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About Zaid Al-Ali

Zaid Al-Ali is a senior adviser on constitutional building for International IDEA. He has been following the transition processes in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt closely, and was previously involved in Iraq. His latest book is "The Struggle for Iraq's Future: How Corruption, Incompetence and Sectarianism Have Undermined Democracy." He tweets @zalali

Articles by Zaid Al-Ali

This week's editor

NSS, editor

Niki Seth-Smith is a freelance journalist and contributing editor to 50.50.

Constitutional conventions: best practice

Iraq’s next parliamentary elections: the stakes

We are now completely at the mercy of our political class. Many of the same faces will return, and those who are new will have been imposed on us by the same party structures that have been running the country since 2003.

Tunisia’s new constitution: progress and challenges to come

Most Tunisians agree that their new constitution is an advance, despite the imperfections. The people’s new democratic spirit is what will make Tunisia a success, and it will hopefully serve as an inspiration for the entire Arab region in times to come.  (4,485 words)

Iraq: ten years of hubris and incompetence

Many of the problems that afflict Iraqis today are rooted in the rushed and undemocratic constitution of 2005, says Zaid Al-Ali. 

The new Egyptian constitution: an initial assessment of its merits and flaws

Egypt cannot be described as a religious state, given that political power remains firmly in the hands of civilians, but religion will now play a real role in inspiring how the state is to function. And military trials of civilians have been elevated to a constitutional principle.

Egypt's draft constitution: an analysis

The text of the Egyptian state's new constitution is reaching a critical juncture. How does it measure up to fundamental rights and principles, and accord with recent constitutional practice elsewhere in the world? Zaid Al-Ali inspects the document.

Iraqi regionalism and its discontents

The incompetence of Iraq's central governance is fuelling demands for the formation by local provinces of self-governing regions. But such a course is most unlikely to solve the core problems Iraqis are facing, says Zaid Al-Ali.

Libya’s interim constitution: an assessment

A draft constitution for the new Libyan state has already been released. A close reading reveals echoes of and contrasts with comparable texts from Egypt and Tunisia. But the speed of its publication is a serious concern, says Zaid Al-Ali.

What Egypt should learn from Iraq

The Iraqi experience of creating a new constitution from political and social ruin offers lessons for Egypt, says Zaid Al-Ali.

Iraq’s future hanging by a thread

Iraqis now have greater physical security, though violence continues and politics are stalemated. But the years of conflict have corroded trust, entrenched sectarian identities, undermined livelihoods, and ravaged the environment. Zaid Al-Ali, travelling through Iraq, finds a society under intense stress whose human and national bonds are frayed - but far from broken.

Maliki, Allawi and the Iraqi people

International jubilation following high participation in Iraq's elections is premature, argues Zaid Al-Ali.

Iraq: new alliances, old repression

Iraq's main political actors are engaged in intense political jockeying in advance of the country's parliamentary elections scheduled for January 2010. The formation of the al-Ittilaf al-Watani al-Iraqi (Iraqi National Alliance), announced on 23 August 2009, is part of a long process of political realignment among Iraq's old political parties that may have a big impact on the election result. But whatever the outcome of this process, which has been fraught with volatility, many Iraqis fear that the political manoeuvring will do little to improve their lives - and that violence will again displace politics as a means of setting the country's course.  

Zaid Al-Ali is an attorney at the New York Bar and specialises in international commercial arbitration. He has graduated from King's College London, the Sorbonne University in Paris and Harvard Law School.

He is currently writing a book on the Iraqi constitution with Jõrg Fedtke, to be published in 2009

Among Zaid Al-Ali's articles in openDemocracy:

"Iraq: the lost generation" (7 November 2004)

"Iraq's dangerous elections" (23 December 2004)

"The end of secularism in Iraq" (18 May 2005)

"Lebanon's pre-election hangover" (27 May 2005)

"Iraq: a constitution or an epitaph?" (16 August 2005)

"Iraq: a constitution to nowhere" (14 October 2005)

"Iraq's war of elimination" (21 August 2006)

"Saving Iraq: a critique of Peter W Galbraith" (26 October 2006)

"Lebanon on the brink - but of what?" (18 December 2006)

"The United States in Iraq: the case for withdrawal" (19 January 2007)

"Iraqis in freefall" (21 March 2007)

"Iraq: a wall to conquer us" (7 May 2007)

"Lebanon's Palestinian shame" (19 June 2007)

"What Obama means for Iraq" (13 November 2008)

"The Cairo speech: Arab Muslim voices" (8 June 2009) - with Karim Kasim

"Iraq: face of corruption, mask of politics" (2 July 2009)
The electoral season

In the six years since Iraq's sudden emergence from the political wilderness, the ruling elite that came to govern the country under the rubric of United States military power has slowly adapted to two hard realities. 

The first is that no Iraqi political party can secure the support of more than 10% of the population (even though Iraq's political exiles, returning after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, had convinced both themselves and their US and British patrons that they would command immense popular appeal).

The second, and a corollary of the first, is that Iraqi voters are more sophisticated than had been expected. Most appear to know what they want from government and have therefore rejected parties that either uphold principles that they disagree with or whose performance has been particularly unsatisfactory. In that context, political parties have sought to entrench their positions by eliminating their rivals, entering into grand alliances that disempower voters and engaging in extravagant posturing for electoral purposes. 

In the provincial elections of January 2009, the largest share of the vote was won by the Rule of Law Alliance, which combined the forces of the Dawa Party of prime minister Nouri al-Maliki and the Independents' List. The result reflected a significant shift from the first post-regime-change national vote in 2005, when the Dawa Party was considered to be a minor and disunited sideshow compared to more assertive Shi'a parties. 

Al-Maliki's success reflected in part the credit he was able to claim for the relative improvement in security in many of Iraq's provinces in 2008. But he also won support on account of his argument (whether convinced or calculating is less than clear) in favour of a strong central government that could resist the trend to sectarian-based federalism.

The relative success of this resistance was confirmed in January 2009 by the decline in the vote (by as much as two-thirds in some provinces) going to the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (tainted by its close association with Iran and its project to establish a loose federal state) and the Sadr Movement (composed of followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, and considered by most to be a net contributor to the country's civil conflict). 

Since the provincial elections, al-Maliki has tried to build on the Rule of Law Alliance's success by continuing to play the "security card". For example, he organised a series of photo-opportunities to celebrate the withdrawal of American troops from Iraqi cities at the end of June 2009; and he sought to consolidate the impression of improved security by ordering the removal of Baghdad's "blast walls" (a process subsequently halted in response to renewed violence). The prime minister has also appealed to popular sentiment with an endorsement of non-sectarian alliances. 

But the losers of the provincial elections have been active too, in particular by grouping together against their common political foe. The new Iraqi National Alliance brings together forces that have long been diametrically opposed to each other. They include the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and the Sadr Movement, led respectively by the Hakim and Sadr families, powerful Islamist clans that have been decades-long rivals; and the Fadhila Party, joining an alliance that weeks earlier it had described as a sectarian grouping of corrupt individuals. Fadhila had performed disastrously in the provincial elections, being almost eliminated in areas that they had previously controlled. 

The reach of the alliance goes further. It accommodates perennial losers such as Ahmed Chalabi, who has scored terribly in all Iraq's post-2003 elections, and some token Sunni and Kurdish representatives (as a counterweight to the alliance's sectarian balance). The fact that the alliance is officially headed by Ibrahim Jaafari, who was prime minister (and leader of the Dawa Party) when Iraq's slide into civil war began, is symbolic: for Jaafari is now nominally in charge of the very parties that once combined to oust him from power. Indeed, the deeper reality is that this is a coalition of forces that can agree only on who and what they are against (the alliance's remarkably bland electoral programme ticks off routine objectives such as improving security and protecting the environment, all of which the parties are obliged to pursue in any event as per Iraq's constitution).   

The same difference

The Iraqi National Alliance has stated that its doors remain open to any political party, and has specifically invited even Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa Party to join its ranks. The very suggestion highlights the prime minister's political vulnerability, especially over one of the issues he has sought to make his own: Iraq's security. This is highlighted by the massive bombing of several state institutions in Baghdad on 19 August 2009, which left ninety-five people dead; a stark reminder of the extreme lengths that al-Maliki's enemies are willing to go to damage his electability. 

But whether or not the prime minister and his group joins the alliance or the new formation wins power, it is unlikely that much will change in the lives of most Iraqis. For, though it is easy to forget amidst a wave of pre-election speculation, many of the alliance's members are in fact part of Iraq's current government - which is one of the most corrupt that the country has ever seen. 

There are numerous indicators of the ruling elite's incompetence and lack of commitment to the welfare of the Iraqi people. The failure to restore the decrepit social services (such as education, electricity, and healthcare) even to the level of the 1970s is but one. The oil ministry, under the control of an al-Maliki ally, has managed to install just one-third of the meters that are required to estimate the amount of oil being extracted at source (thus facilitating larceny on a grand scale).  Oil production itself remains below pre-war levels, despite repeated assurances that this would be achieved.

The trade ministry is responsible for Iraq's food-rationing programme; ruled by Dawa operatives, it remains one of Iraq's most corrupt and inept institutions. Yet when the Majlis an-Nuwwāb al-Irāqiyy (council of representatives, or parliament) sought to oust the minister from his position on account of the wholesale corruption in the institution, al-Maliki came to his defence and sought to prevent him from being prosecuted for wholesale corruption. The finance ministry, which is run by the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, has not produced closing accounts for the annual state budget for four years. 

Even more seriously, Iraq's ruling elite has paid almost no attention to Iraq's deteriorating environment and water resources - at a time when desertification is out of control, the agricultural sector is being ravaged and the country is being smothered by almost permanent dust-storms. Iraq's environment has deteriorated in the past few years to such an extent that for the first time in living memory entire villages and towns are being abandoned and their inhabitants forced into internal-displacement (IDP) camps by drought and desertification. The longer the current group of parties maintains its stranglehold on power, the more likely it is that this damage will become permanent. 

A factor of institutional corruption is that there is no proper legal regulation of the management and financing of political parties; as a result there is nothing to stop Iraqi parties from seeking funds from neighbouring countries, and coming under their influence. The Iraqi government has also failed to enforce rules that forbid senior officials from maintaining dual citizenship; more than half of the current government's ministers hold foreign passports, and it is widely believed that most would be willing to abandon Iraq if it suited their interests. 

The parties and individuals that make up the alliance and the al-Maliki government, as well as most of the parties represented in the council of representatives, are collectively responsible for Iraq's appalling social situation. As the United States military continues its scheduled withdrawal, their failure will become ever more apparent. So long as the governing elite draws on the same group of politicians, it is difficult to imagine any particular alliance making a great difference.  

The Kurdish example

Iraq's present governing elite is as corrupt as the occupation that ultimately brought it to power. In this bleak situation, the sudden appearance of two major opposition alliances in the Kurdistan region offers a glimmer of hope. 

The Change Alliance and the Reform Alliance together have managed to break the duopoly of power long maintained in Kurdistan by the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) - in the election of 25 July 2009, the combined share of power of the two established groups fell from 95% to 57%. The two new alliances subsequently rejected an invitation to join the Kurdistan regional government (KRG), opting instead to serve the people by working in opposition to expose the KDP and PUK's corrupt and inefficient government through their offices in the Kurdish parliament. This refusal to be co-opted is a further sign of political maturity.

It seems that in the rest of Iraq, parties are incapable of long-term planning of this nature; they find the lure of power and of control over a ministry's funds too tempting to resist. 

The Kurdish region is distinct in another way: it benefits from strong security and from a near-total absence of foreign troops and influence. Perhaps change in the rest of Iraq will only come once these two conditions are matched in Baghdad. But the formation of new alliances between old parties that have bled Iraq dry will not be an agent of the change Iraqis need. A serious improvement in Iraqis' lives will only become possible when Iraq's corrupt ruling parties are finally removed from power.

