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The New Normal in Baghdad
After violence that shattered hundreds of thousands of lives and left nearly everyone with a tragic story to tell, life in Iraq has settled into a strange normality — with no discernible direction or clear future. “How do you make sense of the last ten years?” said a novelist, who is trying to do just that. “The problem is not the starting point, but where to end. To write the history of the Algerian civil war, you had to wait till it was over. Here, we are still in the middle of a sequence of events whose outcome we cannot see.” The structure of his novel, in which each chapter relates to a different year, means he remains hostage to a political system that continues to keep the country in suspense.
A decade after the US invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, Iraq remains in crisis, although you wouldn’t know it from visiting Baghdad. The suicide attacks, car bombs and other explosive devices used, and abused, by the resistance and sectarian militias are much rarer than they were a few years ago, leading the world’s media to lose much of its interest in Iraq.
Traffic is easing its way through the maze of roadblocks and concrete barriers that had made it a nightmare. Many Iraqis who fled the violence in 2006 and took refuge in Kurdistan, or abroad, have returned. Those who stood accused of “collaborating” with the US are fitting back into society. The high cost of living doesn’t stop the new recipients of oil money from frantic consumerism. Indeed there’s more of a bustle in the shopping streets than in the corridors of power, where politicians on all sides react to the latest political tussle with remarkable nonchalance.
Prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s detractors have been growing as he has accumulated powers. His trial of strength with the Kurdish leadership in the northeast of the country, over oil revenue and disputed territories (1), did help him rally support among the Arab population, both Shia and Sunni, establishing him as the defender of their interests and, more generally, of the country’s integrity. But then he overreached himself by using the “terrorism” argument to push aside politicians such as Rafi al-Issawi, his Sunni deputy, in a political system where senior government posts are allocated on ethno-sectarian lines. This led to huge popular protests against Al-Maliki, which forced Sunni politicians whom he had co-opted to distance themselves from him.
That in turn almost inevitably rekindled Shia identity politics, in a society still scarred by sectarian violence, particularly rife between 2006 and 2008. But not everyone in this diverse Shia community (2) is an ally of Al-Maliki, since his personal power increases by reducing the influence of his rivals.
So the prime minister finds himself surprisingly isolated. He is vulnerable to the Kurds and has now been drawn into a sectarian game, but is unsure of the backing of his own community, from whom he has partially distanced himself by playing the nationalist card. He still holds some trump cards, however: control over state resources; the inability of his disparate enemies to agree on a successor; a curious understanding between the US and Iran to have stability above all (the US being keen to put its Iraqi fiasco behind it, and Iran fearing any changes in Iraq may aggravate its losses in Syria); the cynical opportunism that underpins the political system; and massive public apathy, which could lead the protests to peter out.
However, a confrontation is not impossible, given the high level of frustration among Sunnis, the resurgence of sectarian polarisation, and the material and moral shortcomings of a security apparatus with weak counterinsurgency capabilities and lacking national legitimacy. A scenario in which a political vacuum leaves Al-Maliki paralysed, or even forced to resign without a successor having been agreed, cannot be excluded either.
Moreover the nature of the political regime remains indefinable. The prime minister’s opponents denounce his policies as authoritarian: he has concentrated executive powers to the point where a simple visa request may need his office’s approval. The image he projects of a virile, providential leader is part of a long tradition that still resonates with Iraqis. Amazingly, human rights abuses under his authority follow the pattern of the former regime. Yet, despite everything, he faces a now deeply rooted pluralism that makes any tyrannical ambition unlikely to succeed.
At the same time Al-Maliki’s strength prevents the emergence of a true parliamentarianism, and relies instead on using the ambiguous rules of the political game to reallocate resources and shift alliances in a climate of permanent conflict. The former vice president, Adel Abdul Mahdi, says: “We can no longer imagine a system where one sect, party or person rules. The Sunnis tried it, and the Shia may too, but it won’t work. At this stage you cannot bank either on a system based on non-denominational citizenship. Pluralism, decentralisation, even federalism are inevitable in the present phase. So we need a parliamentary system, but at the moment we have no particular system at all. Institutions don’t function and the constitution is not really applied.”
This situation is one of the two main legacies of the US in Iraq. Between the invasion, conceived as a “surgical strike” shorn of any ensuing responsibilities, and the hasty departure ordered by Barack Obama, eager to rid himself as quickly as possible of the unfortunate commitments made by his predecessor George W Bush, several years of political engineering took place, that at best could be described as a makeshift job. Let’s gloss over the original sins: the criminalisation and wholesale dismantling of the infrastructure of the former regime; a deliberately sectarian political system; the exclusive promotion of exiled politicians disconnected from Iraqi society; backroom deals on a constitution reflecting agreement between the Shia and the Kurds to the detriment of the Sunnis. All this has been locked in by a number of elections confirming the marginalisation of the Sunnis.
