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From the Inside Looking Out

by Hala Abdullah, with Norvll DeAtkine

Recent émigrés from Iraq provide an analysis of the recent election and the complexities of the future course of democracy in that country.  Their unique perspective as “insiders” enriches the discussion that is too often dependent on second or third-hand experiences.   –The Editor

If one were looking for the most difficult country in which to implant the democratic process, the obvious choice would be Iraq.  This is a relatively new nation, created by the British from three Ottoman provinces, each looking in different directions for commerce and trade; a nation divided by sectarian loyalties, linguistic divisions, and most of all by a long history of violence and totalitarian repression, most recently under Saddam Hussein. Social historian of Iraq, Hannah Batatu wrote that the Iraqis had an instinct for rebellion.  King Feisel wrote that there were no Iraqi people, rather a disconnected people prone to anarchy, and ready to rise against any government.

Iraqi historian Ali Al-Wardi wrote that the Iraqi society was divided by the perpetual clash between the Bedouin of the desert and the townspeople, giving the Iraqi society a form of schizophrenia, a sort of dual personality that was, among other attributes, exhibited by a love of the strong personality, the mythical sharqi, a gangster bully but admired neighborhood hero, typified in the political realm by Saddam Hussein and being emulated by some current Iraqi political figures today.

But nothing has been as detrimental to the fertility of the democratic seeding as the varying and alternating degrees of neglect and oppression suffered by the majority Shi’a community of Iraq. Under the Sunni Ottoman Turks, the pan- Arabists of the British installed royal regimes, and especially under the Ba’ath regimes, the Shi’a were a disenfranchised second-class community. The British overlordship of Iraq after World War I continued and emphasized this disparity.  British stalwarts of British policy in Iraq such as Gertrude Bell made very clear in their writings their discomfort and distrust of the Shi’a. Bell saw them as fanatics and was much more comfortable among the Hashemites and more urbane Sunni Arabs with whom she was a leading advocate of the formation of an Iraqi state.   The British Foreign Service officer and writer Freya Stark lamented the lack of British effort to enlist the Shi’a in their conflict with the Ottoman Turks. This attitude toward the Shi’a was manifested in the British policies toward the Shi’a of the south after the Coalition invasion in 2003.  The British attempts to administer the southern provinces by means of the same old practice of post World War I by ruling through a tribal structure, basically failed.

The Sunni-centric attitudes and mistrust of the Arab Shi’a has been passed down over the years among academics, especially those educated in the 60s and imbued with the Nasserist, Pan-Arabist viewpoint. Shi’a academics prominent in the Western centers of learning about Islam and the Middle East were (and are) very few and rarely heard.

The academic enshrined views of the Arabs and Iraqi Shi’a strongly influenced those entering the Foreign Service of both the British and the U. S. who arrived in Iraq after the United States led invasion.

Among the many misconceptions of the Americans and British personnel arriving in Iraq was that the cultural norms generally applied to the Arab world could be applied to Iraq.  In fact, the history of Iraq was so warped by the decades of violence, and particularly the totalitarian regime of Saddam Hussein, that the Iraqi society had, and has, to be approached as unique.

The omnipresent and omnipotent power of the security agencies and the socialist policies of the regime had deeply impaired the family structure and rendered most as dependent on the state providing the necessities of life — a state of affairs which has constantly impaired the reconstruction efforts of both the Iraqi government and the United States. The constant wars and internal bloodletting wars had left many women as widows, and daughters without fathers leading to widespread prostitution as the only way to survive. Young men without fathers and parental control, especially those of the urban areas became easy recruits for the insurgent movements.

In the aftermath of the Coalition invasion of Iraq, it was not just a matter of rebuilding the infrastructure. It required a rebuilding of Iraqi society.  The advent of a democratic process and majority rule brought the Shi’a to power for the first time in modern history. It has become standard wisdom among the celebrity-journalists and pundits who have churned out an avalanche of books, skewering the missteps and erroneous policies of the Coalition, to view the Shi’a government as a disaster. As a matter of fact the Shi’a, who had not had the reins of power in their hands for centuries, and had very little experience at the top levels of any aspect of government, had a very steep learning curve. As a historical precedent one could point to the state of the American blacks in the early reconstruction era, which went from slaves to members of state legislatures overnight.  The tradition and conditioning for leadership roles had been an exclusive preserve of the Sunni Arabs, and the “quietist” aspect of Iraqi Shi’ism had imbued a sense of acceptance of Sunni rule. Despite the much smaller Sunni Arab population in Iraq, the fear of their regaining power is pervasive among the Shi’a community.