Among openDemocracy's many articles on Iraq's politics and conflicts:

Sami Zubaida, "The rise and fall of civil society in Iraq" (5 February 2003)

Peter Sluglett, "Iraq's short century: old problems, new perspectives" (3 June 2003)

Fred Halliday, "Looking back on Saddam Hussein" (7 January 2004)

Sami Zubaida, "Democracy, Iraq and the middle east" (18 November 2005)

Sami Ramadani, "Iraq: not civil war, occupation" (7 December 2006)

Tareq Y Ismael, "The ghost of Saddam Hussein" (30 January 2007)

Volker Perthes, "Iraq in 2012: four scenarios" (11 September 2007)

Charles Tripp, "Iraq: the politics of the local" (25 January 2008)

Safa A Hussein, "Iraq's political space" (18 February 2008)

Robert Springborg, "Uncle Sam in Iraq: the war of narratives" (20 March 2008)

Reidar Visser, "Basra's second battle decoded" (31 March 2008)

Reidar Visser, "The United States and Iraq: still getting it wrong" (3 October 2008)

Fred Halliday, "The futures of Iraq" (4 December 2008)

Joost R Hiltermann, "Iraq's elections: winners, losers, and what's next" (10 February 2009)

Iraq: face of corruption, mask of politics

The United States's military evacuation of Iraq‘s cities on 30 June 2009, the beginning of its overall withdrawal from the country, also offers an opportunity to heal the many wounds that have been inflicted on Iraq's people. But even for those of us who have argued that a failure to withdraw would be tantamount to continuing on the road to hell, a number of fundamental issues weigh heavily on our minds now that the occupation may be ending.Zaid Al-Ali is an attorney at the New York Bar and specialises in international commercial arbitration. He has graduated from King's College London, the Sorbonne University in Paris and Harvard Law School. He is currently writing a book on the Iraqi constitution with Jõrg Fedtke, to be published in 2009

Among Zaid Al-Ali's articles in openDemocracy:

"Iraq: the lost generation" (7 November 2004)

"Iraq's dangerous elections" (23 December 2004)

"The end of secularism in Iraq" (18 May 2005)

"Lebanon's pre-election hangover" (27 May 2005)

"Iraq: a constitution or an epitaph?" (16 August 2005)

"Iraq: a constitution to nowhere" (14 October 2005)

"Iraq's war of elimination" (21 August 2006)

"Saving Iraq: a critique of Peter W Galbraith" (26 October 2006)

"Lebanon on the brink - but of what?" (18 December 2006)

"The United States in Iraq: the case for withdrawal" (19 January 2007)

"Iraqis in freefall" (21 March 2007)

"Iraq: a wall to conquer us" (7 May 2007)

"Lebanon's Palestinian shame" (19 June 2007)

"What Obama means for Iraq" (13 November 2008)

"The Cairo speech: Arab Muslim voices" (8 June 2009) - with Karim Kasim 

No one can be certain whether sectarian tensions will re-emerge, and whether a semblance of law and order will be maintained. One thing is certain, however: the political class that is currently in control of Iraq, perhaps the most corrupt and incompetent that the country has ever seen, will have to be purged in some way if we are ever to reduce the massive levels of poverty and the awful state of public services. This may take care of itself: some of the most risk-averse amongst these corrupt officials have already begun packing their bags in anticipation of the pullout.

Everyone understands that corruption must be brought under control - even senior Iraqi officials, who in fact care little for the welfare of their people but would like to maintain the appearance that they do; hence the publicity that has been given to the window-dressing efforts made by some institutions in the first half of 2009. The most transparent of these is the initiative launched by the Iraqi parliament to exercise oversight over ministries that are suspected of financial and administrative oversight. At a distance, a victory for transparent government was achieved: the minister of trade - popularly believed to be amongst the most corrupt of Iraq's ministers - was forced to resign and is now being prosecuted for massive fraud (see Patrick Cockburn, "Iraq faces the mother of all corruption scandals", Independent, 29 May 2009).

Upon closer inspection however, there is no escaping the conclusion that very little if anything will change, and that individual ministers and political parties will continue making use of the institutions that they control as private bank-accounts.

A corrupt reconstruction

The breach through which Iraq's public funds are flooding wasn't opened in 2003. Corruption was already a problem prior to the invasion, but it took on a new dimension under the American occupation. At least three separate factors contributed to this phenomenon. The first was the failure to establish any type of financial or quality control on "reconstruction" work in the post-war period. Foreign contractors could not help but to notice what was happening and quickly sought to take advantage. There are documented accounts of the massive amounts that were spent on bribery, no-bid contracts, construction projects that led absolutely nowhere, of American officials who would force Iraqis to overbid for contracts and then pocket much of the profit for themselves. All this took place in plain view of the Iraqi population, who were encouraged to take part, and who quickly understood that money and not ideology was the prize of the post-war period.

The second step came as the United States and its allies sought to remake the Iraqi state immediately after the invasion. Ideally, the construction or reconstruction of a state should either be the fruit of a long evolution of ideas and practices over time, or should be the result of a deliberate effort to build a cohesive and efficient governmental structure in which each institution plays a specific role (whether in terms of implementation, planning or oversight) and no gaps are left open, while at the same time ensuring that whatever practices and traditions that exist in the country in question are taken into account.

The destruction and reconstruction of the Iraqi state proceeded along completely different lines: a reactionary approach began by encouraging the dismantling of any institution or body that was under the control of the Ba'ath party, regardless of what role that institution actually played and whether it functioned efficiently or not, and went on to establish a constitutional framework that was designed merely to be the opposite of the previous set-up, in the hope that this would prevent a recurrence of the mistakes of the past. Little thought was given to whether what resulted actually amounted to a coherent state structure, and whether it was in keeping with Iraqi working methods and traditions.

As it turns out, the structure was neither cohesive nor coherent, and many Iraqi public servants resisted the changes that were brought about, causing a breakdown in the cycle of planning, implementation and oversight. This opening was deliberately exploited and maintained for years by the state's new guardians.

Thus, the occupation authorities either completely abolished (as was the case for the Revolutionary Command Council) or dissolved a number of institutions and replaced them by completely new structures (mostly famously, the Iraqi army, but also a number of political institutions, including the ministry of interior and the parliament). These institutions were considered to have been so tainted by the Ba'ath party that nothing could or should be salvaged from them, including individual staff members that had been responsible for administration matters only; as a result,  whatever procedures, know-how or expertise that had been developed drained away.

Inevitably, it was the replacement institutions that have had the most trouble in standing on their own two feet - given their staff's lack of training and experience, and the failure to retain any of the working methods that had been established under the previous regime, and the corresponding and desperate attempts to reinvent the wheel. This was the case for the parliament, which was dissolved and replaced by an entirely new structure. Not one staff member was retained and the institution has been trying to pick up the pieces since.

On the other hand, most non-political, professional state agencies and institutions were maintained, with either slight or significant modifications to their legal regime. This applies to the Board of Supreme Audit (BSA, Iraq's top audit institution), which was established by law in 1927, and which is responsible for auditing the government's implementation of the annual state budget. The BSA is a generally respected body which had previously contributed to efforts to keep inefficiency and corruption under control. The BSA was allowed to continue functioning after 2003 first by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and then by the new Iraqi state by virtue of the new constitution, which for the first time actually elevated its state to a constitutionally recognised institution.

Its staff (some of which have been auditing government accounts for decades) was retained and was even trained in the application of international best practice. The reform that the CPA enacted was to take away from the BSA the possibility of referring matters of corruption directly to the courts. Referrals had to go to the Commission on Integrity, an American creation, which has so far been among the most toothless of all of Iraq's agencies.

Among openDemocracy's many articles on Iraq's politics and conflicts:

Sami Zubaida, "The rise and fall of civil society in Iraq" (5 February 2003)

Peter Sluglett, "Iraq's short century: old problems, new perspectives" (3 June 2003)

Fred Halliday, "Looking back on Saddam Hussein" (7 January 2004)

Zaid Al-Ali, "The end of secularism in Iraq" (18 May 2005)

Zaid Al-Ali, "Iraq: a constitution or an epitaph?" (16 August 2005)

Sami Zubaida, "Democracy, Iraq and the middle east" (18 November 2005)

Zaid Al-Ali, "Iraq's war of elimination" (21 August 2006)

Sami Ramadani, "Iraq: not civil war, occupation" (7 December 2006)

Tareq Y Ismael, "The ghost of Saddam Hussein" (30 January 2007)

Zaid Al-Ali, "Iraqis in freefall" (21 March 2007)

Volker Perthes, "Iraq in 2012: four scenarios" (11 September 2007)

Charles Tripp, "Iraq: the politics of the local" (25 January 2008)

Safa A Hussein, "Iraq's political space" (18 February 2008)

Robert Springborg, "Uncle Sam in Iraq: the war of narratives" (20 March 2008)

Reidar Visser, "Basra's second battle decoded" (31 March 2008)

Reidar Visser, "The United States and Iraq: still getting it wrong" (3 October 2008)

Fred Halliday, "The futures of Iraq" (4 December 2008)

Joost R Hiltermann, "Iraq's elections: winners, losers, and what's next" (10 February 2009)
The second volley came when efforts began to draft Iraq's interim constitution in 2004 and then its permanent constitution in 2005. Many of the parties that took part in the process were motivated partly by a desire to prevent the recurrence of the previous regime's disastrously poor performance and its endless crimes. The result was a text that was often reactionary in nature, and that made no attempt to reconcile the generally (albeit not universally) accepted image amongst Iraqis of what their state should look like with the justifiable need for constitutional safeguards.

Thus, where the state had previously been highly centralised, a very loose federal regime was provided for. Also, in order to prevent the tyranny of a powerful prime minister or president, both were placed under the authority of what is probably one of the Arab region's strongest parliamentary systems. Little thought was given as to whether these arrangements would be acceptable to the Iraqi people (we have now learned that they are not) and to those institutions and officials that survived the state's restructuring.

A breach that can't be closed

Despite these new arrangements, traditions die hard in Iraq and there has been much resistance to the new constitution from a number of institutions, including the government, and even from within the parliament itself. Iraq had long been a command economy with little consideration given to counterbalancing the planning and expenditure of the state budget with local political concerns. The ministry of finance's bureaucrats would prepare the annual state budget, which would be approved by the state's various structures without much debate. According to the 2006 constitution, the Iraqi parliament now has an important role to play in that process, but the ministry of finance considers the parliament to be little more than an annoying distraction that is populated by unskilled and self-serving politicians, and treats it with a corresponding amount of contempt.

Other institutions that predate 2003 have also resisted change, including the BSA itself. The BSA has traditionally been answerable and has reported to the executive branch of government, but article 103(2) of the 2006 constitution shifted reporting lines in favour of the parliament. In turn, under the new system, the parliament is supposed to act upon any information provided to it by the BSA and hold the government accountable if any irregularities are noted. However, BSA officials view the parliament as an upstart institution with no sense or understanding of what oversight means, and therefore have underplayed their relationship with both individual MPs, legislative and oversight committees and with the institution as a whole.

With both the government and oversight institutions refusing to cooperate with the legislature under the terms of the new constitutional arrangement, and with a culture of corruption that was quickly spiralling out of control, many saw the breach that had opened up as an opportunity that could not be missed: the chance to run a government with no oversight whatsoever. In order to ensure that this breach would not be closed, several of the state's vital institutions were commandeered right from the start, specifically in order to prevent them from developing their capabilities and from carrying out their functions.

When the current government was formed in 2006, it was the result of a coalition of a majority of the parties that are represented in parliament. Several of this coalition's key partners occupied key posts within the state structure (including the speaker's post in parliament) and worked together to prevent any interference in whatever it was that the government was doing. Since then, several of the coalition's key partners have broken away (including the followers of Muqtada al-Sadr (Sadrists) and the Islamic Party), as a result of which the government now represents only a minority of parliament. In one way or another however, it has until recently continued to dominate the state's key positions.

