Al-Khoei: Why We Shouldn’t Be Celebrating Iraq’s New Government: Power-Sharing Means Nothing without Reconciliation

Hayder al-Khoei writes in a guest column for Informed Comment



Bickering is still very much the order of the day in Iraq. Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, who has just won a second term, may have a functioning government that enjoys the confidence of parliament, but that is no reason to celebrate. Not yet anyway. There is still a war of words (and thankfully, it remains just a war of words) over the remit of the proposed ‘National Council for Strategic Policies’, and confusion also surrounds the fate of the de-Ba’athification commission set up by the American ‘civil administrator’ of Iraq, Paul Bremer, on 16 May 2003.

Maliki must simultaneously prove he is ready to loosen his grip on power and allow for one more layer of scrutiny of the Iraqi government and also readdress the thorny issue of de-Ba’athification, which has taken an ugly sectarian overtone.

CPA Order No.1 was the first official law signed by the new US provisional government in Iraq intended to pave the way for the ‘De-Ba’athification of Iraqi society’. A year later, it became obvious that de-Ba’athification was going horribly wrong and Bremer decided to rescind the commission. Like many other Americans blunders in Iraq, it was too little too late. The commission lived on, and a new 2008 law, passed by the Iraqi parliament, created its successor, the Justice and Accountability Commission. The name may have changed, but its leadership and modus operandi certainly didn’t.

Article 7 of the Iraqi Constitution, adopted in 2005, made it crystal clear that the Ba’ath Party, under any circumstances, may not be part of political pluralism in Iraq. There is hardly any disagreement on this issue. The problem however, is that de-Ba’athification is being used as a political weapon to discredit opponents of Iraq’s new political elite. It just so happens to be a Shia-dominated elite.

The real long-term legacy of Saddam’s Iraq was not that it was a confessional sectarian Ba’ath supremacy; it was the perception by the Shia masses that the Sunni sect was ruling them. Similarly, de-Ba’athification in today’s Iraq may not necessary be fuelled by a sectarian agenda, but the perception that it is, and may continue to be, is dangerous in such a politically volatile country where mere whim is enough to ignite conflict.

In the previous general elections around 500 candidates, mostly members of the Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc, were arbitrarily banned from contesting, ostensibly on the grounds of their political affiliation to the Ba’ath. The Iraqi appeals court overturned some of the disqualifications but the vast majority of candidates either chose not to appeal at all, or had had their appeals rejected. The previous walkout from parliament, by the Iraqiya bloc, headed by the former prime minister, Ayad Allawi, partly revolved around the decision not to reconsider the fate of some of its members – most notably Dhafir al-Ani and Saleh al-Mutleg (the latter has since been given the post of deputy prime minister).

The irony here is that the men in charge of the Justice and Accountability Commission, Ahmed Chalabi and Ali al-Lami, are themselves dubious and members of a political bloc that contested the elections they were supervising.

The whole purpose of de-Ba’athification, in theory at least, is to guarantee that no politicians with Iraqi blood on their hands are allowed to take part in governance. In reality, even proponents of de-Ba’athification understand the hypocrisy of this one-sided justice.

Maliki’s new government is being supported by the Sadrist “outlaws” he fought in 2008, and yet Moqtada al-Sadr, still wanted by the Iraqi judiciary for murder, is going to play a key political role in Iraq for the next 4 years. Another senior Sadrist, Hakim al-Zamili, is implicated in the kidnapping, and likely death, of a former Da’wa colleague of Maliki but is now rubbing shoulders with the new Baghdad elite. Hadi al-Ameri, the commander of a militia whose members formed death squads out of Ministry of Interior police commandos, is now the new Transport Minister.

So why do Iraq’s new elite object to the inclusion of ex-Ba’athists in the political process when they themselves have criminals in their ranks who have Iraqi blood on their hands?

The de-Ba’athification commission was set up to bar candidates implicated in crimes committed pre-2003 but there has been no commission set up to deal with the post-2003 criminals, especially the militias and death squad members who have maintained a legacy of kidnapping, extrajudicial executions and armed insurgency. The objection could be explained solely in a sectarian political context if it wasn’t for the Machiavellian obsession with power and the reality on the streets of Iraq. Many of the victims of the Shia militia have been fellow Shia, be they political opponents or members of the Iraqi security forces. Yet the Shia themselves are at best indifferent, and at worse complicit, when it comes to these crimes because it allows them to retain power.