US sinned by omission
All these mistakes could have been gradually corrected, but the US sinned above all by omission. It ignored the objectives it had set itself and withdrew before agreement had been reached on the issues that will continue to haunt Iraq for years: revision of the constitution, allocation of disputed territories, distribution of resources, relations between central and regional government, the prime minister’s prerogatives, the institutionalisation of counter-powers, the bylaws of parliament, the structure of the security forces, etc. Everything has yet to be negotiated and renegotiated, from one political crisis to the next. This reality has been internalised by the people concerned. “The difficulties we are going through are the normal expression of abnormal circumstances,” said a close adviser to Al-Maliki. “We remain within our transition process.”
The second part of the US legacy concerns the shaky and incomplete idea Iraqis have of their own identity. The US turned Iraq into a parody of itself by projecting a simplistic vision of society, imposing crude concepts of Ba’athism, Saddamism, terrorism, sectarianism and tribalism, and building a political edifice founded on these clichés. Such self-fulfilling stereotyping is reminiscent of the colonial mindset, even though the US invasion was never meant to colonise.
The occupying forces treated all Sunnis as though they supported Saddam Hussein, turning them into enemies, marginalising them within the political system, and driving them to regret the past, even though they had suffered too. The Americans also split the Shia into “goodies” and “baddies”, deepening what was merely a class conflict by alienating the proletarian Sadrist current (3), which was crudely accused of acting for Iran. The Kurds by contrast appeared to be natural allies, which reinforced their separatist ambitions and their claims over disputed territories.
Iraqis are still to some extent prisoners of a self-image the US fashioned and left behind. The identities that advertise themselves the most conspicuously continue to be caricatures. Islamists grow, clip or crop their hair to display their adherence to a particular current: beards long or short, with or without a moustache, topped or not by a shaved head. Soldiers and policemen have retained from their American mentors an uncanny preoccupation with their look, which translates into kneepads worn systematically around their ankles. Almost every neighbourhood in Baghdad displays the identity markers of its now homogeneous community through portraits of “martyrs”, flags and graffiti, so no one can be in any doubt. And in a country where national symbols have been overshadowed by communal emblems, even state institutions are not spared: Shia banners fly over most police road blocks and army positions around the capital.
Political debate is now marked with sectarian language, which was absent from the public space before 2003, although not from society. Prejudice is now expressed openly on all sides. The times are gone when Iraqis would echanically repeat standard statements about communal congeniality and national sentiments; now the mask quickly falls and within minutes someone picked at random may blame protests in western Iraq on a combination of Ba’athists, Al-Qaida and foreign agents, and declare that “every era has its leader, and now it’s our turn, the Shia, to rule.” The opposition’s flags and slogans, which initially made reference to the old regime, a jihadist culture and the spirit of sectarian revenge, of course did nothing to disarm this sectarianism. Granted, such markers are often less a profession of faith than gratuitous provocation: they do little more than reinforce clichés held by others in a self-sustaining loop.
Even so, in a society saturated with overblown images and polarised narratives, there are plenty of reminders of how entangled Iraqi identities actually are. As in this group of young friends, who meet every evening to talk, often in a sectarian way, even though they are a happy mix of Sunni, Shia and Kurds. There is the artist photographer, who fled the violence in 2006 and took refuge in an exclusively Shia district, where he remains a declared atheist. And the Shia doctor who describes his suffering at the hands of a Shia militia, while a Sunni colleague recalls the risks he took using roads controlled by (Sunni) Al-Qaida. In some cases social class transcends sectarian reflexes, and even today mixed marriage has not entirely disappeared.
One example of the gap between ritually recited discourse and actual practice is an extremist Sunni businessman who calls on protests to become more sectarian and violent, but does not bother to follow them on the news because, deep down, he is not really that interested. Longstanding friendships allow some interesting mixes, as when a leftist intellectual, who has become a moderate Islamist and supporter of Al-Maliki, thinks nothing of kneeling to pray in the Communist Party’s headquarters when he goes to visit old comrades.
Indeed there are many factors that can assuage even the most pronounced identities. What’s needed for these modulations to express themselves more forcefully is a little time, calm and release. The spectre of the “black days” or “sectarian events” — euphemisms that try to exorcise a violence that affected Iraqis so intimately — still hangs over the city. Everyone has his own map of familiar, reassuring, “stabilised” places, and other areas where they dare not return. Residents of a neighbourhood that is now calm are shocked by its murderous reputation among those who no longer go there, while they express their own fears about other neighbourhoods which typically are themselves peaceful. This unfamiliarity also exists at the political level, because people rarely venture into areas affiliated to the opposing camp. But politicians also use it as a tool, routinely mobilising fear of the “other”, investing in the resurgence of religious identity and offering “protection” of communal interests.
