As the U.S. troop presence in Iraq continues to diminish, it is worth examining what sort of political system has been left behind. Is Iraq really a democracy as many officials in the Bush administration hoped it would be? Sadly, the answer to this question cannot be in the affirmative.
It is of course true that in March 2010, Iraq conducted elections recognized as free and fair by the UN. However, as Osama al-Nujayfi, the Sunni speaker for the Iraqi parliament, astutely observed, democracy is more than just about holding elections. In many of the other essential aspects of a truly democratic society, Iraq’s status is far from satisfactory.
Absence of rule of law: Most Iraqi politicians still think they are above accountability to the law. Illustrating this tendency is the case of the arrest warrant that was issued against Muqtada al-Sadr, whose followers form a key part of the ruling coalition, concerning his suspected role in the killing of moderate Shi’ite cleric Abdul Majid al-Khoei in Najaf in April 2003.
The case has now been dropped entirely, with the Supreme Judicial Council claiming that it had no evidence against al-Sadr or any reason to interrogate him. Bizarrely, the council’s spokesman, Abdul Sattar Bayraktar, is denying that there was ever an arrest warrant issued by an Iraqi court, additionally affirming that “no lawsuits exist originally against the leader of the Sadrist movement in the Iraqi courts.” In fact, a senior Iraqi judge, Raed al-Juhi, issued an arrest warrant against al-Sadr in April 2004, and the al-Khoei family filed a lawsuit against al-Sadr at the Court of Najaf in 2003.
More generally, the political elite has continued to hinder investigations into corruption. Rahim Hassan al-Uqailei, head of the anti-corruption agency known as the “Integrity Commission,” resigned last month in protest.
Persecution of political opponents: Following Obama’s announcement that all U.S. troops would be home for the Christmas holidays, reports emerged of a large number of arrests of “Baathists,” with generic accusations of plotting to destabilize and overthrow the political system. As Reidar Visser points out, it is notable how local police sources seem obsessed with descriptions of alleged membership rank in the Baath party of those arrested. Some are said to have been firqa (low-rank) members of the Baath party, others shaaba (high-rank) members.
One of the most problematic insurgent groups operating in Iraq today is the Naqshbandi. Being responsible for the majority of small-scale terrorist acts (rather than al-Qaeda, which prefers to conduct mass-casualty attacks and hostage takings as happened in Tikrit in the spring), the Naqshbandi is an ideological, Baathist remnant of the Sunni insurgency that has lost most of its momentum since the end of 2006 as more and more Sunnis came to realize that they were losing the fight for Baghdad against the Shi’ite militias.
However, being a former member of the Baath party is not the same thing as a being a terrorist, and as Article 135 of the Iraqi constitution stipulates, simply having been a member of the Baath party is “not a sufficient basis for transfer to the court.” Visser further notes:
The systematic information about membership levels strongly suggests this is an attempt to refer to Iraq’s de-Baathification legislation from 2008. But it is a flawed attempt…but firqa members are specifically allowed to return [to the public sector] with the exceptions of security, intelligence and diplomatic services. The de-Baathification act does not in itself offer specific procedures for dealing with allegations of Baathist sympathies.
It follows that the current wave of arrests is likely to be yet another attempt by the Shi’ite parties to crack down on political opponents with vague allegations of Baathism, a key part of their electoral campaign in 2010.
Squabbling among the politicians: More than 19 months after the elections in March 2010, a government has still not been fully formed, owing to the preoccupation of the country’s politicians with their own rewards of power. This is not merely a problem of sectarianism, but also a case of personal power struggles, particularly evident in the manner in which the premier, Nouri al-Maliki, has tried to win as much control of the government as possible for his State of Law bloc.
Indeed, in violation of the compromise agreement forged by Massoud Barzani in December 2010 that allowed al-Maliki to have a second term as prime minister, the premier is still attempting to take control of the Defense and Security ministries that should have been awarded to Ayad Allawi’s al-Iraqiya bloc, which won the largest single number of seats in the elections (91 seats as opposed to 89 for State of Law). In turn, frustrated at al-Maliki’s manipulative games, the al-Iraqiya bloc is increasingly being divided by factionalism, with splinter groups being formed like the White Iraqi National Movement.
All this has significantly impeded meaningful decision-making, and has been the basis for ongoing, still relatively small-scale protests in the country about corruption and poor provision of public services.
In a few measures of a healthy democratic society — above all the realm of press freedom — Iraq performs significantly better than its neighbors, yet the only conclusion to be drawn from the above observations is to agree with Freedom House’s general comment that Iraq is still “not an electoral democracy” and the think-tank’s classification of the country as “Not Free.”