It is naïve to presume the next Iraqi government can make huge strides in reconciliation and work coherently as a power-sharing body. Its very existence is proof that self-centred party agendas supersede all considerations of integrity, equality and justice that all the parties claimed to champion prior to elections. However, if there are politicians in the next government who still have a conscience, they must convince all Iraqis that the political process is still the most attractive option.

But inclusion is not merely enough. Power sharing means nothing when it is not underpinned by constitutional conventions that seek to combat corruption and crime with a neutral, objective and non-sectarian agenda. Maliki must understand that a token ministry here and there is not going to solve the crisis. This shrewd move may very well keep him in power for the next 4 years, but it isn’t going to solve the corrupt political system in Iraq.


Hayder al-Khoei is a researcher at the Centre for Academic Shia Studies in London.

5 Responses

  1. I really wish I cared about the Iraqi government, but I don’t. I associate Iraq with the senseless deaths of American soldiers and the waste of our treasury. I find it hard to care about the future of this disfuntional country that has been a chaotic part of our lives for the past nine years.

    My Christmas wish would be to see BUSH/CHENEY, Doug Feith, Wolfowitz and all card carrying members of the Israeli lobby who pushed for the invasion of Iraq brought up on charges of crimes against humanity. They should be sitting where Manning is right now.

  2. Does anyone else remember how, back in the 1950’s, we used to call these things “puppet governments?” The assumption in the US was that all the governments in the Soviet bloc were mere “puppets” of the Politburo in Moscow.

    Now look at the situation of America, the incompetent hegemon. Governments in Baghdad and Kabul are clearly “puppets” of American imperial power — yet just as clearly, they go their own way in many if not most spheres of governmental activity. These governments could never have been established without the blessing of the American military shield, and the government in Kabul almost certainly could not survive for more than a few weeks without continued American support.

    The government in Baghdad seems slightly more robust, it is difficult to picture any immediate alternative government pushing them out, yet as al-Khoei shows, the danger is a descent into a civil war of at least 3 factions (Shia, Sunni, and Kurd) and perhaps more (warring political parties could conceivably emerge in all three major groupings).

    Thus we have empire in the age of mendacious media: it matters not what the facts may be on the ground, it matters not how the local populations may suffer, it matters not what travesties of democratic ideals we may be supporting, it matters not what travesties of the “ideals” of even competent-yet-authoritarian government we may be supporting.

    As long as the politicians and the TV networks in America can point at some sort of government structure, and as long as a dazzlingly-decorated General can be dragged out to testify that victory over the insurgents is “just around the corner,” the punditocracy in DC can pretend that all is well and they don’t have raise a hue and cry over the “loss of American power.” Ironically, when these hues and cries over the “loss of American power” do arise, whatever debate exists is only over how many more hundreds of billions must be thrown into incompetent military machine — we Americans are not allowed to have a debate over what we should be doing in the world, or over what types of actions our expensive, incompetent military machine is taking in any particular case.

    If America’s elite politicians and media cannot permit honest and frank discussions over our imperial role and the hash we made of our imperial pretensions — and look at how they operate, they certainly cannot permit such discussions today — then we cannot reform. If we cannot reform, a collapse of American power becomes more and more likely, and sooner rather than later.

    • Your observations about the American puppet governments in Baghdad and Kabul reminded me of a favorite quote from a book I have read and re-read ever since returning to America from serving eighteen months in the Nixon-Kissinger Fig Leaf Contingent (Vietnam, 1970-72):

      “In an interview with Pham Van Dong, one American asked the North Vietnamese foreign minister how he could call the Saigon government an “American puppet” when it acted with such consistency against American interests. ‘Ah, replied the minister, ‘it’s a puppet, all right. It’s just a bad puppet.'” — Frances Fitzgerald, Fire in the Lake: the Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam (1972).

  3. One disagreement:

    Sadrists have already participated in coalition gov’ts in post-invasion Iraq.

    In the current coalition, it looks like Maliki was able to avoid giving key ministries to Sadr’s party.

    I think the real story in this coalition is Maliki. Not only did he beat out Allawi, but he’s gotten the Sadrists’ support without apparently making any major concessions to them.

    And most importantly of all, Maliki has kept two of the most important ministries, Defense and Interior, under his own personal control, for an indefinite period.

    I’m not sure Maliki is a puppet–time will tell. The Americans aren’t very keen on him. I’m not sure he would be the Iranians’ first choice, either.

Comments are closed.