The result is that when parliamentarians insisted that the ministry of finance should address their comments to the draft annual budget law, the parliamentary speaker would take the ministry's side and force a resolution in favour of the latter. Also, whenever members of the parliamentary majority requested that a government official provide evidence in relation to specific policies, the speaker would also intervene to prevent any questioning from taking place. This institutional breakdown led to a complete absence of oversight on government for more than three years. From 2006-2009, not a single government official was called to be questioned before parliament.

A number of key factors meant that the parliament also failed to legislate and regulate. Most importantly, there is still no legal framework for the functioning and financing of political parties in Iraq. The Independent High Electoral Commission is the only institution to have established a set of rules in relation to how political parties should raise, invest and handle money, and whether political parties can be associated to foreign nations or militias, but the enforceability of these rules is questionable at best. The parliament has not filled the vacuum, as a result of which no one knows where Iraq's many political parties raise their money from. Virtually none maintain accounts that are worthy of the name, and there is no question that public funds illicitly find their way into parties' coffers, and into private bank-accounts in neighbouring countries or even further afield.

Another failure was to clarify the mandate of key anti-corruption bodies, including the BSA, the Commission on Integrity and the inspectors-general. Some of these institutions stand on such fragile ground that their effectiveness has been seriously compromised. By way of example, each ministry has an inspector-general that acts as an internal auditor and through which the BSA must pass if it is to refer an act of corruption to the applicable authorities. However, there is as of yet no overseeing institution which regulates their work, no requirement for the inspector-generals to communicate with each other or share lessons learned, no set of standards that they are forced to apply, nor is their independence from the relevant minister particularly clear either. Just as pathetic is the BSA, which produces detailed audit reports in relation to each of the government's various bodies, all of which fall onto deaf ears: the parliament is responsible for acting upon the reports but has probably never reviewed a single one.

In that context, it was an open secret that the ministry of trade, which is responsible for procuring basic foodstuffs that form the backbone of the country's rationing system, was either wasting or haemorrhaging around 70% of its budget. The ministry's inspector-general had raised some questions with the minister and was reassigned to a post in China shortly thereafter. When law-enforcement officials presented themselves at the ministry to make nine arrests in relation to accusations of corruption, a gunfight erupted and they only made off with one of the suspects. Other ministries were not much better but their exploits were not as visible. In any event, the theft and waste of billions of dollars of public money was allowed to continue unfettered.

A play on corruption

For the past few years, there has been a tacit agreement amongst all of Iraq's ruling parties that the state's assets are to be shared jointly between them and that whatever remains will go to the public. This is to the extent that any talk of a minister being prosecuted was never evidence of a crackdown on graft, but of an agreement (tacit or otherwise) amongst all other senior politicians that the target of the investigation should be shut out of the collective for whatever reason. Those anti-corruption officials that insisted that the rule of law should be upheld regardless have invariably been killed or forced into exile.

The ground started shifting around January 2009, when the authority of prime minister Nouri al-Maliki over various state institutions became more assertive, and as a number of political groups outside government began fearing for their survival. Their fears were underlined by the results of the local elections in February 2009 in which Maliki's Dawa party made great strides, often to the detriment of what had previously been powerful rival parties. The losers included the Fadhila (Virtue) Party (which had previously controlled local government in Basra but which was practically wiped out in the local elections), and the Iraqi Islamic Party (which also lost a large amount of ground in all the provinces that it was contesting). These same parties, fearing that the local results would be reflected at the national level in the parliamentary elections that are due to take place in January 2010 opted for a new strategy, which involved using the constitution and the political process to punish their opponents.

The first step involved asserting their authority over the parliament, which wasn't difficult as they still controlled a majority of seats. The previous speaker, who was one of the government's allies in parliament and who had prevented the legislature from exercising any oversight over government for almost three years, was ousted in December 2008 to the delight of most MPs who had grown exasperated of his incompetent administration. Ayad al-Samarrai, of the Iraqi Islamic Party, was the main candidate to replace him, because of his reputation for professionalism and efficiency, but also because of the fact that he was a leading member of the parliamentary majority and therefore of the opposition to the government. Al-Maliki saw in him a potentially dangerous opponent, and did what he could to oppose his appointment but only managed to delay it by a few months. Al-Samarrai was elected in April  2009 and the floodgates were opened for the parliament to be used as a political weapon by the losers of the local elections against the winners.

Soon after, the parliament called a senior government official, Faleh al-Sudani, the minister of trade and a member of the Dawa party, for the first time before a plenary session to answer a series of questions relating to allegations of corruption. The minister arrogantly refused to answer certain questions and appeared not to be taking the entire process seriously. He had clearly misread the signs: his assumption was that the arrangement that had been in place for the past three years remained in place, and that the government would come to his defence. It had not dawned upon him that the parliamentary majority was fighting for its political survival and that they were using their institution to eliminate their rivals. Al-Sudani soon came to understand however: he resigned on 25 May 2009, was arrested five days later while attempting to flee the country and is currently awaiting trial for financial and administrative corruption. It was the first time in years that a minister had been charged with corruption.

The parliament has since indicated that it will call the ministers of foreign affairs, natural resources, finance, transport, and interior, amongst others to answer charges of mismanagement of public funds and/or sub-standard performance. The government baulked at what it says will amount to an insurmountable interference in its work and of what it sees as a politicisation of the oversight process. Counter-accusations that the government was seeking to avoid any further accounting were offered. Khaled al-Attiyah, the government's most senior ally in parliament, bluntly accused3 the "losers" of the local elections of seeking to punish the "winners".

He was right, and that is precisely what is wrong with the parliament's sudden reinvigoration. The new Iraqi system of oversight is vaguely based on the Westminster model, but in the latter ministers are never called to provide evidence before any of the House of Commons's committees (including the powerful public-accounts committee) precisely in order to avoid a politicisation (or even an appearance of politicisation) of the process. It is taken for granted that the government would come to the defence of any one of its members, which would cause the entire system to collapse. Instead, public servants, who remain in their posts regardless of who is in power, are called to provide evidence mostly in order to discuss the efficiency of their ministry's work and whether the taxpayer has obtained value for money.

In Iraq, oversight has taken on a completely different dimension. The key facts that corruption is the result of both an institutional and legislative breach, that that breach is deliberately being kept open by the powers that be, and that those same powers are willing to defend their prize with violence, made it pointless for the parliamentary majority to deal with corruption's outward manifestation without first dealing with the underlying cause. It should have been obvious that the breach would merely be filled by someone else. A more effective approach, which would also have helped it avoid accusations of electoral posturing, would have been to reduce opportunities for corruption by requiring all political parties, politicians and officials to declare their financial interests, by setting out the procedures that are to be followed by anti-corruption bodies, while at the same time defending their independence from the bodies that they are overseeing.

Instead, the parliamentary majority sought to force its main opponents out of office and into prison without making significant progress on any of these issues. Therefore what many saw as a victory for parliamentary oversight and for governmental accountability was actually nothing more than a political vendetta, which will have no impact on the public wellbeing

It was a declaration of war, and an answer came on 12 June 2009, when Harith al-Ubaidi, one of Samarai's closest associates, became the first Iraqi MP in years to be assassinated. He was killed just after Friday prayers by a lone gunman, who later blew himself up as he was being apprehended by al-Ubaidi's bodyguards. Whoever the killers were, there is no question that they were at least partly motivated by a desire to convince politicians and observers that the murder was retribution for Faleh al-Sudani's arrest. Since then, the parliament's enthusiasm to question ministers has been curbed.

Just as stability and democracy in Iraq could never be the by-product of a self-interested and twisted occupation, no one should expect corruption to be reduced in Iraq through the efforts of a group of political parties to remain relevant by imprisoning their rivals. The only solution is to rebuild institutions from the bottom up, and to fill the legal and regulatory breach that has been opened. All the better that the occupation will be coming to an end, so that progress can be made in the absence of its external interference and imposed incompetence.


The Cairo speech: Arab Muslim voices

A visit by an American president to the Arab world might not in normal circumstances be of great importance to the majority of people in the region. There is still much suspicion towards the United States in the middle east, and this tends to be reflected in indifference to the appearance of a head of state of the country in its midst.

Karim Kasim is a researcher in development and political science at the American University in Cairo (AUC). He has been working on ICT for development in Lebanon, Egypt and elsewhere in the middle east. He is involved in a number of local initiatives, including youth work, activism, volunteer work and intercultural learning

Zaid Al-Ali is an attorney at the New York Bar and specialises in international commercial arbitration. He graduated from King's College London, the Sorbonne University in Paris and Harvard Law School

Among Zaid Al-Ali's articles in openDemocracy:

"Iraq: the lost generation" (7 November 2004)

"Iraq's war of elimination" (21 August 2006)

"The United States in Iraq: the case for withdrawal" (19 January 2007)

"Iraqis in freefall" (21 March 2007)

"Iraq: a wall to conquer us" (8 May 2007)

"Lebanon's Palestinian shame" (19 June 2007)

"What Obama means for Iraq" (13 November 2008)

"Lebanon: chronicles of an attempted suicide" (20 May 2009)
But these are not normal times. President Barack Obama's persona had already engaged great interest among Arabs, but his address in Cairo on 4 June 2009 on the Muslim world and the "new beginning" he seeks to forge with it has captivated them. In more concrete terms, Obama's visit has reinforced what has been evident for some time: a feeling of hope that a president with his background will tilt American policy in favour of popular will and against oppression in Palestine, Iraq and the region as a whole. 

There is widespread agreement that the speech is unlikely to be followed by sudden changes; and indeed that no single individual - even the president - can decisively shift American policy. But a space has opened, and - as this brief article shows - Arab Muslims (as well those elsewhere) are filling it with their ideas.


In the days before the speech, Cairo residents were more concerned by the draconian security measures they were sure would be imposed on 4 June. As a result, many opted to stay at home. Yet even then, Obama's message - its timing, substance and likely reception - were very much on people's minds. 

"Turkey did not work, so he is trying Egypt", said Ashraf Qadah, a philosophy graduate. "I am afraid that it is going to be a speech that starts and ends in Cairo. Obama's address will be a public-relations matter that will go nowhere after Obama leaves the city", he added. 

Aseel, a young Iraqi, expressed little hope that things would change as a result of the visit and speech. Her logic was in part that "(Obama) chose to give his speech in Egypt, which is under the thumb of an aging autocrat who embodies the antithesis of hope and change".

Many Egyptians posed a question that reflected Aseel's concerns: namely which Muslim world is Obama going to speak to - Arab Muslim regimes, Muslim societies at large, or opposition political parties (especially those with Islamic inclinations)? Others were unnerved by the fact that the impending message was directed specifically towards Muslims - which set the target audience apart from the many religious minorities that exist throughout the Islamic world, many of whom share Muslims' animosity towards US policies.  This point is underlined by the event's location: Egypt is home to the largest Christian community in the Arab world.

But Adel El Zaim, a Lebanese-Canadian living in Cairo, insisted that the visit itself was a source of hope. The president "has not waited until the end of his mandate to launch a peace initiative, like George W Bush", he said. "The visit is also a milestone in the relationship between the United States and the Arab Muslim world. It will help build the lost trust between the two sides - a first step that must be followed by several others."

There is indeed some surprise at such an early move toward the Muslim world. "I know Obama's attitude towards the region has been quite positive - more so than I expected" said Maha Bali, a technologist at the American University in Cairo. Kismet El-Husseiny, an economics graduate, was more sceptical: for Obama it is an opportunity to make "small promises that are not too hard to keep, but will be delivered in a way that makes them impressive."


Barack Obama's speech was broadcast live on dozens of channels throughout the middle east (and was reprinted in full in many newspapers the day after). Life went on: streets across the region were as ever filled with people, and traffic doesn't stop in Arab capitals. But large numbers did listen to or watch the broadcast, often grouped together in cafes or conference rooms. The event brought Arabs from Morocco to Iraq together and captured their attention in a way that is usually reserved for major sporting events - or the start of a war.