The constant emphasis on the “outreach” to the Sunnis advocated and pushed by the British and American governments as well as the policies of the United Nations agencies in Iraq, were often seen by the Shi’a community as advocating a return to the “good old days” of Pan-Arabism, and Ba’athist control.

There was, and continues to be, a misunderstanding of the Ba’ath movement in Iraq. It was much more than a Pan-Arabist socialist movement. It was a deeply embedded ideology in the fabric of Iraqi political, economic and social life. It was a network of shared values, institutions and a common worldview. Most Shi’a saw the rather tepid de-Ba’athification program advocated by the Western coalition partners, banning only the top level of the Ba’ath from participating in politics, as similar to treating a cancer with painkillers. It had to be dug out by the roots.

As the foundation stones of democracy are being put into place, one has to wonder what will be the institution that will maintain the process above petty jealousies and sectarian strife. Most would agree that certainly the judicial system, being slowly rebuilt from the time when law was whatever Saddam said it was, is not ready to be the guarantor of constitutional law. Nor is the state of a civil society in Iraq where tribalism and family are still the mainstays of society. A mishmash of tribal, religious, ands secular continues to inhibit the democratic process. Looking about for an institution that can protect the process, the obvious choice would have to be an apolitical army — something akin to the Turkish Army’s role in Turkey, maintaining secularism as a cornerstone of Turkish politics. The Iraqi regular army, as distinct from the Saddam-created Republican Guard, has always been a matter of pride to the Iraq people and there is no doubt that its dissolution (or self-dissolution) after the Coalition occupation was a major contributor to the unchecked violence and chaos that followed. It should also be recognized that had the Saddam army remained intact after the occupation, it is problematic how supportive of a democratic process it would be. Given the history of military intervention into Iraqi political life and the fact that the officer corps, particularly at the higher ranks, was Sunni Arabs, many of them dedicated Ba’athis, its coexistence with or support of a Shi’a government would have been at best problematic. As the recent level of violence continues in Iraq, there will be calls for army intervention. Foreseeing this, al-Maliki has warned the generals to remain out of politics. The intervention of the army would give great satisfaction to Iraq’s neighbors, all of whom see a true democracy as a threat to their dictatorial regimes.

With a cynical people inured to hypocrisy and dissimulation from their leaders, a prevalent attitude one finds among the non-Iraqi Arabs is one of cynicism toward the Iraqi elections.  The attitude is that this will be Iraq’s last election and that an inevitable slide toward a dictatorship will occur. The idea that Iraq could actually sustain a democratic process is inconceivable to most. The cynicism held by many, based on the “elections” and “constitutions” in their own countries, is understandable.

While the Arab media generally lauded the actual voting of the Iraqi people, the results were generally less well received until it appeared that Iyad Allawi was doing well. Allawi, as the perceived Pan-Arabist and champion of Sunni hopes in Iraq, is the runaway favorite of the non-Iraqi Arabs, the general population as well as the governments. The fear and animosity of the Sunni Arab governments toward the establishment of a Shi’a state in the Arab world is pervasive. As one small example, once the results of the Iraqi election were clear and Allawi was on top, Al Ahram, an Egyptian State-run newspaper moved Iraqi news from the world section to the Arab world section, thus underlining the belief that with Allawi on top, Iraq was back in the Arab fold.

To the majority of the Iraqi Shi’a, however, Allawi’s connections to the Ba’ath party and Saddam Hussein are red flags. His split with the Ba’ath party is seen by most Shi’a to have been more cosmetic than real, and based on the usual intra-inner circle bloody disputes within the Saddam regime, rather than any repugnance of Ba’athist rule.

Much to their amazement and disappointment, Shi’a Iraqis find very little sympathy, or understanding, for their plight under Saddam among even the American Arab community, many of whom still see Saddam as a great Arab leader.

Perhaps most obvious however, is the general feeling among many Iraqis, as evidenced from the bloggers, and journalists, is that the neighboring regimes want democracy to fail. After all, a flourishing democracy is hardly a good example for the regimes of Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the other Gulf States, or even Jordan to follow. Among educated Iraqis there is a suspicion that even the United States and the Western powers have put stability above democracy.

