Saturday, December 11, 2010

Civil Society Acknowledgement

"Freedom first.” "Baghdad will not be Kandahar.” “We don't need a Khomeini state or a Taliban state in Iraq.”

Such was the message written on signs carried by Iraqi intellectuals protesting an order closing social clubs serving alcohol in Baghdad. This is the sort of thing architects of the Iraq war were having wet dreams about on the eve of invasion – Iraqi citizens (writers and poets no less!) marching in the streets demanding basic freedoms of association and speech. But it has gone all but uncovered by the western press and all but unmentioned by western diplomats. That's a real missed opportunity.

There have been some nasty little attacks on free thought, cultural institutions, and basic liberties in Iraq over the past few weeks. The Baghdad Provincial Council is enforcing a law closing down all venues in the city being used as night clubs (there’s some confusion on the scope of the law in the English language press. Would that I read Arabic), which is troubling in and of itself. But even more worrisome is that the police have targeted the Iraqi Writers Union social club as well – a sort of incubator for intellectual life in Baghdad where writers gather to smoke shisha, talk, and have a drink or two – and strong-armed its owner into signing a closure notice listing it as a night club. What’s more, the Education Ministry recently banned theater and music classes in Baghdad’s Fine Arts Institute, leaving one to wonder why they bother having a Fine Arts Institute in the first place. This is scary stuff.

Dozens of remarkably audacious writers and poets took to the streets in protest, calling for Prime Minister Maliki to intervene directly to reverse the closure order. It’s an incredibly brave stand on their part, and an example of how civil society is supposed to work to hold states accountable. They organized. They voiced peaceful opposition. They spurred debate. They made reasonable demands of their government. Their bravery should be acknowledged.

Critically, the response was 100% Iraqi organized. Western organizations had absolutely nothing to do with it, and that’s a good thing. This is the kind of stuff that’s sorely lacking in Iraq, and that I hope will take root and put aid and development workers like myself right out of business in this country. But the international community has a real opportunity to spotlight these sorts of peaceful protests, and lend support just by acknowledging that they're taking place. Imagine the encouragement these courageous people would take from just a few lines of acknowledgment from President Obama, Secretary Clinton, or Ambassador Jeffrey? We pour millions and millions of dollars into “civil society development” programming every year. A few well placed words would be free.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Sadr, Sadr, Everywhere

When all the wrangling is over, when the posts are divvyed out, it is clear that significant ministries within the government of Iraq are going to be headed by Sadrists. Their block won 40 seats in the election, the largest within the Shiite led Iraqi National Alliance (INA), and Nouri al-Maliki would not be able to form a government without the Sadrists support. Shiite Cleric Ammar al-Hakim, who heads the block, recently said they’re after 7 ministries – transportation, education, justice, health, housing, electricity, and a ministry of state – in addition to the powerful Deputy Prime Minister post. They’re certainly not lacking in ambition.

While they may not get 7, even the U.S. government is acknowledging that Sadrists are going to be running significant ministries when all is said and done. With the base of their backing coming from poor, historically marginalized Shiites, they’re likely to end up with a series of service oriented ministries. Health, housing, education, transport. If that's the case, then there will be an opportunity to help solidify the Sadrists commitment to political participation.

The armed wings of the Sadrist movement have committed truly grotesque human rights abuses in the past, and these shouldn't be papered over. But its leadership has the chance to show they have matured into a viable political organization. The Sadrists will have to govern, and the U.S. should make real, and highly visible, efforts to help them do so effectively. It’s another chance to test the thesis that extremism can be tempered by the heavy responsibilities of governing (“uneasy lies the head that wears a crown”), and it’s in both U.S. and Iraqi interests that it goes well. Because a return to the norm for the Sadrists – who have known nothing but fierce, violent opposition in recent memory – would be a disaster.

There is a real risk that the Sadrists might not find national government to their liking. With its inherent compromises, frustrations, and sluggishness, governing lacks the romance and glamour of an uncompromising armed struggle and martyrdom. It’s a daunting new world, and the relative clarity and authority of uncompromising fiefdoms in northeast Baghdad, Najaf, or Basra could look pretty appealing. If the Sadrists' experiment in national government doesn’t go well, the alternative is a disaster for Iraq (and the U.S.).

What’s more, if the U.S. makes every effort to assist these ministries, it can deny the Sadrists any excuse should they prove ineffective (a concern Toby Dodge outlines at the bottom of this CSM article). If the Sadrists are going to go it alone, the U.S. should take all steps to make clear that was a deliberate choice on their part, and let Iraqis see if they like the results. It’s the best chance the U.S. has at maintaining influence, and would at least make democratic accountability more likely. Moreover, it would lend legitimacy to any crackdown on the Mahdi army or other militant Shiite wings by Gov. of Iraq and U.S. forces.