The reaction, more uniform than the anticipation, was greatly positive - though with questions about how much change Obama could really deliver. Abdullah, an academic in a Lebanese university, expressed the view that Obama's speech "is a historical opportunity for the Arab region. I wish that Arabs would take an initiative of their own to seize the opportunities that Obama is presenting. What he said is in line with our way of thinking and the initiatives he announced were inspiring." 

On the US president's efforts to build bridges between western and Islamic civilisations, Abdullah added that "Obama gave more credit to Arab and Islamic contributions than Arabs themselves do. He also delivered an important blow to Islamic fundamentalists: whereas previously many Arabs and Muslims were convinced that the west was no ally to them, Obama showed them that in him they have a friend". 

Yasmine, an employee of an international organisation in Beirut, was less impressed by the substance of the speech than by the fact that a president of the United States shared many of her own views and ideas. "We've heard all this before, but not from a president", she said.

What little criticism there was focused on the Israeli-Arab peace process. "He didn't call for the settlements [in the Palestinian territories] to be dismantled. He merely said that construction must stop. How can a Palestinian state be established if the settlements that are already there remain?" asked Hani, a Syrian economics graduate. "Obama has no leeway with the Israelis. They will force him to backtrack", said Samir, a Lebanese resident of Saudi Arabia. 

There is substantive agreement between Barack Obama himself and most of the Arab public that the true test of the speech is whether specific changes in US policy with regard to Palestine and the rest of the Arab Muslim world follow - including the commitments over Iraq. Abbas, a public official in Iraq, sums up the mood of the moment: "Obama's achievement for now is to have opened the door for much-needed change, and to contribute to the efforts of many in the Arab and Islamic worlds to encourage tolerance and understanding". 

What will these Arab voices think in six months' time? We hope to ask them and report on our findings.

Also in openDemocracy on Barack Obama and the world:

John C Hulsman, "Memo to Obama: the middle east needs you" (11 November 2008)

Zaid Al-Ali, "What Obama means for Iraq" (13 November 2008)

Prince Hassan of Jordan, "The failure of force: an alternative option" (16 January 2009)

openDemocracy, "Barack Obama: hope, fear... advice" (20 January 2009)

Pervez Hoodbhoy, "Barack Obama's triple test" (21 January 2009)

Fred Halliday, "The greater middle east: Obama's six problems" (21 January 2009)

Tarek Osman, "The Islamic world, the United States, democracy" (15 May 2009)

Robert G Rabil, "Barack Obama's middle east: pragmatism and hope" (1 June 2009)

Nader Hashemi, "What Obama must say (and do) in Egypt" (3 June 2009)

Kanishk Tharoor, "Obama's speech in Cairo: live blog" (4 June 2009)

Lebanon: chronicles of an attempted suicide

On 8 May 2008, hours after the beginning of Lebanon's latest civil war, a storm swept into the capital from the seas. At first it threatened Beirut's coastline with streaking bolts of lightning; then, as the fighting intensified in the city, went on to rampage through its streets with such merciless ferocity that fighters were forced to seek shelter and atheists feared the wrath of God.  

Earlier that evening, shooting and bombings could be heard in the majority of Beirut's districts, including in prosperous Verdun. But who was being targeted: Nabih Berri, the speaker of the Lebanese parliament and one of the Islamist movement Hizbollah's strongest allies - or one of Saad Hariri's men? Zaid Al-Ali is an attorney at the New York Bar and specialises in international commercial arbitration. He has graduated from King's College London, the Sorbonne University in Paris and Harvard Law School. He is currently writing a book on the Iraqi constitution with Jõrg Fedtke, to be published in 2009.

Among Zaid Al-Ali's articles in openDemocracy:

"What Obama means for Iraq" (13 November 2008)

"Lebanon on the brink - but of what?" (18 December 2006)

"Iraqis in freefall" (21 March 2007)

"Iraq: a wall to conquer us" (7 May 2007)

"Iraq: the lost generation" (7 November 2004)

"Iraq's dangerous elections" (23 December 2004)

"The end of secularism in Iraq" (18 May 2005)                           "Lebanon's pre-election hangover" (27 May 2005)                        

"Iraq: a constitution or an epitaph?" (16 August 2005)

"Iraq: a constitution to nowhere" (14 October 2005)

"Iraq's war of elimination" (21 August 2006)

"Saving Iraq: a critique of Peter W Galbraith" (26 October 2006)

"The United States in Iraq: the case for withdrawal" (19 January 2007)

"Lebanon's Palestinian shame" (19 June 2007)

Some fighting occurred within the hallways of the famed and imposing Yacoubian building in the Caracas district. A shot was fired at a group of opposition supporters near Hamra Street, killing its intended target. The victim's comrades wasted no time grieving; within minutes they forced their enemies to abandon their positions. The sound of shots and bombs echoed against multi-storey buildings throughout the city, amid widespread confusion as to who was shooting and who was being targeted. Makeshift roadblocks sprung up everywhere.  

Beirut's citizens were once again caught in the middle of a battle that they had very little to gain from. As the storm brought a moment's respite, many reflected that the hatred again tearing their city apart was as much the result of a contrived and outdated constitutional framework and of regional and international powers that was pushing the country to war. The consequences of what was about to happen also weighed heavily on their minds. The Lebanese have seen many conflicts over the past few decades - most destructively the civil war of 1975-90 - but what type would this one be? Would there be snipers on every rooftop? Would gangs control the streets, burst into buildings, murder and steal at random?  

The divide

Lebanon's political spectrum has since 2005 been split sharply into two rival camps. The "March 14" camp - named after what is perhaps the largest demonstration in Lebanese history, held a month after the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri on 14 February 2005 - is led by the Future Movement, an archetypal oligarchical party headed by Rafiq's son, Saad.

Fouad Siniora, Lebanon's prime minister since July 2005, is one of the Hariri family's closest confidants. He was minister of finance during a large part of the 1990s, a period when Lebanon's sovereign debt increased at a crippling pace (indeed, almost unprecedented in international finance, and matched perhaps only by the spectacular increase in Hariri's personal fortune).

The March 14 movement also includes former militias that are remembered mostly for their brutal behaviour during the country's fifteen-year civil war. Most of its components were at one point or another allies of Syria; but in late 2004, a converging of interests permitted them to cement an anti-Syrian coalition. March 14 obtained a majority of seats in the elections of May-June 2005, and dominated the new government.  

The "March 8" alliance, named after a rival massive demonstration, is led by Hizbollah - a movement defined by its desire to see all Lebanese lands liberated from Israeli occupation and by its deep and apparently sincere Shi'a Muslim religiosity. Until 2005, Hizbollah had enjoyed a reputation in the wider Arab world as arguably the most efficient guerrilla army in the world. Its allies include the country's largest Christian party as well as former militias that are mostly associated with cheap thuggery.  

Lebanese politics in the 2005-09 period been defined by the division between these two camps. There has been some discussion of policy issues, especially in relation to rampant corruption (blamed mostly on March 14); but the division is fuelled mostly by their respective choice of allies. 

Syria's military withdrawal from the country in 2005, was followed by a monumental if near-inevitable mistake on the part of March 14, when the movement forged an alliance with the George W Bush administration. Most Arabs blame the United States for the destruction of Palestine and Iraq, so they could barely stomach the sight of Fouad Siniora kissing Condoleezza Rice on both cheeks when she arrived in Beirut after Israel's devastating onslaught against Lebanon in July-August 2006. 

Saad Hariri has regularly touted his relationship with Washington and even expressed admiration for the democratic process in Iraq. Moreover, after one of his many meetings with senior level officials in Washington, Walid Jumblatt, a leading figure in March 14, told journalists that he was seeking "military and political assistance against Syria's indirect occupation of Lebanon". 

In the event, very little such assistance would be forthcoming; but the message to Hizbollah could not have been clearer. By so allying itself with Washington, March 14 succeeded in alienating a large segment of Lebanon without obtaining anything substantial in return. At the same time, the Bush administration and March 14 leaders were seemingly determined to snub some of the more obvious lessons of recent history: in particular, that comfortable and corrupt elites without any real motive other than greed can never defeat a young and armed movement that is motivated by revolutionary fervour.

For its part, March 14 pointed to Hizbollah's persistently cozy relationship with Syria, the hated former occupier which had stifled freedom of expression and assembly in Lebanon for years. Damascus had also played a central role in reinforcing Lebanon's corrupt form of government and appropriating the state's wealth. In addition, after the Syrians finally retreated from the country in 2005, and as the steady stream of assassinations of major figures within March 14 continued, Hizbollah was intermittently accused of participating directly or indirectly in the execution of these crimes.  

It is also no secret that Hizbollah submits to the Iranian ideology of wilaya al-faqih, which provides religious jurisprudents with authority over many key affairs of the state. In a 1997 interview, Hizbollah's secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah explained that although the group's day-to-day matters were managed by the local leadership in Lebanon, "the decision of peace and war is in the hands of the jurisconsult - not the intellectuals, researchers, scientists, and regular politicians, depending on the circumstances". The idea that a religious scholar in Iran has the power to decide whether Lebanon should engage in a war with Israel is reason enough to make many Lebanese, including many Shi'a, turn blue in the face.  

The breakdown

This divide between the two political blocs eventually led to a breakdown of state and of economy alike. This was assisted by Lebanon's outdated constitution. The text helped to crystallise the hierarchy between the country's various religious groups and to establish a modus vivendi between them. A further agreement in 1943 - the "national pact" - allocated the respective leading positions in government, and constitutional prerogatives, in rough proportion to each group's then demographic weight.

The entire arrangement was a source of great tension from the start. As the country's Shi'a population near-quadrupled in the thirty years following 1943, and no provision was made to redress the economic and political bias against them, the injustice inherent in the system became unmistakable.  Large segments of society sought to redress the framework but were confronted by their rivals' determination to defend their entrenched rights.  

A similar, equally violent struggle devastated South Africa; the eventual result after the overthrow of the apartheid system was the constitution of 1996, which established a more just and free society. The end of Lebanon's civil war saw no such transformation. Some adjustments were made to the constitutional arrangement in 1989; but the fundamentals, which reinforce divisions between society more than anything else, remain firmly in place to this day.

The divide between March 14 and March 8 did not originally stem from religious differences, but the country's underlying framework ensures that every political dispute is coloured with a sectarian brush.

openDemocracy writers analyse Lebanon's politics and conflicts:                         
Hazem Saghieh, "Rafiq al-Hariri's murder: why do Lebanese blame Syria?" (21 February 2005)                                                 Roger Scruton, "Lebanon before and after Syria" (9 March 2005)                                       Hazem Saghieh, "Lebanon's election, no solution" (20 June 2005)                              Paul Rogers, "Lebanon in the wider war" (25 July 2006)                                                Paul Rogers, "A pheonix from Lebanon's ruins" (17 August 2006)                                    
Nadim Shehadi, "Riviera vs Citadel: the battle for Lebanon" (22 August 2006)                              Paul Rogers, "Lebanon on the edge" (31 August 2006)                          
Paul Rogers, "Lebanon: the war after the war" (12 October 2006)
Alex Klaushofer, "Lebanon's two futures" (11 December 2006)                              Roger Scruton, "Lebanon: the missing perspective" (20 July 2006)

Hazem Saghieh, "Lebanon's internal struggle: two logics in combat" (19 December 2006)

Mai Ghoussoub, "Beirut and contradiction: reading the World Press Photo award" (13 February 2007)
Fred Halliday, "Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq: three crises" (22 June 2007)                                          Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, "Washington in Lebanon and Palestine: fatal manipulation" (6 August 2007)

Robert G Rabil, "Lebanon divided" (7 August 2007)

Fred Halliday, "Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq: three crises" (22 June 2007)

Vicken Cheterian, "Lebanon: short memory, system failure" (25 September 2007)                                       Hazem Saghieh, "Lebanon's '14 March': from protest to leadership" (1 April 2008)                                     Robert G Rabil, "Hizbollah and Lebanon: the curse of a state" (21 May 2008)                                      Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, "The Israel-Hizbollah prisoner-deal" (14 July 2008)

It was the war with Israel in July 2006 that initiated the breakdown in the relationship between the two camps, which itself led to the breakdown of the state itself. Soon after the war ended, March 14 accused Hizbollah of having unnecessarily provided Israel with a pretext to launch its onslaught, and argued in favour of the group's disarmament. Hizbollah countered that Israel's disproportionate attack was pre-planned, and even accused some Lebanese politicians of treachery. In December 2006, it withdrew from government to bring an end to a regime that it said prioritised western interests over anything else.   