The relationship of the Iraqi Shi’a to Iran is often misconstrued. As most Shi’a will tell you the prevailing hostility or suspicion of the Arab Sunni population and their regimes toward Iraqi Shi’ism, and the Arab world denial of Ba’ath repression, drove the Shi’a of Iraq to see Iran as their only friend.   But the Iraqi Shi’a community rejects the Iranian version of the supreme leader brand of Shi’ism and zealously guards their identity as Arabs.  Perhaps the fact that so often other Arabs question their identity makes them more insistent to prove it.

The influence of the Sunni Arab countries on the elections was on display. The Al-Jazeera and especially Al-Arabiya networks tilted heavily in the direction of Allawi with most of the other Arab national networks following a similar line.    Based upon his image as a secularist, the Western Press demonstrated a more favorable picture of Allawi as well.

There can be no doubt that a heavy influx of Sunni “Gulf money” from private and government sources aided Allawi considerably.  There were a number of Allawi campaign ads run on Al-Arabiya but in one interview on al-Jazeera TV, Allawi denied using this money. In fact all the media of the Gulf including that of Saudi Arabia greeted the news of Allawi’s win with relief and hope for an Iraq that would balance Iranian influence.

Former Ba’athist elites now residing in Jordan and Syria were also of considerable help to the Allawi campaign. The anti-Shi’a remarks of King Abdullah of Jordan describing a menacing “Shi’a arc” left no doubt of his view. This combined with an often-cordial relationship of the Jordanian officer corps to the Iraqi army over the years has created an anti-Shi’a bias that was felt by Shi’a trying to enter or transit Jordan. They were often singled out for derogatory treatment and sometimes denied entry.

The Syrian government regime is equally hostile to the al-Maliki regime for a number of reasons despite what would seem to be some affinity. The   Syrian regime is composed of members of a Shi’a offshoot known as “Alawis” sitting atop a sometimes-restive majority Sunni population. Allied to Iran strategically and politically, it would seem that they would welcome a Shi’a government in Iraq but such is not necessarily the case. When Ba’thists ruled both nations the relationship was bad, partly because of power rivalries and partly on the personal animosity between Hafez Assad and Saddam Hussein.  Since 2003 the heavy influx of suicide bombers transiting Syria to attack   Shi’a civilians in Iraq has poisoned the relationship between the Al-Maliki government and the Syrian regime.  The influx of mostly Sunni refugees from Iraq, many expelled from their neighborhoods by Shi’a militia, has exacerbated the anti-Iraqi attitude. Moreover Syria sees itself as the Iraqi trade gateway to the world in competition to Iran. In essence, however it is simply the old Arab regime practice of never putting all your money on one horse. Supporting both sides of a conflict is a well-practiced method of insuring regime survival, no matter who wins.

The recent re-emergence of Turkey as Middle East power also has significance for the Iraqi elections, in that their self assumed role of protectors of the Sunni Turkoman has given them an important foothold into Iraq, This is particularly important in view of the centrality of Kirkuk to the oil issue and the impact on Kurdish-Turkish relations, The deeply divided nature of the Kurdish vote, with many Kurds opting for an alternative to the Talabani and Barzani dynasties, has further reduced any chance of a more militant Kurdish demand for independence. The new warm relationship between Iran and Turkey and a united attitude by all Middle East nations, i.e., that Kurdish independence in any country is a bad thing, reduces the power of Kurdish threats on the Iraqi government. As always, the Kurds have no friends.

The Iranian government has played a cautious game throughout the election, overflowing with positive reporting on the Iraqi democratic process, maintaining a fairly neutral stance, but giving a lot of airtime to the Shi’a list.  When asked about the amount of time given to the Shi’a alliance party one of the spokesman of the party, Entifadh Qanbar, (former military attaché to the United States and close to Ahmad Chalabi) claimed it was because the “Arab” channels would not give him air time. He also stated in another interview, “The border with Iran is a continuous stretch of history and civilization, while the border with Arab countries is a desert.”  Though pleased with the very good showing of the Saderists in the election, with Muqtada Sadr still sheltering in Iran, the Iranian press has been critical of the election results since the outcome showed Allawi ahead, implying there were inconsistencies.  It should also be remembered that in the beginning of the 2003 chaos, Muqtada was making numerous speeches extolling his Arab heritage and the fact that he was the only true Arab Shi’a cleric of high standing in Iraq. His mercurial and unpredictable behavior will give his Iranian hosts much anxiety in the future.

