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Iraq: Paralyzed, Dejected, Corrupt

by PATRICK COCKBURN

Baghdad

Seven years after the US and Britain invaded Iraq the country remains  highly unstable and fragmented. So divided are parties and communities  that no government has emerged from the general election three months  ago, which was intended to be a crucial staging post in Iraq’s return to  normality. Political leaders have not even started serious negotiations on  sharing power.

“I have never been so depressed about the future of Iraq,” said one  former minister. “The ruling class which came to power after 2003  is terrible. They have no policy other than to see how far they can rob the  state.”  None of this is very apparent to the outside world because US policy  since 2008 has been to declare a famous victory and withdraw its troops.  This week the US troop level drop to 92,000, lower for the first time than the number of American soldiers in Afghanistan. The US military wants to  maintain the myth that it somehow turned round the war in Iraq by means  of ‘the surge’ and emerged successfully from the conflict.

This claim was always exaggerated. The insurgency against the US  occupation was rooted in the Sunni Arab community and when this was  defeated by Shia government and militia forces in 2006-7 the Sunni had  little choice but look for an accommodation with the Americans. The most  important change in Iraq was more to do with outcome of the Shia-Sunni  struggle than US military tactical innovations. This is why Americans  generals are finding that the ‘surge’ in Afghanistan this year, supposedly  emulating success in Iraq, is showing such disappointing results.

The foreign policy dominance of the military over civilian arm of the US  government was reinforced by the Iraq war. Only this week the US Senate  voted an extra $33 billion for the military ‘surge’ in Afghanistan, while the  State Department only gets an extra $4 billion. This is on top of $130  billion for Iraq and Afghanistan this year already voted by Congress.

In Iraq violence is far less than three years ago and in this sense the  country is ‘better’ than it was when 3,000 bodies of people killed in the  sectarian slaughter were being buried every month. But periodic al-Qa’ida  attacks are still enough to create a sense of unease. To prevent them the  streets of Baghdad are so clogged with checkpoints and concrete blast  walls that it is difficult to move through the city.

It is not so much the continuing, though much diminished, level of  violence which worries Iraqis. The failure to replace the lame duck  government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki highlights the depth of  sectarian and ethnic divisions between Shia, Sunni and Kurd. It was easy  enough to forecast the outcome of the election by assuming that most  voters would vote according to their communal loyalties.    These divisions, exacerbated by recent massacre, are not going to go  away. But what makes them so destructive is the poor quality of  leadership of the political parties, with the partial exception of the Kurds.  The former minister quoted above said that his fear was that Iraq had  acquired a kleptomaniac ruling elite who run the government as a racket.

Some Iraqis cynically take refuge in the belief that the state is so  dysfunctional at the best of times that the failure to put in place a new  government makes little difference. There is something in this argument,  but there are signs in Baghdad that the failure to agree a new  government is beginning to paralyse Iraq’s rickety administrative machine.   For instance 111,000 news state jobs cannot be filled without a decision  by parliament and even minor decisions are not taken. One political leader  complained that he could not even get somebody to renew the permits for  his bodyguards’ weapons.

The communal divisions and political paralysis lead some Iraqis to fear  that Iraq is turning into another Lebanon. Power will be so fragmented  that no decision can be taken, job allocated or long term policy pursued.  The Iraqi commentator and political scientist Ghassan Attiyah believes “a  de facto partition will happen.”     As in Lebanon internal divisions opens the way to foreign intervention.  The Iraqi foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari points to the increasing role of  Iraq’s neighbors led by Iran and Turkey whom Iraqi politicians have  invited in. “As a result it was not just an Iraqi election but a regional  election,” says Mr Zebari. As in Lebanon the involvement of foreign  powers, with their own interests at heart, may stabilize the situation  temporarily but also complicate and institutionalizes Iraq’s problems.

The analogy with Lebanon can be overdrawn. Unlike Lebanon or  Afghanistan Iraq has oil and the revenues to create a strong state and  army. “Iraqis are so volatile and so violent that only the oil will keep them  together,” says Mr Attiyah. The under-exploited super giant oil fields which  international oil companies are now developing means that oil revenues  should start increasing rapidly in about two years time.     Iraq does not have to solve all or even the majority of its problems to  make life better for its people who have endured 30 years of foreign and  civil wars, occupation and sanctions. Iraqi Kurdistan, so autonomous that it  is almost independent, has many of the failings of the rest of Iraq such as  corruption and a vast government payroll that leaves little money for  investment. But the Kurdish political leadership is strong enough and  security good enough for the region to begin to boom. Cranes dominate  the skyline of Arbil, the Kurdish capital while there are still very few visible  in Baghdad.

The reign of the present ruling elite in Iraq may be temporary. Many of  the returning immigrants seem to want to plunder as much as they can as  soon as they can before relocating to Europe, the US or some sympathetic  Arab capital. They may have abler successors. But the failure to form a  new government, and the growing perception that the present one is  illegitimate, is making Iraq so unstable that it cannot reconstruct itself.

PATRICK COCKBURN is the Ihe author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq

 

WORDS THAT STICK

 

Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

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