Hizbollah argued that the constitution requires that the state must represent all sects, and noting that all Shi'a ministers had withdrawn from government, Hizbollah insisted on the government's constitutional illegitimacy and refused to recognise any of its decisions. The then president, Emile Lahoud - a staunch Hizbollah ally - agreed and refused to sign off on any orders or decrees. The parliament's speaker also declined to call the chamber into session for over two years. Hizbollah demanded that a new government of "national unity" be formed and that March 8 should be granted a third of the ministries in that government. In December 2006, it launched an open-ended sit-in which practically surrounded the governmental district. Neither side backed down, even when violent demonstrations pushed the country dangerously close to the precipice.  

By summer 2007, the crisis in Nahr El-Bared brought another round of mutual accusations. March 14 claimed that Fatah el-Islam, the terrorist organisation behind the fighting, was a creature of Syria and that it had recently been unleashed on Lebanon to destabilise the government even further. March 8 touched upon a more sensitive concern. Since 2005, there had been talk (supported by an investigative report from Seymour Hersh),that the Future Movement was forming a Sunni militia, supposedly with the support of the Saudi Arabian and United States governments. It was said that office-space and hotels were being converted into arms-caches and observation-posts. In that context, many accused March 14 of having financed and armed Fatah el-Islam itself, with the intent of creating a Sunni bulwark against Hizbollah's Shi'a forces.  That group was eventually decimated by the Lebanese army but rumours that young men were being armed in Beirut itself persisted.  

Yet another constitutional crisis emerged when the tenure of Lebanon's president, Emile Lahoud, neared its end. In Lebanon, presidents are indirectly elected by parliament, usually by consensus. By 2007, all trust between the two major camps had evaporated, and there was no agreement as to who should replace Lahoud, or even what process should be followed to elect his successor. On 23 November 2007, when the deadline for deciding on a replacement came and passed, the president's powers were transferred to the government by virtue of the constitution and until the vacuum was filled. Various initiatives were launched in the ensuing months to find some common ground.

Michel Suleiman, commander of the Lebanese armed forces, was the only candidate that both sides could agree upon. The general enjoyed a strong reputation for heading what was probably the country's only institution that remained detached from both sides. The crisis remained unresolved however as March 8 insisted that a government of national unity be formed immediately after the new president's election, whereas March 14 preferred to leave that matter until a later date.  

Month after month, with each failure to resolve the crisis, the country inched closer to anarchy. Gangs from rival camps could be seen fighting increasingly often, at first with their bare fists, then with stones, then sticks, and eventually with guns. A video broadcast on al-Jazeera showed the shocking levels of brutality that each side was leveling at the other during the street-battles. The army intervened to separate the fighters, but it could not counter the deep sense of gloom and hatred that had settled in Beirut.  

By March 2008, the country had no president; the parliament had not been in session for more than a year; the government was not recognised by around half the country; a sit-in blocked access to the governmental district; and daily street-fights were growing increasingly violent. Sunni homeowners were even refusing to sell their property to Shi'a buyers, and vice-versa. A major conflagration between March 14 and March 8 seemed inevitable.  

The declaration of war

In May 2008, March 14 perpetrated yet another major - and this time fatal - blunder. Before 2005, Hizbollah had remained detached from Lebanon's political system and concentrated almost all of its efforts on defending and liberating the country's sovereign territory from Israeli occupation and aggression. However, as the Syrians ended their unpopular occupation at the start of 2005, the balance of power in the middle east shifted sharply.

The United States had just won the battles for Fallujah and Najaf in Iraq, and a growing number of voices were clamouring for regime change in Damascus itself. Hizbollah adapted its modus operandi accordingly. The party accepted having representatives in government for the first time as a means to counter the growing tide against it and its Syrian allies.  

After its electoral success in 2005, March 14 could smell blood; it went on to seek to change in Syria with the help of Washington and some European allies. After the war in 2006, the rhetoric against Hizbollah's weapons became insistent, but March 14 failed to appreciate that by then the tide of forces had shifted away from them. After Iraq's collapse and Israel's failure against Hizbollah in 2006, American and Israeli power in the region appeared toothless. Washington's enemies were now in the ascendant and would not be shy in flexing their muscles.  

On the morning of 6 May 2008, the tension between the two camps reached breaking-point. The Lebanese government issued two decisions, which together represented the first occasion since the end of the country's civil war that a Lebanese institution, party, or group had taken positive action to curb Hizbollah's military activities. By virtue of its first decree, the government announced that it would be shutting down Hizbollah's closed-circuit communication lines (which the group has consistently claimed is a vital part of its military infrastructure).The second decree provided that the government was relieving the chief of security at the airport; this came after it had been discovered that Hizbollah had installed surveillance cameras in the area, and was designed to cut one source of Hizbollah's weapons, some of which allegedly arrived through the airport.  

The decrees - even though the government had no way of implementing them - represented a real departure from the previously accepted canon that the resistance was untouchable. Hizbollah's senior leadership decided right away that escalation was the only possible response. On the morning of 7 May, it launched a civil-disobedience campaign. The capital's major arteries were cut off with burning tires or mounds of dirt; offices and shops were closed; the airport was made inaccessible, forcing the cancellation of a number of flights.  Most people stayed at home, expecting to get back to work the next day.  

But at 20.00 that evening, the opposition's sit-in in the downtown area suddenly militarised and expanded. What in the morning had been apparently peaceful protesters were now armed militants. They moved, unopposed, into Laazarieh, a complex of buildings that included some government offices adjacent to the sit-in. They brought with them a large cache of rocket-propelled grenades, mortars, ammunition, mattresses, televisions, and food, and blocked the entrances with their cars. They were now less than 200 metres away from the government district. The country was heading towards war. 

On 8 May 2008, Lebanon awoke to learn that all major roads as well as the airport were still closed. How long would this continue; and for what purpose? The answer would come later that afternoon, when it was announced that Nasrallah would speak at 15.00 and that Hariri would respond at 19.00.  Everyone tuned in, and the full gravity of the situation immediately weighed down on them. The Hizbollah leader was frank: the government's two decisions were "a declaration of war", and any party that sought to interfere with the armed resistance against Israel would "have its hand cut off".  Nasrallah meant his words to be interpreted literally.  

It was obvious that the only way in which a conflict could be avoided would be for Saad Hariri to announce that the government had reversed its two decrees. The country remained transfixed. Every television at hand was tuned in, the streets were empty and all listened intently. Hariri appeared; his tone too was defiant. An unequivocal reversal of the decisions would not be forthcoming. The army would be allowed to decide on the matter, he said. It would not be enough to stave off disaster.

As Hariri ended his broadcast, the transition from peace to war took place within minutes. Militants descended onto the streets and blocked roads with cars, rubbish-cans, whatever they could. Before anyone could come to terms with what was happening, the bombing started. Residents rushed down to the lower floors of their buildings for fear of being crushed by collapsing rooftops.  Ordinary civilians expected the worst. Some barricaded themselves inside their homes, often relying on the protective measures that had been installed during the civil war that ended in 1990.   

That evening, a violent thunderstorm unexpectedly engulfed Beirut. For the next few hours, tanks roared along the Corniche in a frantic attempt to keep fighters from engaging each other. The situation was surreal, and many perhaps hoped that the strong winds would remind the warring factions of their fallibility and send them back home. It was not to be.  

The takeover 

The fighting that took place in the Hamra district in west Beirut was characteristic of most of what happened during those fateful days. As saad Hariri ended his television address, armed members of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party -  usually referred to in Lebanon as the Qawmiyeen ("nationalists"), and staunch Hizbollah allies, descended onto the streets of Hamra. This was the moment that they had been waiting for. The Qawmiyeen have a unique history in Lebanese history. Since the 1930s, they have advocated for a union between Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Cyprus and Iraq. Their stated modus operandi was armed revolt, exemplified in a large number of assassinations and security threats.

Although a relatively small party, they have strong local support in a number of areas, including in Hamra, where many of their militants continue to live.  It was there that they carried out Beirut's first act of resistance against Israel's occupation in 1982. During the 1990s, they had taken sides in favor of the Syrian occupation; when the Syrians were finally forced to leave in 2005, many of Qawmiyeen's old strongholds in Hamra were taken over by the Hariri family.  

From 2005-08, the Qawmiyeen watched as Hamra's main street was lined with posters and flags of the Future Movement. One day, they even woke up to discover that the plaque commemorating their act of resistance against the Israeli occupation had been splashed with blue paint, leaving no doubt as to who the culprits were (blue is the Future Movement's official colour). They watched as Saad Hariri acquired more and more property and installed sophisticated security networks in the neighbourhood. They studied how Hamra's many security guards were being replaced with young men from impoverished Sunni areas. In the event of a future conflict, the Qawmiyeen were in no doubt as to the exact individuals that would be their enemies.  

On 8 May 2008, they re-emerged in Hamra with a vengeance. Hariri's men were woefully inexperienced and were never going to be able to resist longer than a few moments. On the morning of 9 May, there was a preliminary skirmish: after both sides took a few casualties, Hariri's men dropped their weapons and either surrendered or ran. The Qawmiyeen then broke into several groups and coordinated their movements in the manner of a seasoned platoon of fighters. They went from street to street, building to building, and apartment to apartment, picking up the people that they were looking for, one by one. Some resisted, only to be met with a torrent of gunfire; others surrendered immediately on the condition that they be unharmed, a promise that was (for the most part) kept.  

As the Qawmiyeen moved through the streets, residents quickly mobilised and communicated by mobile-phone to alert each other as to what direction they were headed. They could see groups of armed men strolling calmly along what are normally congested streets. Some bystanders crossed paths with the Qawmiyeen and were quick to remark that they did not interfere in anyone's affairs. Many residents were also shocked to see some of their neighbours mobilising to provide the fighters with whatever support they could. Young men, including local shopkeepers, were seen speeding through Hamra on scooters. What were they doing? Delivering sandwiches and refreshments to the gunmen. The result of a genuine political affinity or an effort to gain favour with what was likely to be the districts' new masters?  

During the afternoon of 10 May, the Qawmiyeen made their way to Jeanne d'Arc Street, in the centre of Hamra. Before Saad Hariri's takeover in 2005, the Qawmiyeen had for years occupied an abandoned office-building there, which was sometimes even referred to as the "Qawmiyeen's base". When the Syrian occupation ended in 2005, Hariri acquired the building and had the Qawmiyeen evicted by force. Although it was perfectly legal, the evictees were less than pleased. In May 2008, the building had just been renovated and was a slick piece of work. The Qawmiyeen were aware of all the details, even the name of the security guard that lived in the building.

On 10 May, a group of six fighters positioned themselves across the street. "Ya Helou!" they shouted. "Come down now if you know what's good for you!"  They were in a bind, because the building now boasted a new steel gate that they wouldn't be able to break through. "We're telling you to come down now!" they shouted again. Someone yelled a few words from one of the top floors. No one on the ground could make out what he said, but it was clear that he wasn't ready to give himself up. The Qawmiyeen didn't hesitate: they pointed their rifles in the building's general direction and assailed it continuously. The few bystanders that were on the street ran for cover. The building's new glass façade was totally destroyed. "We'll be back, ya Helou!" they shouted, and moved on to their next target.  