The votes of the Iraqis are in and as many suspected there is no clear idea of the next government. Its composition, the identity of the Prime Minister, the orientation of Iraqi domestic and foreign affairs are yet to be settled. Most observers are forecasting months of political deal making and continuing anxiety for the Iraqi people.

The purpose of this article was not to predict outcome but rather to put the trends into a longer perspective, within a historical context. Within these parameters these are the trends as we see them.

Violence will continue at some level. The violent legacy of Iraqi society will not change overnight. The propensity to seek change and/or obtain political or ideological advantage through violent means will remain in Iraqi life for a long time to come. It should always be pointed out that a dozen or so suicide bombers can kill hundreds of people, spread terror, and impress western and outside media, but that does not mean Iraq is on the verge of a return to the sectarian violence of 2007. The sectarian violence will not reoccur, despite the best efforts of certain terror groups to make it happen. The Iraqi society is so weary of death and destruction that those who preach it are not welcome. In fact the recent level higher level of violence may hasten the formation of a government, albeit of a more temporary nature, forced by public pressure to fashion some sort of ruling coalition.

The Ali Wardi portrayal of the Iraqi people still holds true. The strongman image of Iyad Allawi, and to a certain degree Nouri Al-Maliki, was of benefit to both. The Iraqis know that only the strong can stand tall in the storms of Iraqi politics. The dualistic nature of Iraqi character was also on display. Sectarianism and Iraqi nationalism was side by side in the vote but it was not confined to the Shi’a. The Sunni saw Allawi, despite his Shi’a origins, as their best hope.  The Sunni coalesced around Iyad Allawi. With his professed secularist and Pan-Arabist leanings, his contacts with Sunni clerics, and his known connections to non-Iraqi Sunni Arab circles, he garnered almost the entire Sunni vote   He also obtained a significant vote among those who are termed secularist Shi’a.  There is no doubt that there are serious reservations among some the middle class urban Shi’a that a government formed by the Iraqi National Alliance (a combination of religious Shi’a parties) might impose unacceptable religious restrictions on society and be too deeply beholden to Iran. The Shi’a, being far more numerous, could have swept the elections had they voted as a block but indeed split their vote among the al-Maliki ticket and the Shi’a Alliance, as well as several other smaller parties.

With the final withdrawal of U. S. troops in the near future, the idea, apparently prevalent in the West and the Arab world, that an Allawi government can maintain an anti-Iranian stance is a chimera. Sandwiched between a pro-Iran Syria and Iran, the Iraqi government will find that outside Arab support will be limited to mostly words. The best that can be hoped for is that the new Iraqi government limits Iranian influence in the economic and domestic political arenas.

In actuality Allawi has almost no chance of gathering enough support unless he dips into the Shi’a Alliance party, most likely, based on their animosity to al-Maliki, the Sadrists. This is indeed ironic in that of all the groupings the one closest to Iran and reputedly responsible for the Mahdi militia that terrorized Sunni neighborhoods, is the Sadrists.

Allawi may try to obtain support from another wing of the Shi’a alliance, the Ammar al-Hakim movement that is officially known as the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), traditionally and unabashedly close to Iran. Recently some reports have indicated the ISCI would be open to an alliance with the Iraqiya party of Allawi. Anything is possible in the byzantine world of Arab politics but there will be a great deal of dissent within both political parties protesting the deal.    This may well be the Iranian method of undermining the Iraqiya Pan-Arabist orientation from within.  But much more likely this is only a bargaining ploy to induce al-Malaki to make further concessions to get Shi’a Alliance support.

If turned away from the Shi’a, Allawi would have to turn to the Kurds. However his support from the Pan-Arabists who are the core constituency of his party, would dissolve if he met the Kurdish demands for control of Kirkuk and its oil that has become a central theme of the Sunni Pan-Arabists. Without doing so it is difficult to imagine any Kurdish teaming with Allawi. So the horse-trading and deal making will continue for quite some time.

The primary point here is that the Pan-Arabist elation over the showing of the Allawi ticket, which was seen as an Iraq returning to the Arab fold and as a bulwark against Iran, and perhaps even a creeping return of the neo-Ba’athists to Iraq, is premature. Neither is likely to happen in the near or intermediate future.

