, we see the promise of a multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian democracy. The Iraqi people have rejected the perils of violence in favour of a democratic process, even as they have taken full responsibility for their own security.”

Obama is wrong on all three counts: Iraq’s post-war rulers have not adopted multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian democracy; violence is ever present; and the country’s security and regular armed forces cannot provide safety for the citizenry or protect the country from external aggression or intervention.

Obama’s aim in drawing a false picture of Iraq is to justify the withdrawal of US forces from the country by the end of the year. He is counting on the ignorance of Iraq of the vast majority of US citizens and an eagerness to “get out” and forget a war which most now understand should not have been waged.

Instead of multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian power sharing, Iraq’s rulers have opted for constant power struggle. The latest manifestation is a bid by Iyad Allawi, who heads the secular, nationalist Iraqiya bloc, that won most seats in parliament, to regain purchase in the government. He seems to have discovered that since other members of his bloc have joined the Cabinet of Nouri Al Maliki, being on his own in the opposition has no merit.

Allawi has resumed contacts with Maliki with the aim of establishing the promised Strategic Policy Council, to be headed by Allawi. This body, which is not mentioned in the constitution, would, in theory, be empowered to act as a brake on the prime minister who, in practice, enjoys total control over security.

In addition to the creation of the council, Allawi is calling for “balance in the ministries of state”.

Norwegian expert Reidar Visser observed that Allawi’s meaning is not clear. But Visser suggested that he may be calling for Iraqiya to have additional posts. This, Visser writes, “would be an affront to the limited Iraqi spring and... criticisms [voiced by the public] of a vastly oversized government”.

Visser suggests that expansion of the current bloated Cabinet will produce “more government (and less governance)”.

This issue was highlighted last week when Adel Abdul Mahdi, one of Iraq’s three vice presidents, resigned his post three weeks after being confirmed. He was protesting the government’s failure to address the needs of the public. In particular, he called for cutting down the number of ministers of state who were appointed to keep factions on board. He wrongly believed his resignation would encourage others to follow his example. His departure marginalises the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC), a Shiite grouping close to Iran which was once the main Shiite rival of Maliki’s Dawa party.

The vice presidency had formerly consisted of Sunni and Shiite politicians who were supposed to complement the Kurdish president, Jalal Talabani, and represent power sharing among the three main communities in the country. This arrangement was supposed to end with the election of the new parliament. It was not only revived but expanded.

A third vice president, Khudair Khuzai, a Shiite, was appointed to include Islamic-Dawa Iraq, an influential offshoot of Maliki’s Dawa party. This appointment also tipped the balance in the presidency council in favour of Maliki who counts on Talabani’s backing.

Returning to Allawi: he could undermine Iraqiya’s claim that it is the only secular party because appointees to additional minister of state posts would almost certainly be Sunnis, as Sunnis form the majority of Iraqiya voters.

Obama should not have mentioned “democracy” when speaking of Iraq. Although Iraq had a credible democratic election in March 2010, the government that emerged many months later - and is still forming - is dominated totally by Maliki, head of a Shiite religious faction. He is not only premier and commander-in-chief of the security forces but also holds the key ministries of defence and interior.

During a recent disagreement with parliamentary speaker Usama Al Nujaifi of Iraqiya, Maliki argued that the “Iraqi parliament has no right to legislate”.

Relying on an opinion of the supreme court, Maliki insists that parliament can only debate legislation submitted by the Cabinet or the president. This interpretation severely limits the national assembly’s role. Naturally, Nujaifi argues that the assembly can propose legislation.

During the Arab Spring, Maliki has not displayed democratic tolerance towards critics or opponents. Iraqi security forces routinely arrest and persecute democracy activists staging Friday demonstrations in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square. These rallies, gathering several hundred people protesting corruption and lack of security, electricity, jobs and security, pose no challenge to Maliki or his government. Nevertheless, these demonstrations are encircled by police and heavily armed soldiers in flack jackets and helmets.

By contrast, Maliki did nothing to prevent or halt a march in Baghdad by tens of thousands of unarmed but uniformed supporters of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Al Sadr. He staged this show of strength to warn the government that there should be no postponement of the end-of-year deadline for the withdrawal of US troops. Sadr is, of course, one of Maliki’s coalition partners.

Sadr’s opposition to any extension puts Maliki in an awkward position. He would like to see some US troops to stay on in order to hold the line between the Kurdish autonomous region and neighbouring provinces where the Kurds seek to annex territory. The Kurds have already deployed large numbers of Peshmerga militiamen in the areas they seek to take. But Arab and Turkmen residents of these provinces object strongly to Kurdish demands and are prepared to fight to prevent a landgrab.

Finally, on the security front, deadly bombings take place on an almost daily basis, although the number of attacks has decreased since the height of sectarian warfare in 2006-07. Iraq’s police, security agencies and armed forces are simply unable to prevent or even curtail such violence. Furthermore, there seems to have been no effort to protect Iraqi Christians, half of whom have fled the country since George W. Bush’s 2003 war.

Obama’s pathetic attempt to tout Iraq as a success is a measure of a man who generated so much hope when he was elected. Furthermore, he has let supporters down on many issues, both domestic and foreign, revealing that he cannot be trusted on Iraq any more than he can on Palestine, where he has capitulated to the Israeli diktat.

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