Soon after, a group of residents and shopkeepers gazed upon the scarred glass in disbelief, and wondered if the hapless security guard had survived the assault. A young man suddenly ran towards them, yelling frantically: "The Qawmiyeen have their jeeps on front of the Crown Plaza! They're loading all of them onto their trucks!" Some had been wondering what was to become of the prisoners that the fighters had assembled over the past few days. They rushed to Hamra Street and saw that it was now lined with jeeps with Qawmiyeen fighters at the helm and Hariri's men sitting sheepishly at the back before being driven away. Ominous scenes, but most assumed that at least the fighting was over.  

They were mistaken. One enemy remained, and several groups of fighters could be seen converging to the east simultaneously. Civilians began calling each other frantically. "Stay away from Clemenceau! They're coming!" Walid Jumblatt, one of March 14's most important leaders, owns one of the most imposing properties in all of Beirut in Clemenceau, an area adjacent to Hamra. By virtue of his position, the Lebanese army afforded him its full protection, which meant that he was off-limits. The Qawmiyeen seemed to think otherwise. They surrounded his home, as well as the soldiers, and began firing into the air, almost certainly with the intention of intimidating their intended target. It seemed to work, as Jumblatt appeared on television a few minutes after the shooting started, frantically demanding to negotiate a settlement.  

The transformation

By late afternoon on 10 May, there was no one left to fight. Residents ventured out into the streets and were shocked by the extent to which Hamra had been transformed. Even the Future Movement's ribbons had been removed from street signs. In their place were the Qawmiyeen's flags and graffiti. At the epicentre was an abandoned petrol-station. During the country's civil war, it had been one of the Qawmiyeen's many bases and they were now back to reclaim their old territory. They stood there together, their weapons in plain view, just as they did in the 1980s. They were also present on Hamra's main crossing- points. They sat, their rifles spread across their laps, with full confidence that they were sovereign. They searched no one, and didn't ask any questions. On 11 May, when the Lebanese army declared that it would no longer tolerate the presence of armed civilians in the streets, the Qawmiyeen merely covered their weapons with a large blanket.  

The fighting in other neighbourhoods was equally swift and decisive, but was led by different groups depending on the area. By the afternoon of 11 May, groups of Amal militia fighters (Nabih Berri's outfit) drove their scooters through the abandoned streets of the Verdun district, honking their horns in unison (something akin to the Lebanese equivalent of Germans marching under the Eiffel tower). In the elite Tallat el-Khayat, muscular militants tied the Future Movement's flag to their feet and walked together in the middle of wide avenues. During the evening, they sat in plain view on the main crossing-points, the roads littered with spent shells. Residents peered numbly upon the new reality from their windows.    

During those fateful days, the Lebanese security forces had clearly defined rules of engagement, which were not to interfere in the fighting for fear that sectarian affiliation would get the better of their men and split the army apart.  They had also committed to protecting all senior politicians from both sides and all major state institutions. The result was palpable. As the Qawmiyeen strolled through Hamra, they sometimes crossed paths with groups of soldiers. Often, they bought snacks from the same vendors. The rule that they should not interfere with each other was religiously observed.     

The fighting in the capital was completely over by 11 May, though it moved on to other areas including the Chouf mountains in the next few days. The Chouf is a predominantly Druze area which overlooks many Shi'a towns in the south and east of the country - a fact that Hizbollah has long been wary of. Hizbollah and its allies took the fight to them on 11 May; the locals quickly lost control over a number of major arms caches, but their ability to mobilise and to defend themselves against the advancing forces has become a source of pride amongst pro-government forces. Walid Jumblatt however, still helplessly locked into his Beirut home, was reduced to requesting that his Druze rival and Hizbollah ally Talal Arslan negotiate a settlement with the Lebanese army.  A brave decision that served to avoid a bloodbath, some said.  A humiliation without precedent, others retorted.  

The resolution

As the fighting progressed, the Arab League quickly mobilised, calling on all sides to negotiate a settlement in Doha under the auspices of the Qatari government. The ensuing negotiations from 16-21 May resulted in a deal that saw March 14 concede in relation to almost all of the demands that the opposition had been making since 2006. The Lebanese government resigned, to be replaced by a government of national unity in which the opposition would be granted a blocking minority. The Free Patriotic Movement, the only major political party that has consistently been in opposition since the end of the civil war, would now be represented in government for the first time; and Michel Sleiman was to be elected president. 

As soon as the deal was announced, it was obvious to all that the crisis was over. The tents in the central area of Beirut were lifted within hours and the Lamborghinis that had been in their place prior to 2006 were now back. Restaurants wasted no time in reopening their doors and the people rushed to breathe life back into the heart of the city. Elsewhere, teenagers who two weeks before had been begging their parents to save them from their fear were now driving oversized SUVs at high speeds and laughing at pedestrians with utter contempt and in complete disregard for traffic police, who have long accepted that they are powerless to impose order. It was time to return to the kingdom, and in Lebanon every man is sovereign.  

For many, it seemed that everything had returned to the way it had been just a few weeks earlier; but to those who wanted to remember what the purpose of the fighting was, the writing was on the wall. During the weeks following May 2008, the streets of Hamra were lined with posters and banners, belonging either to the Qawmiyeen or to the Amal movement (also a Hizbollah ally but totally foreign to Hamra). The purpose was to remind residents who really exercised control.   

The future

Lebanon is now enjoying a moment of peace, which is exhibited both by a rebounding private sector and a much higher level of activity in the parliament and government. There is no question however that the next crisis is just around the corner. The Doha agreement served to defuse some of the tension but it did nothing to reconcile the two sides' respective political visions. The parliamentary elections on 7 June 2009 are being hotly contested, but are unlikely to produce any major changes as all of the parties that are currently in power will no doubt continue to dominate the political scene in the next parliament.  

It can be assumed that no party will deliberately pursue the path of mutual destruction. But there is still urgent need for a reconciliation process which must involve an effort to clarify what truly separates political parties from one other, and what their political disputes are truly about. A certain number of constants will not vary in Lebanon, particularly in relation to foreign policy; but these issues tend to be the ones that poison the air throughout the country.They can be summarised as follows.

Whichever camp controls Beirut, Lebanon has no choice but to maintain good official relations with Syria, its only neighbour apart from Israel, and one of its only major economic arteries. There will be no de facto or de jure union with Syria regardless of anything. The prospects of Palestinian groups reopening a front against Israel from Lebanon are extremely remote. There is no possibility of a long-term peace agreement with Israel. Hizbollah will remain armed no matter who controls the government. 

Although no serious observer or policy-maker in Lebanon will challenge these certainties in private, they are constantly debated in public to the exclusion of anything else. This too has long contributed to the tension between the country's principal rivals.  

The air in Lebanon needs to be cleared to make way for a serious debate about real issues. After more than thirty years of war and occupation, that is what its impoverished population needs. Instead, the debate is and remains about who controls the state, the parliament, the presidency, the airwaves, even individual streets. Lebanon is stuck; it needs to find a way to move.

What Obama means for Iraq

Barack Obama's victory in the election for the next president of the United States on 4 November 2008 was an undeniable symbol of progress for the entire world, including for the middle east. For months, as the opinion-polls fluctuated and Obama gradually established a perceptible lead, Arab policy- makers as well as the general public refused to believe that a man of African descent could rise to the presidency of the most powerful nation on earth. Such a sentiment in part reflected outdated attitudes that persist in the region, where one of the most common terms used to describe an African is abed (literally, slave).

Zaid Al-Ali is an attorney at the New York Bar and specialises in international commercial arbitration. He has graduated from King's College London, the Sorbonne University in Paris and Harvard Law School. He is currently writing a book on the Iraqi constitution with Jõrg Fedtke, to be published in 2009.

Among Zaid Al-Ali's articles in openDemocracy:

"Iraq's war of elimination" (21 August 2006)

"The United States in Iraq: the case for withdrawal" (19 January 2007)

"Iraqis in freefall" (21 March 2007)

"Iraq: a wall to conquer us" (7 May 2007)

In the end, the Arab world's scepticism proved unjustified: Barack Obama will be inaugurated as the successor to George W Bush on 20 January 2009. But a further aspect of its sentiment during the election period and after its outcome was known has been striking: a depressing lack of enthusiasm. Even Beirut, with its cosmopolitan and world-savvy populace, awoke to a vaguely disinterested haze the morning after Obama delivered his victory speech.

Perhaps it is not so surprising: the past few decades of American policy in the middle east, particularly the 2000-08 era, have made Arabs deeply cynical of American foreign policy. Ralph Nader's famous case that there are no Republicans or Democrats, merely "republicrats", has won many new adherents in the region.

Many middle-eastern observers do acknowledge that the past eight years have represented a major deterioration for the region in comparison with the Bill Clinton years, but this is generally attributed to a global shift that has taken place in US foreign policy, or to the US's total surrender to pro-Israel influences and interests. The result is that little or no effort is made to distinguish Republicans from Democrats. Some go even further and echo Dwight D Eisenhower's farewell warning against the "military-industrial complex" and its influence over government. Many argue and firmly believe that it is beyond the capacity of one person, even the president, to decide whether the US should engage or disengage from a war.

That view is very much the product of a sad realisation that things have never been good in the middle east (particularly in Iraq), regardless of who is US president. Iraqis care little that, for example, Republicans have dominated the White House for the past forty years, or that the US's economic policies and standards have regressed significantly under Republican presidents. They are also indifferent to the fact that it was specifically the Republican Party that was responsible for most of the devastating policy decisions that caused their suffering, including the US's support of Iraq during its war with Iran (1980-88), for the devastating onslaught upon the country in 1991, and for the invasion in 2003. For Iraqis, it is the entire American political class that is responsible - and the more the US has involved itself in their country, the worse their situation, regardless of which party is in power.

The rationale for war

The head of state of any nation will always prioritise his or her nation's interests (typically within the context of a set of legal rules), while the interests of other nations remain secondary at best. The question of how a head of state defines what lies within the country's interest is therefore paramount. It might be too much to expect that heads of state, when deciding whether to engage in a conflict, might consider the interests of humanity as a whole; but they should certainly consider the interests of their own citizens.

Also in openDemocracy on Barack Obama and the world:

John C Hulsman, "Memo to Obama: the middle east needs you" (11 November 2008)

A Wess Mitchell, "Memo to Obama: a Europe policy 3.0" (11 November 2008)

Anita Inder Singh, "Obama's Afghan challenge" (12 November 2008)

This point carries special weight in the case of the US, in light of its recent disregard for international rules and its unparalleled ability to impose its will internationally. Although Iraqis tend not to believe it, US presidents do not always agree on what is in the interest of their country, nor do they always manage to satisfy whatever interests they prioritise.

The best illustration of this from an Iraqi perspective is George W Bush's decision to invade and occupy their country. The rationale was supposedly a desire to eliminate a potential security threat (Iraq's alleged arsenal of weapons of mass destruction), to spread freedom in Iraq, and (though less explicitly stated) to reimpose American military might in the region in line with the neo-conservative vision of a "new middle east". Thus, the invasion was intended also to catalyse changes in regimes hostile to the US (principally Iran and Syria); the effect would be to make them as well as Iraq pliant to US interests (and not necessarily democratic and free).

It hardly needs emphasising that the Bush administration committed an enormous miscalculation, and proved itself incapable of achieving any of its objectives. The war is now an unequivocal financial catastrophe for the US (its long-term cost will be of the order of $3 trillion); it has led to significant military losses; it has damaged the US's military and symbolic standing in the world; and it has strengthened the hand of al-Qaida, the Taliban and Iran. It is evident that the interests of the Iraqis, who suffered terribly as a result of the invasion, were violated by the US policy; but (in light of the above point about a leader's priorities) there is no discernible link either between any of the Bush administration's ambitions and the interests of US citizens themselves.