As the daily reports on the deal making come out of Iraq it appears less and less likely that Nouri al-Maliki will remain as Prime Minister, but he has often been underrated. He should be given credit for his leadership in this most critical time for Iraq. Walking a tight rope between the United States and Iran, trying to obtain Arab recognition for his government while simultaneously fighting Sunni insurgents, and Shi’a militia, few seem to realize the complexity of the issues with which he had to deal.

Al-Maliki had a problem of having had to make the hard decisions in a tumultuous time for Iraq. His military offensives against the Sadrists in Sadr city and Basra have put him at loggerheads with the Sadrists and his relationship with the al-Hakim party was always rocky. He seems to have alienated all the other top Shi’a leaders. On the other hand he was unable to obtain the trust of the Iraqi Sunni elite and there have been problems with the Kurdish leadership. He has little appeal to the Kurds. In order for his party (Dawa) to make deals with anyone he may have to relinquish his position as prime minister. Whether he will go quietly is a big question.

In retrospect however his leadership has been greatly underrated by the Iraqis, who still chaff at the agonizingly slow pace of rebuilding Iraq, the surrounding Arab countries whose regimes all to often saw him as just a foil for Iran, and finally the U. S. and Western media whoch made it obvious that Allawi was their man. His time in the United Kingdom and better command of English made him a less remote figure than al-Maliki who never fit the Western image of what a leader should be. Perhaps the most beneficial thing al-Maliki can do for Iraqi democracy is to do something unheard of in modern Arab history: relinquish power peacefully and gracefully.

In the background as always is the consummate and very skillful dealmaker, Ahmad Chalabi who despite his recent demonization in the Arab and Western press has a foot in every camp. In fact it may be stated that the very qualities that seem to denigrate the Western view of him are the ones likely to enable him to play a much larger role than the election would suggest.

The attitude of the U. S. government at this time is all-important. There have been many opinions on how or why the “surge” helped stabilize a situation that seems to be spinning out of control. Many reasons have been advanced but the main reason is simple. The increase of American troops at a time when it the U. S. media was anticipating a withdrawal was a huge psychological boost. It is again at that point in which Iraqis need to feel that democracy in Iraq, not just stability, is still the U. S. objective and that there is a realization of how important Iraq is to the Middle East and the United States. In the Iraqi view, of course, it is much more important than Afghanistan.

Credit should be given the Iraqis for how far they have come in a few short years. Iraq now has the freest press and media in the Arab world and one of the most diverse. There is greater religious freedom, particularly for the Shi’a community who are allowed to observe their religious events freely, and women have a place in the political structure.  This was not so under Saddam. Opinions sometimes seen in the Western press claiming that women were better off under Saddam is a gross misrepresentation. Superficial observations relating the wearing of the hijab to repression of women do not accurately portray Iraqi society.  The only woman of stature under Saddam was Huda Salih Ammash, also known as Dr. Anthrax.

Based on the election results it can be said with some certitude that the Iraqis voted for Iraqi nationalism over both Pan-Arabism and Islamic fundamentalism, and that the Shi’a rejected the Iranian style of Shi’ism and prefer the Iraqi model. The Iraqis are turning out their own religious scholars from Najaf and moving away from Qom as the center of Shi’a learning. None of the four prominent ayatollahs (now three with the death of Muhamed al-Hakim of Najaf) accept the Iranian view of Shi’a political authority.  It was not a contest between Arabism and Iranism. Iraq is a solidly Arab country and that facet of Iraqi character would be evident no matter who won. However Iraqi society will remain a conservative Islamic one and the concept of Islam and democracy existing side by side will be put to the test in Iraq, as will whether democracy can prevail over Arab family and tribal traditions.End.






Hala Abdullah was born and raised in Baghdad and graduated from Al Maamun University with a B. A. degree in English Language and Literature. Prior to the coalition invasion she worked for Al Arab daily newspaper. Following the invasion, she worked for several years as an interpreter and cultural advisor with the U. S. military information services.  Since coming to the United States two years ago, she has worked as an online senior editor and a team leader for Iraqi journalists and reporters and more recently as a social media analyst for Iraqi blog sites.

Norvell B DeAtkine
Norvell B DeAtkine

Norvell B. DeAtkine is a retired Colonel, a graduate of West Point with an M. A. from the American University of Beirut in Arab Studies. His extensive overseas service includes combat service in Vietnam, an assignment in Korea, and 8 years in the Middle East. Among his positions held were as an artillery battalion commander and deputy commander of Corps Artillery. Following his military service he taught for 18 years as the director of Middle East studies at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School.


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