Which is the Real Iraq?

Arbil, Iraq.

Blair’s view: ‘We have a government of national unity that crosses all boundaries. Iraqi people are able to write the next chapter of their history themselves.’

Another view: Two car bombs explode in Baghdad, killing nine. At least 23 more die in attacks elsewhere, bringing the death toll in May to 848 as sectarian violence spreads.

A frustrating aspect of writing about Iraq since the invasion is that the worse the situation becomes, the easier it is for Tony Blair or George Bush to pretend it is improving. That is because as Baghdad and Iraq, aside from the three Kurdish provinces, become the stalking ground for death squads and assassins, it is impossible to report the collapse of security without being killed doing so.

There was a ghastly absurdity about Tony Blair’s optimism as he stood beside the new Iraqi Prime Minister, Nuri al-Maliki, in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone yesterday. As usual, Mr Blair arrived by helicopter. Anybody entering the zone on foot has to negotiate eight checkpoints defended by heavily armed troops and guards surrounded by sandbags, razor wire, sniffer dogs and X-ray machines.

Mr Blair said the establishment of a national unity government meant there was no longer any justification for the insurgency. He announced that now at last the “Iraqi people [are] able to take charge of their own destiny and write the next chapter of Iraqi history themselves”.

But Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador, played a crucial role in getting rid of the last duly elected prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari. His officials do not conceal that the envoy has been what The New York Times described as “a tireless midwife in the birthing of the new government” . That is hardly the sign of a sovereign and independent Iraqi administration.

Mr Blair said “we have a government of national unity that crosses all boundaries”. Unfortunately that is exactly what we do not have. The five months it has taken to form a government since the election for the Iraqi parliament on December 15 shows the depth of existing divisions. This government has a Minister of Tourism but, as yet, no Minister of the Interior or Defense, the two crucial jobs in a country torn apart by war.

In the two parliamentary elections and a referendum on the constitution in 2005, Iraqis voted along strictly sectarian or ethnic lines. The Shia and Sunni religious parties and the Kurdish coalition triumphed; secular and nationalist candidates performed dismally. The new constitution shifting power to Kurdish and Shia super-regions with control over new oil discoveries means that, in future, Iraq will be largely a geographical expression.

So divided is the new government that each ministry becomes the fief of the party that holds it. The ministries are, in practice, patronage machines employing only party loyalists. They are milked for money, jobs and contracts. Ministers cannot be dismissed for incompetence or corruption, however gross, because it would lead to the deal between the parties and communities unravelling. The government has become a sort of bureaucratic feudalism with each ministry presided over by an independent chieftain.

Mr Blair claimed yesterday that one of the strengths of the new government was that it was “directly elected by the votes of millions of Iraqi people”. But the US and British embassies in Baghdad have spent much of the past five months trying to foist figures such as the former prime minister Iyad Allawi into the government, despite the poor performance of his party at the polls.

The problem for the US and Britain in Iraq is at one level quite simple. ” If you have democracy in Iraq it will be in the interests of Iran, religious organizations and the Shia,” said Sami Shoresh, a commentator on Iraqi affairs.

All these things the US and Britain want to avoid, but it is proving impossible to do so.

The Sunnis, the heart of the uprising against the occupation, are now waiting to see who will be appointed to run the Interior and Defence ministries. Terrified of Shia death squads run by the Interior Ministry, the militiamen of the Badr Organisation or the Mehdi Army, the Sunnis are looking to greater protection from the US. But it is unlikely that their community, having fought the occupation for three years, will now support it.

One of the strengths of Mr Maliki’s government should be that it includes Sunni members whose parties did well in the election in December. But the five million Sunni Arabs do not have a leadership as coherent as that of the Shia and the Kurds. The elected politicians cannot deliver the armed resistance. In any case, these parliamentary leaders of the Sunnis, only 20 per cent of the Iraqi population, know that the only reason the Americans take them seriously is because of the guerrilla war that has so far killed or wounded 20,000 US troops.

The Shias, for their part, having used the invasion and overthrow of Saddam Hussein to gain power, have no intention of seeing it taken away from them by Ambassador Khalilzad or anybody else. The end of foreign military occupation will come when they decide it is no longer in their interests.



Patrick Cockburn’s past columns can now be found at The I. Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).