There may be a real moral challenge in where to draw the line on support. Fundamental human rights might be put at risk as the Sadrists govern, especially the rights of women, in which case the U.S. would have to rethink its position. Or if they pursue a Hezbollah model, with “disciplined political and armed wings as well as strong social programs,” a state within a state of sorts, that would require a recalculation. But none of this is yet decided. While it might be satisfying to shun and isolate the Sadr-run ministries from the outset, we should all be hoping they do well, and the U.S. should be doing what it can to make that a reality.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Fresh Eyes on Baghdad

"By 2006 and 2007, I admit I had stopped reading: So many dead dumped in ditches, countless American fuckups, too many tragedies to fathom. In the ensuing years, the endless grinding of Iraqi parliamentary democracy—failed coalitions, muddy alliances—faded into the hum of a world gone wrong. Much of what had happened was our fault, but what could be done? The once-inescapable Iraq—subject of so many urgent conversations—had at last, again, become a ghost."

--Nathan Deuel in Slate

A quick note to highlight this exceptional article by Nathan Deuel about a recent 5 day trip to Baghdad. It's an intensely personal account, and reflects some of the horror, urgency, and bewilderment that spilled out of reporters in the earlier churning periods of the war. The past 7 years have established a baseline which tends to seep into political reporting on Iraq. Today's analysis inevitably drifts into comparison, and in a comparative sense, Iraq is doing awfully well. But "the presence of pain is more keenly felt than the absence of agony."* And Iraq today, compared against any humane baseline, is brimming with pain, despair, and misery.

There's no shortage of reporting on progress in Iraq, and that's a hugely important part of the story. But it's not the whole story. Deuel's fresh eyes on Baghdad serve as a useful reminder of the devastation Iraq continues to suffer, and the anticipation of horror with which many Iraqis live. A reminder of what's at stake.

*Borrowed from Hendrik Hertzberg writing on quite a different subject.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Wikileaks Does Iran in Iraq: Notes on Iraq Watches

The recent Wikileaks debacle, labeled “unhelpful and untimely” by Iraq’s Foreign Minister and a “semi-voyeuristic travesty” by me, does have its upsides. Among them is a lengthy, detailed look at U.S. perceptions of Iranian influence on Iraqi politics, in particular in the run up to last year’s elections. There’s been a lot of contradictory ink spilled on this subject, and the U.S. cable takes a cautious approach. Its conclusion for U.S. policy is that Iranian muscle flexing should not lead to “alarmist tendencies or reactions,” Iran’s influence over Iraq “should not be overestimated,” and there are real “points of divergence between Tehran and Baghdad.” How wide those points of divergence grow would seem to hinge on Nouri al-Maliki’s somewhat opaque vision for the future of Iraq, and the shifting alliances of his coalition.

There is no doubt that Iran has a lot of levers in Iraq. The cable hits some of the highlights. Iran gives $100-200 million a year to Iraqi surrogates, including to militant Shia proxies. It has close relationships with key Iraqi politicians including President Talibani and Prime Minister Maliki. It does $4 billion dollars in trade with Iraq, and provides 48% of Iraqi imports. It takes in Iraqi leaders in need of protection or an infusion of religious cred, including Moqtada al-Sadr, currently living and studying Qom.

However, the U.S. cable, written before the election, pointed to Iran’s fear of “a ‘rebellious’ Maliki pursuing a more nationalist [rather than] sectarian agenda” that would split the Shia vote. That didn’t quite happen. Maliki embraced unlikely partners like the Sadrists (against whom he’d waged vicious battles in the Spring of 2008) in his coalition. But the same analysis would seem to apply to the new post-election question: how will Maliki govern? As a Shia to be sure, but with U.S. influence in Iraq waning, will he govern as a sectarian or an Iraqi nationalist? In the short term, Iran’s influence over Iraq will depend largely on Iran’s influence over Maliki. And Maliki doesn’t appear to have any inherent interest in doing Iran’s will. As Larry Kaplow argues, "Maliki plays the United States and Iran against each other for what he sees as Iraq's or his own interests."

Though Iran backed Maliki during the 8 month struggle to form a government, he was not at all their first choice Shia leader, as Iran preferred the Iraqi National Alliance coalition lead by the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and the Sadrists. In fact, Maliki shrugged off Iranian pressure not to split from the main Shia coalition. In his previous term, he signed the Status of Forces Agreement with the U.S. despite intense Iranian lobbying. Not to overstate the case, but Maliki seems to do Iran’s bidding when it squares with his vision of Iraq and/or his own political interests. Alliances with Iran are more a matter of convenience than of enthusiasm for Tehran’s vision of Iraq or the middle east. He strikes me as much more a nationalist – an extremist perhaps, but an Iraqi nationalist – than Iran would like. And with a healthy interest in hanging onto power.

So the points of influence would seem to come from within the coalition, which gives Maliki his credibility and power. If the coalition’s support for Maliki wavers, then Maliki’s authority does as well. Iran might find ways to further cozy up to the Kurds, ever the pragmatists, who have some history of short term tactical cooperation with Tehran when it suits their needs. Iran has already formed a tidy alliance with the Sadrists who, though Shia fundamentalists, are ultimately Iraqi nationalists. These critical coalition partners – rather than Maliki or his inner circle itself – would seem to me to be the key battleground for influence over Iraqi politics in the short term.