The Magazine

On Democracy in Iraq

It's starting to take root.

Apr 30, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 31 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Honest Democrats should admit that they are in a predicament: The electoral interests of their party are at odds with the interests of the country in Iraq. If the surge fails, the Democrats stand to gain enormously in 2008. A Republican could try to depict himself as the candidate best able to manage retreat from Mesopotamia, but such a Nixonian approach, given how lamely the Bush administration has handled much of the war, doesn't seem compelling. On the other hand, if the surge works, and the Sunni insurgency and sectarian strife no longer convulse Iraqi society, the odds of Senator John McCain--or another Republican--succeeding George W. Bush go up considerably. The entire Democratic field, however, could end up looking wrong, faint-hearted, and politically reckless.

We highlight this Democratic contradiction since the party's character is being put to the test, as we see whether General David Petraeus's counterinsurgency tactics, which will seriously kick into gear in June, can rescue Baghdad and Anbar and Diyala provinces from the precipice. We don't know if General Petraeus at this late date can reverse the bloody dynamic that has developed in the Iraqi Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish communities. But militarily the United States is finally waging a counterinsurgency that makes sense: We are focusing our efforts on securing Iraqi lives and property. Incrementally, in many quarters of Baghdad, daily life for Iraqis appears to be getting better.

And politically, Iraq is coming alive again. A Shiite-led Iraqi democracy is taking root--an astonishing achievement given the concerted efforts of the Iraqi Sunnis, and the surrounding Sunni Arab states, to attack and delegitimize the new Iraq. The country's obstreperous, stubborn, highly nationalist, Shiite prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, appears increasingly to be a man of mettle and courage. Slowly but surely, he is distancing himself from the clerical scion, Moktada al-Sadr, the overlord of the Sunni-shooting Mahdi Army. Maliki is so far holding his ground after the resignation of Sadr's men in his government.

This distancing was inevitable once the Americans reversed the disastrous tactics of former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld and General John Abizaid, which had allowed Sadr and his allies to become the only defenders of Baghdad's Shiites against the Sunni insurgents and holy warriors. Maliki and Sadr are not natural allies intellectually or temperamentally; Maliki's diverse and fractious Dawa party is of a different social milieu from the uneducated young men who give Sadr power. Although Sadr will surely continue to have a significant political following (his family name alone ensures that), his base of support even within Baghdad's Shiite slum, Sadr City, is not guaranteed, provided the central government can bring security and minimal economic opportunity. There are many reasons Sadr has not rallied his men against the American surge, which has already penetrated deeply into Sadr City with minimal resistance. One of those reasons is that Sadr would not be popular with many of the area's denizens if he did.

Since 2005, Sadr's calls for political demonstrations against the Americans have not been resounding successes among the Shiites. Although this may be news to Senate majority leader Harry Reid, who believes all is lost in Iraq, Sadr increasingly shows the anxiety of a pol who is nervous about his base, his allies, and his elected Shiite competitors. Not that long ago, many--perhaps most--Iraqis thought that the United States would soon abandon Iraq. President Bush's decision to back the surge has altered this perception, in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. The effect of this on Iraq's politics has been enormously beneficial. The retreat of Sadr, the growing Sunni tribal unease, if not outright conflict, with al Qaeda in Anbar, and the growing self-confidence of Maliki are all, in part, results of President Bush's decision.

Prime Minister Maliki actually appears to be leading his Dawa party, an awkward, tense collection of deeply patriotic, semi-Westernized Shiite activists, into an embrace of parliamentary democracy. Although not a mass movement, the Dawa has prestige among the Shiites: It was the first organized expression of a Shiite political consciousness and was born, in part, from the mind of Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr (1935-1980), the greatest of Iraq's modern clerics and the font of the Sadr family's continuing charisma. If the Dawa embraces democracy, its commitment, along with that of senior clerics in Najaf led by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, will likely ensure a lasting Shiite commitment to democracy--provided Iraq's current leading men aren't destroyed in an all-out sectarian war, a scenario that seems likely only if the Americans hastily withdraw from Iraq.