While Iraqis wait for a genuine normalisation that is too long in coming, they cobble together an everyday existence, and manage surprisingly well to navigate their way through a convoluted political system, a shattered society, a dislocated city and an economy complicated by numerous forms of predation. For example, most homes use three different sources of electricity: the government network for up to a few hours a day, then the local private generator, and their own small back-up motor to cope with the many breakdowns. It is an absurd system that works perfectly well. Corruption at checkpoints — some of which have no other purpose — has become part of life. New expressions are entering everyday language to label and handle these incongruous phenomena. For instance, the untranslatable term hawasim, stemming from Saddam’s propaganda of 2003, in which the war was to be “decisive” and “definite”: it has since been used to refer to the wide variety of unlawful behaviour made possible by disorder. Humour is not in short supply either. But all this creativity does not detract from the resilience of the old landmarks to which Iraqis seem more attached than ever — the good bakeries and classic cafés remain unchanged, and masguf-style grilled fish has become more than a tradition, almost an obsession.
Accepting the situation
What is more worrying is that politicians themselves are adapting to the situation rather than trying to change it. The new regime seems to have slipped in to the shoes of the former. Officials squat in the opulent residences of their predecessors, whose era they claimed they were ending. Almost no infrastructure has been built in Baghdad over the past 10 years, except the local government headquarters, the road to the airport and a few flyovers. Traffic police shelters at crossroads are stamped “gift from the town hall”, recalling the “donations” (makarim) of Saddam: a personalised substitute for what should be provided anonymously by the state. Public service salaries remain insufficient, driving employees to find supplementary sources of income, legal or not. High-level corruption is tolerated, documented and used as leverage when necessary. Pervasive social climbing, nepotism and incompetence are poisoning institutions.
The Republican Palace in the heart of Baghdad became the “green zone” when the US made it the nerve centre of the occupation, and it embodies the worst of the new order just as it did the old. This huge, fairly well secured area is an exclusive political arena, a place of privilege, and a world that does its best to keep everyone else out. A whole deck of access cards defines a new elite, and a position within its hierarchy. The closure of the Karrada-Mansour main road, which cuts through the green zone, forces ordinary people to make ridiculously long detours. It would be feasible to reopen it, but that is not the issue: the green zone seems to have become the inalienable privilege of a caste that values not having to answer to anyone.
All this reminds many Iraqis of the unbearable reality of the old regime. They often criticise the current system using expressions from the past. Drawing a parallel between the pre- and post-2003 eras is no longer taboo, even among those who feel better off today. The same person who claimed “it’s our turn to rule” also said: “Saddam was one man, and he had his fill. But now they are many, and their hunger is insatiable.”
In the end, a sad question remains: has Iraq endured another decade of suffering for nothing? The fall of the old regime was certainly needed to get the country out of its rut and deal a new hand. The wealthy neighbourhood of Yarmuk, once home to high-ranking officers, has fallen into disrepair and disgrace, while the formerly rundown area of Hay al-Jawadain now has a playground and even a tennis court. But what was the price to pay for a few tennis balls — or even a few posts in the state apparatus? Emigration and personal enrichment are all too often the only ambitions of a society struggling to define a collective goal. And in this country that has endured too many breakdowns, the new elite is as much a product of the situation as its cause.
For all that, anyone nostalgic for the old regime just won’t recall many things. They will have forgotten how Uday, Saddam’s degenerate son, deployed his thugs in popular Iraqi holiday resorts to abduct girls from respectable families and raped them with impunity. Things had to change, and Saddam and his entourage had neither the means nor the will to do that. Today, virtually nothing has been done, but there still is everything to hope for. The potential and the resources at least are there. The country is rich in oil, even though corruption does its best to siphon it off. A disastrous brain drain could one day be reversed, if the state were to nurture talent instead of cultivating loyalty, cronyism and family ties. But first Iraq will have to end the deadlock of a political system whose many loose ends keep the country’s future perpetually suspended.
Translated by Stephanie Irvine.
Peter Harling is project director with the Middle East Programme of the International Crisis Group; he lived in Baghdad from 1998 to 2004.
(1) Areas with mixed Arab and Kurd populations, over which Baghdad and the local, largely autonomous, authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan have been in a dormant dispute. Tensions centre on the status of Kirkuk and the exploitation of underground oil reserves.
(3) Sadrism is a current that formed around Muhammad Sadeq al-Sadr, a populist religious leader who in the 1990s set himself up as the representative of the underprivileged, neglected even by the Shia establishment. His courageous opposition to the regime led to his assassination in 1999. His son Muqtada has done his best since 2003 to take up the torch.
This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.