The logic of interests

How will Barack Obama's approach differ from that of the neo-conservative cabal? The question can - drawing on the theme of how a leader calculates a country's interest - be broken down into three separate inquiries:

Also in openDemocracy on conflict and politics in Iraq:

Sami Zubaida, "The rise and fall of civil society in Iraq" (5 February 2003)

Peter Sluglett, "Iraq's short century: old problems, new perspectives" (3 June 2003)

Wendell Steavenson, "Afterwards" (12 June 2003)

Fred Halliday, "America and Arabia after Saddam" (13 May 2004)

Omar A Omar, "Kirkuk: microcosm of Iraq" (21 March 2005)

Tareq Y ismael, "The Iraq Study Group report: an assessment" (8 December 2006)

Charles Tripp, "Iraq: the politics of the local" (25 January 2008)

Safa A Hussein, "Iraq's political space" (18 February 2008)

Robert Springborg, "Uncle Sam in Iraq: the war of narratives" (19 March 2008)

Joost R Hiltermann, "Iraq, Iran and the United States: problems and prospects" (30 July 2008)

Reidar Visser, "The United States and Iraq: still getting it wrong" (3 October 2008)

* how does Obama define US interests?

* will he take the interests of other nations into account in formulating his foreign policy?

* will he be capable of achieving the objectives that he sets for himself?

Obama, in his first presidential debate with John McCain, explained his reasons for opposing the war in Iraq: "we [did] not know how much it was going to cost, what our exit strategy might be, how it would affect our relationships around the world, and whether our intelligence was sound, but also because we hadn't finished the job in Afghanistan". This echoed the influential speech he delivered at an anti-war rally in Chicago on 2 October 2002, when he also stated that "the Iraqi military is a fraction of its former strength".

The earlier, pre-war speech showed Obama to be both prescient and penetrating: able to cut through the propaganda on Iraq at a time when much of the Democratic Party and the media were parroting the Republican Party line. At the same time, both his earlier and later statements also reveal a calculating mind that clearly engaged upon a cost-benefit analysis before settling on a position.

For Obama, the war in Iraq shouldn't have taken place - but for reasons other than that it was morally or legally problematic. Rather, the US was unlikely to benefit from the venture, as the political, financial and human costs would be too high in comparison with whatever gains the US would derive. Obama's reasoning suggests that if he had been confident that the Bush administration had worked out a proper exit-strategy, and if the cost involved had in his view been clearly definable and tolerable, then he would have taken a different position.

Did Obama take the interests of Iraqis into account when deciding whether to support the conflict? The answer to this question is important in addressing another: is he the "transformational" figure that some people hope for, who would impose a compassionate foreign policy?

Some of his recent statements paint a mixed picture. The Obama plan for Iraq, posted on his campaign's website, makes a commitment to alleviating the Iraqi refugee crisis, something of a rarity for a major US politician. The plan states: "America has both a moral obligation and a responsibility for security that demands we confront Iraq's humanitarian crisis - more than five million Iraqis are refugees or are displaced inside their own country. [...] [An Obama administration] will provide at least $2 billion to expand services to Iraqi refugees in neighboring countries, and ensure that Iraqis inside their own country can find sanctuary." This is a welcome departure from the Bush administration's almost total indifference to the refugee crisis that it caused almost singlehandedly.

However, during his second presidential debate against McCain, Obama discussed sanctions on Iran and argued: "I have consistently said that, [...] Iran right now imports gasoline, even though it's an oil-producer, because its oil infrastructure has broken down. [If] we can prevent them from importing the gasoline that they need and the refined petroleum products, that starts changing their cost-benefit analysis. That starts putting the squeeze on them."

This outrageous policy, which is tantamount to recommending that the Iranian people be strangled economically, underlines the prism through US politicians view the middle east, in which there is not an Iranian people, but merely a defiant Iran. Obama's statements are particularly disturbing given how devastating the sanctions regime (1990-2003) against Iraq was to its people, and how inefficient it was in pressuring its regime.

His analysis of the status quo in Iraq is equally questionable, even if in part it reflects the constraints of engaging in a presidential election. He has argued: "I think that there's no doubt that the violence is down. I believe that that is a testimony to the troops that were sent and General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker. I think that the surge has succeeded in ways that nobody anticipated".

What is referred to as a "success" by Obama is much more likely to be the result of a successful campaign to ethnically cleanse Baghdad of one sectarian group by another in 2006-07. A report by the University of California published in September 2008 revealed (through the study of a series of night-time satellite images) that large swathes of Baghdad are completely dark at night as a result of depopulation (and not power-cuts, as the rest of the city continues to shine brightly). It has become politically unpopular in the US and sometimes even regarded as unpatriotic to question the surge or General David Petraeus, but the reality is much more complicated and far bleaker than Obama's statements suggest.

Withdrawal or bust

But if Barack Obama's familiarity with and judgment about Iraq is clearly imperfect, he does understand that the US gains nothing by extending its stay in the country. He also understands that an immediate and unconditional withdrawal is not in his country's interest, and that he must proceed with caution in order to encourage a propitious environment that will allow for a withdrawal. His plan for Iraq seeks to "encourage Iraqis to take the lead in securing their own country and making political compromises, while the responsible pace of redeployment [sixteen months, i.e. by June 2010] called for by the Obama-Biden plan offers more than enough time for Iraqi leaders to get their own house in order".

The fact that Obama accepts that the Iraq war should never have happened, and that it should end as soon as possible, is a large part of what caused so much celebration in the world on 5 November 2008. Some of his supporters have ignored Obama's reasoning and have mistaken him for a dove: but at this stage, all that matters is that he is intent on withdrawing, for whatever reasons. Many Iraqis doubt that there will ever be a withdrawal, based on the assumption that the US is somehow benefitting financially from the occupation (by secretly stealing Iraqi oil or otherwise). The truth however is that Obama has already operated his cost-benefit analysis and decided long ago that the US would be better off if the occupation ended. His convincing victory on 4 November also provided him with the mandate to implement his plan. The emerging question will be whether he can actually manage to withdraw without causing chaos in the country and in the region.

A large majority of Iraqis agree that the US must set a timetable for withdrawal, and there is no question that maintaining the occupation would merely prolong the torment that Iraqis have been living through since 2003. A withdrawal is a necessary prerequisite to stabilising the country, but Obama's task will not be an easy one, as circumstances have changed significantly since he first set out his plan. The Iraqi government has strengthened its hand and may not be interested in compromising with rival groups (many of whom have been severely weakened of late). More importantly, entering into a compromise of this nature will be hard under any circumstances and could easily fail regardless of everyone's best intentions.

The Barack Obama administration will almost certainly amount to a return to the Bill Clinton years, when chauvinistic military adventures were more infrequent and of a lesser scale than they have been since 2000, but during which United States interests were sometimes prioritised over those of weaker and more vulnerable states. For Iraqis, a calculating US president could still represent an improvement over the George W Bush years, assuming that the person doing the maths knows how to add.

Lebanon’s Palestinian shame

It's no secret that Lebanon is a country full of contradictions, and the fighting that recently broke out in the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp near Tripoli in the north of the country has served to re-emphasise that point. Three days after hostilities began on 19 May 2007, a group of young professionals working in the centre of Beirut were quick to tell me that the camp should be stormed as soon as possible and that the priority should be to eradicate the terrorists. If some Palestinians were killed in the process, then that would be a price worth paying, they said. A few hours later, I spoke with a young man who had been visiting the tent city erected in the middle of the downtown area in protest over the Lebanese government's policies. He was wearing a Palestinian scarf, and so I enquired about his nationality. "I'm Lebanese", he said, "but it would be an honour for me on this day to be Palestinian".

Iraq: a wall to conquer us

The United States plan to cantonise Baghdad follows the sectarian logic of its occupation, says Zaid Al-Ali.

Iraqis in freefall

Whatever official narratives and recovery plans say, the real experience of Iraqis since 2003 is a collapse of livelihoods under war and occupation, says Zaid Al-Ali.

The United States in Iraq: the case for withdrawal

The explosion at Mustansiriyah University that killed more than seventy people on 16 January 2007 sent a clear message: no one is safe in today's Iraq. The Iraqi government has reacted to the atrocity in a typically lethargic and dishonest manner, offering empty promises of swift justice and increased security. Meanwhile, very few observers remain hopeful that the escalation that the George W Bush administration announced on 10 January - involving the deployment of around 21,500 additional United States troops in Iraq - will improve the desperate current situation.

It is time for policymakers in the US to face up to the fact that the US occupation will never be able to achieve victory in Iraq, no matter how that goal is defined and what pattern of behaviour it entails.

This article argues that there is a clear and ineluctable causal link between the mere presence of the occupation authorities and the failure to reestablish law and order in the country. The only viable course of action is therefore that the US army should withdraw from Iraq as soon as possible. The article ends by offering some suggestions as to what measures can be taken to ensure that the country's post-occupation phase will be as peaceful and successful as possible.

Also in openDemocracy on Iraq's travails:

Sami Ramadani, "Iraq: not civil war, occupation"
(7 December 2006)

Tareq Y Ismael, "The Iraq Study Group report: an assessment"
(8 December 2006)

Paul Rogers, "Bush's surge, Iraq's insurgency" (11 January 2007)

Reidar Visser, "Washington's Iraqi "surge": where are the Iraqis? "
(12 January 2007)

A failure of reconstruction

The prerequisite to recommending a specific course of action is to offer an honest diagnosis of what has happened in Iraq since March-April 2003. Fortunately, most commentators now agree that the US occupation of Iraq, after apparent military success in the war that preceded it, got off to a very bad start. By virtue of a series of misguided administrative decisions - including the dissolution of the Iraqi army and blanket de-Ba'athification - the occupation authorities managed to destroy the Iraqi state in one fell swoop. One of the consequences of these blunders is that the US created enough space for armed groups of all kinds to mushroom across Iraq within a short period.

But this is only one part of the story. The combined effect of the US's policies in 2003 was the dismantling of the entire Iraqi state. The effect of everything that has happened since then, however, is even more disturbing. Despite all the efforts that have been made and all the monies that have been squandered, the US has clearly failed in the most important task that it had set itself: to put the pieces back together and rebuild a functioning state in Iraq.

Baghdad is now but a shadow of its former self, resembling Mogadishu more than anything else. In many areas of the country, the state is completely absent. Where the state does make its presence felt, the services that it provides have continued to deteriorate since 2003 - as if there is a cancer eating away at the heart of the state itself. The Bush administration often cites the December 2005 parliamentary elections and the drafting of the new constitution as positive developments, but they at best represent a distraction. A combination of reasons is often cited - sabotage, insurgency, corruption - to explain the failure to reconstruct the state, but the cause is more fundamental: it can be found in the nature of the occupation itself.

Whenever a society is occupied, the way in which it will interact with the occupying forces will be determined by a number of different factors. For example, it should be obvious that no occupation comes into existence in a historical vacuum. Indeed, the factual context in which an occupation comes into existence will have a major effect on the way the occupied society will react.

In that sense, the fact that the US occupation of Japan took place after one of the most violent wars in human history and after the use of overwhelming force against the occupied country was one of the major reasons why there was no post-war Japanese resistance to speak of (see John Dower, "A warning from history", Boston Review, February/March 2003). By contrast, the circumstances leading up to the American occupation of Vietnam led the people of that country to assume that the US was intending to replace France as a colonial power.

In that context, it is surprising how little attention observers, commentators and policymakers alike have paid to the incredibly sordid history of involvement in Iraq prior to its occupation of that country. The US has been involved in internal Iraqi affairs in different ways for at least half a century, and the more involved it has become the more disastrous the results for ordinary Iraqis. The details are often difficult to face up to, considering that we are talking about what should be the world's most important exporter of democracy and prosperity. From the start however, the US policy in relation to Iraq has been characterised by blind self-interest, inhumanity and racism.

