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The Benchmark Blame Game

Impossible Tasks for an Embattled Government


Arbil, Iraq.

The benchmarks the Iraqi government is meant to achieve in exchange for US support were never realistic and have more to do with American than Iraqi politics.

The weak and embattled Iraqi government is supposed to make changes which the US at the height of its power in Iraq failed to make stick. At stake are policies deeply divisive among Iraqis that are to be introduced at the behest of a foreign power, the US, in a way that makes the Iraqi government look as if it is a client of America.

One US benchmark is for the elimination of militias and an end to sectarian violence. But the Shia-Kurdish parties that make up the ruling coalition almost all have their own powerful militias that they have no intention of dissolving. In much of southern Iraq the militias and the local police forces are the same. In almost all cases units of the security forces are unwilling to act against their own community.

The new law on oil and gas is critical for the distribution of economic power in Iraq. It is not something that can be decided in a hurry. The sense that a new law is being foisted on Iraq by the US is also tainting it in the eyes of many Iraqis who have always suspected America is after the country’s oil wealth.

The US is demanding the government conciliate the Sunni community and reverse de-Baathification. But the previous US ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, made conciliating the Sunni his main objective in 2005-07 without positive result. Those Sunni politicians who were conciliated turned out to have no influence over the insurgents.

It was Paul Bremer, the US envoy, who introduced stringent de- Baathification in 2003. It later became conventional wisdom in the US that he had gone too far, sacking teachers and doctors who had joined the party merely to hold their jobs. But it is also true that Baath party members slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, the great majority of them Kurds and Shia. The latter communities are not going to blithely allow their former persecutors to get their jobs back.

Like many of the benchmarks, the reversal of de-Baathification is unrealistic since most ministries have become the bastion of one community or another. For instance, a former Baathist who confidently resumed his job at the Health Ministry would be lucky to survive a day since the ministry has long been controlled by militant Shia.

The constitution is also to be reviewed by a committee according to the benchmarks, but it was the US which in October 2005 trumpeted the success of the referendum in which there was an overwhelming majority in favour of the constitution.

Paradoxically, the benchmarks suppose that the Iraqi government is, at one and the same time, so powerful that it can introduce and implement unpopular policies, but is also under the thumb of the United States.

Politics in Iraq is largely stalemated. The "surge", the introduction of 22,000 more US troops, has had only a limited effect on the ground. Sectarian warfare between Shia and Sunni in the capital declined for a few months but then rose again. Baghdad is increasingly a Shia-dominated city. The US Army did not in the event confront the Shia militias, something it now demands the Iraqi government should do.

PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘, a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for best non-fiction book of 2006.