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Hope and Change in Iraq

The elections show a functioning democracy, if they can keep it.

Mar 22, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 26 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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Deeply scarred by Baathist rule and savage insurgent Sunni attacks, and well aware of the disastrous economic state of their religious brethren in southern Iraq, the Iraqi Shiite political establishment will likely give the Sunnis no more than what their numbers demand in parliament (and that may not be much). No matter what happens in the formation of a new government, the Shia are unlikely to increase state subventions to Sunni Arab paramilitary organizations—the anti-al Qaeda “Sons of Iraq” groups that the Americans want incorporated into the Iraqi Army and that the Shiite community deeply distrusts. The pre-election disqualification of some Sunni candidates was probably in part a bit of Shiite electoral hanky-panky against popular Sunni leaders, who may or may not have a bothersome Baathist background. But it was above all an assertion of Shiite determination that “never again” means “never again.” 

 

It’s a strong bet that these disqualifications—which do not seem to have depressed Sunni participation—are highly popular among the Shia. Ahmad Chalabi, a leader of the National Alliance, whom the American press and Washington’s top general in Iraq, Raymond Odierno, described as an Iranian-guided Beelzebub behind the effort to blacklist Sunni Arab candidates, undoubtedly gained in popularity among the Shia from the American onslaught against him. (It is astonishing to see American officials, who have before labeled Chalabi an Iranian agent only to see him rise like Lazarus, repeat the same mistake. Former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and her aide Robert Blackwill had the excuse of near total ignorance of Iraq and Chalabi; General Odierno and Ambassador Christopher Hill should know better.)  

But the Arab Sunnis will have peace—if they want it. There is absolutely no detectable desire among Iraq’s Arab Shia for a renewed war against their Sunni compatriots. Even the Sadrists, who led the fiercest, vengeful death-squads against the Sunni community, give no hint that they want combat again with the Sunnis. (The same cannot be said when the Sadrists talk about Prime Minister Maliki, who led the army against them in Baghdad and in Basra.) The Sadrists have dropped the Shiite millenarian language that once scared the Sunnis. Moktada al-Sadr, exiled in Iran, is, as he probably knows, testing the historic Shiite idea of gheibat, “absence,” where a spiritual leader disappears and then returns to lead the faithful. Democracy isn’t kind to absentee politicians, which is, no doubt, why Sadr himself spread rumors of his return to Iraq. But neither he nor his movement is a threat to Iraqi democracy. The Sadrists still have some street power and passion and the possibility of a political impact if the plight of the Shiite poor worsens. But they are playing the democratic game. Only a renewed Sunni attack against the Shia will re-radicalize them. 

The Shia won the Battle of Baghdad, and they are increasingly confident they could win any future war—much more decisively, thanks to American training of the Shiite-led Iraqi Army. Rather than give the Sunnis an equal share in government, which is what Sunni politicians really want, the Shia would probably fight. But there is likely considerable political wiggle room between Sunni revanchist dreams and Shiite stubbornness. The Sunni Arab community now has a political voice in the Iraqiya slate, headed by the longtime favorite son of the Central Intelligence Agency, the über-secularist and nominally Shiite Ayad Allawi. This is a much more potent, appealing, and flexible coalition than its predecessor, al-Tawafuq, which proved too lame, too religious, and too authoritarian. It’s not clear now how Iraqiya could compromise sufficiently with the Kurds (Iraqiya’s Sunni Arab core is vehemently opposed to Kurdish autonomy) or even with Maliki’s party to gain real political power (Maliki, no less than Chalabi, is strongly opposed to de-de-Baathification and obviously doesn’t care for putting more Sunni militiamen on the state payroll as soldiers). 

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