A sordid history

Although it first became involved in Iraqi affairs through covert operations in the late 1950s, the US made its interests in the country abundantly clear during the Iraq-Iran war, when it offered billions of dollars in agricultural credits to the Iraqi regime, which was then able to divert monies to fund its costly war effort (1980-88) against Iran.

The US also provided Iraqi generals with military support during the war. On a number of occasions it supplied them with advance warning of Iranian troop movements in order to facilitate the Iraqi war effort. This was done despite the fact that the Reagan administration was already aware at that point that the Iraqis were preparing to use chemical weapons on the battlefield, which is somewhat problematic considering the US's insistence that the rules of war should be respected at all times.

When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, the US seized on the opportunity to launch a full-scale war against the Iraqi people. Hussein was given five months to withdraw, and during that time, thirty countries, led by the US, massed their armies along the Saudi-Iraqi border and in the Gulf.

In one of the negotiation sessions, James A Baker made the notorious announcement to Tariq Aziz that Iraq was going to be "bombed in the stone age". That is exactly what happened. In violation of just about every rule of war imaginable, the US and its allies destroyed every piece of infrastructure, every industrial plant, and every governmental institution within their reach, whether civilian or not. Within a few weeks, the Iraqi economy was utterly devastated - the US managed to knock Iraq, which had previously been considered a middle-income economy, back into third-world status.

To make matters worse, and in complete contempt for the people that it supposedly cared so much for, the US military for the first time used depleted uranium (DU), a type of nuclear waste, in its munitions. DU is one of the heaviest substances known to man, and it was used in order to increase the efficiency of anti-tank shells.

Southern Iraq was the main battlefield during the course of the war and it bore witness to a number of massacres: thousands of Iraqi tanks were laid to waste with DU munitions, even as they withdrew from Kuwait. The effect is that a vast swathe of southern Iraq has been transformed into a toxic wasteland. Its land and water will be contaminated for many thousands of years.

In the meantime, cancer rates and the number of malformed births amongst the already poor and downtrodden indigenous people of that area have skyrocketed. Prior to 2003, US officials dismissed the appeals by local Iraqi doctors as Ba'athist propaganda; the fact that these same doctors have continued their campaign against DU in the post-Ba'athist era has apparently left officials in the US unimpressed (see Zaid Al-Ali, "Iraq: the lost generation", 7 November 2004).

The next chapter of US-Iraqi relations proved even more deadly for the Iraqi people. After the initial invasion of Kuwait took place in August 1990, the United Nations Security Council imposed the most comprehensive sanctions regime ever devised on Iraq in order to coerce it to withdraw from the country. The rules of the sanctions regime were simple: Iraq could not import or export anything for whatever reason. The effect on Iraq's economy - which was heavily dependent on food imports and on revenues generated by its oil industry - was devastating.

After the war, the sanctions were maintained in order to encourage the Iraqi state to destroy its arsenal of non-conventional weapons. Iraq did this within months and - contrary to allegations by US officials - Iraq's non-conventional weapons programmes were never reconstructed. Nevertheless, the US decided that the sanctions should be maintained at all costs, regardless of the price that the Iraqi people would have to pay. It therefore blocked all efforts by the international community to have the sanctions lifted.

It was clear from the start of the sanctions regime that it was utterly inhuman and could not continue without causing the death of hundreds of thousands of poor Iraqis. But that is precisely what happened: after the 1991 war, poverty rates continued to increase at incredible rates, and an increasing number of Iraqis were dying from preventable diseases because of a lack of access to basic medicines.

After a significant amount of pressure, the US acquiesced in the creation of the oil-for-food programme. This mechanism was in theory designed to alleviate the suffering of poor Iraqis, but in fact just prolonged their misery. It allowed the Iraqi government to sell a limited amount of oil in order to purchase basic necessities for its population.

These limits were set according to what was calculated to be the minimum amount that each Iraqi required to survive. After it was discovered that Iraqis were still starving despite the program, the limit on the sale of oil was doubled. Then it was found that this still meant that UN sniffer-dogs were better fed than the average Iraqi, and the limit was lifted altogether. But the decision came years too late for hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who perished as a result of the hardships imposed on them. Each time, the US was the one to set the limits of the programme.

The latest chapter in the story of US-Iraqi relations started in 2003, when the US launched its unprovoked and unjustified attack on Iraq. It is now commonly accepted that the occupation that followed has served to bring yet new miseries to the most vulnerable Iraqis.

A state of corruption

Most people living in the west tend to forget this history as they were never directly affected by it. Iraqis however are acutely aware of the way that they have been violently oppressed with the connivance, complicity, or direct exercise of power by successive US administrations. In light of this knowledge, and given the context that Iraqis are living through, it is worth considering what type of person would accept to collaborate with the occupation forces in Iraq. It was clear from the start, and the way the situation has played out in practice has proven beyond any shred of a doubt, that the Iraqi government is populated by officials who are morally corrupt.

It is commonly accepted that what was left of Iraq in 2003 has now fallen apart, but insufficient attention has been paid to the fact that one of the main culprits behind this state of affairs is the Iraqi government itself. Most analysts, most notably the Iraq Study Group, have accepted the superficial narrative according to which the Iraqi government is a "government of national unity" that is "broadly representative of the Iraqi people". Others have realised that the government has failed to satisfy its obligations to reestablish the rule of law, but have instinctively attributed this failure to a lack of initiative on the part of senior Iraqi officials.

It should be obvious from the way the Iraqi state has evolved in the past three years that this narrative is completely mistaken. If Iraq has become the most corrupt country in the middle east it is not because the government is not capable of dealing with the issue - it is because the senior government officials are actually amongst the most corrupt people in the country. If violence is increasing, it is not because the government is unable to combat it, but because it is in fact involved in promoting it. If Iraq is not rife with sectarianism, it is not because Iraqis are inherently that way - far from it. It is because it was the only system on offer by a political class that depends on sectarianism to be relevant.

If the reconciliation process is failing, it is not because Iraqis are barbarians, as western commentary often suggests or implies - it is because senior politicians prefer to eliminate their opponents than to compromise. If public services are continuing to deteriorate, it is not because the government doesn't have sufficient expertise to repair them - it is because senior officials are not affected in any way, and so they don't care. And if 3,000 Iraqis continue to leave the country every day, the government fails to act not because it is incapable, but because they are disinterested - their families already live comfortably abroad anyway.

Zaid Al-Ali is an attorney at the New York Bar and specialises in international commercial arbitration. He has graduated from King's College London, the Sorbonne University in Paris and Harvard Law School. He is also the editor of

Among Zaid Al-Ali's articles on openDemocracy:

"Iraq: the lost generation"
(7 November 2004)

"Iraq's dangerous elections"
(23 December 2004)

"The end of secularism in Iraq"
(18 May 2005)

"Iraq: a constitution or an epitaph?"
(16 August 2005)

"Iraq: a constitution to nowhere"
(14 October 2005)

"Iraq's war of elimination"
(21 August 2006)

"Saving Iraq: a critique of Peter W Galbraith" (26 October 2006)

What is to be done?

There is clearly only one option available: the Iraqi government must go. But the solution cannot merely be to replace it with a different group of individuals, whether through elections or through an appointment process similar to what took place in 2004.

It is not a coincidence that the Iraqi government has evolved in the way that it has - it was unavoidable given the presence of the US occupation. And as long as the occupation remains in place, any individual Iraqi that will accept to work in government will much more likely than not be of the same stock as the individuals currently in power. The presence of the US army in Iraq has a deeply corrosive influence on Iraqi society, and this is what policy makers in the US should come to terms with. In order for Iraq to function, the US military should withdraw from the country as soon as possible.

There are many Iraqis who are competent, honest, and non-sectarian and who would be willing to rebuild their country, so long as the circumstances are correct. What this means in practice is that the US army must leave in order to create enough space for these people to contribute. Hussein al-Muayed, Jawad al-Khalissi, Abdul Hussein Sha'ban and many others have been waiting in the wings for the past four years and will continue to boycott the political process so long as the occupation remains in place. They are all household names in Iraq, respected for their integrity, their intelligence, and their non-sectarian credentials, but they remain largely unknown in the west precisely because they refuse to collaborate with the occupation.

Some would no doubt argue that a withdrawal of US troops in Iraq would merely lead to an increase in violence. I would suggest that the alternative - staying the current course and maintaining the presence of US forces in Iraq - is much more likely to lead to more violence. A withdrawal will force a realignment of political forces in Baghdad. The government would probably collapse - not an unattractive proposition - and because truly competent and honest political forces would accept to participate in the post-occupation phase, there is a strong likelihood that the political wrangling that would ensue would lead to a more effective and non-sectarian government.

In any event, if the US does decide to withdraw, it could do so and still play a constructive role by implementing certain measures that would reduce the potential for violence. It could start by offering to take all collaborators with them as they withdraw from Iraq, in the way that President Ford did when US forces withdrew from Vietnam. In that case, 150,000 Vietnamese were resettled in the US. In Iraq, the numbers would necessarily be far lower considering that the apparatus established in Baghdad is nowhere near the size of what it was in Saigon. This initiative could be financed merely by redirecting a small fraction of what it is costing the United States to maintain the occupation in place.

Today, there are no good solutions to the catastrophe that the US has created in Iraq. There are only those options that we know will lead to a further escalation of the conflict, and those that have a chance of leading to a positive conclusion. At this stage, it is certain that the deployment of additional US troops to Iraq will merely lead to more death and suffering. On the other hand, a unilateral and immediate withdrawal of US troops offers the possibility and some hope that an effective and non-sectarian system of government may emerge in the aftermath.

After all, and in the final analysis, what the Iraqi people need now is not more armies, more war, and more violence. What they need is to recover their independence and to be given the space to govern themselves, by themselves. What they want and what they need is to be free once and for all.

Lebanon on the brink - but of what?

Lebanon's internal political fractures combine with regional pressures to create a perilous moment for the country, reports Zaid Al-Ali in Beirut.

The US votes: the road ahead for Iraq

United States politicians are rethinking their options in Iraq. But would a new policy resolve or intensify the war? Zaid Al-Ali assesses Washington's evolving agenda.

Saving Iraq: a critique of Peter W Galbraith

In response to the United States's deepening predicament in Iraq, influential American voices are advocating the country's partition. Zaid Al-Ali assesses Peter W Galbraith's presentation of this case in his book "The End of Iraq."

Iraq's war of elimination

The intense sectarian violence in Baghdad is not uncontrolled but part of a conscious, organised political strategy by Shi'a and Sunni militias alike, says Zaid Al-Ali.

'Whatever happens, Hizbollah has already won'

Lebanese and their fellow Arabs are digesting the war's lessons and debating what comes next. Zaid Al-Ali, in Beirut, reports.

Hizbollah's last stand?

Both Israel and Hizbollah find themselves committed to fresh military strategies that in combination guarantee a long war, writes Zaid Al-Ali in Beirut.

What we've lost in Iraq

The effect of three years of war and occupation can be measured in the dire condition of Iraq’s economy and its people’s daily lives, says Zaid Al-Ali.

The day Iraqis have waited for

Amidst violence and insecurity, the vote for a new parliament is the most important event of the year in Iraq, says Zaid Al-Ali.

Iraq: a constitution to nowhere

The Iraqi constitution may lead to the country’s disintegration, says Zaid Al-Ali. How did Iraqis reach this point?

Iraq: a constitution or an epitaph?

Iraqi politicians have a new deadline of 22 August to reach agreement on a new constitution. Zaid Al-Ali asks if extra time can resolve fundamental differences of political principle over federalism, women, and religion.

Lebanon's pre-election hangover

Political party games are dominating the election campaign in Lebanon, but the issues of Hizbollah and Iran cannot be long avoided, says Zaid Al-Ali in Beirut.

The end of secularism in Iraq

The domination of politics by religion is a relatively recent trend in Iraq – and offers no long-term solution to Iraq’s crisis, says Zaid Al-Ali.

Iraq's dangerous elections

The planning of Iraq’s national elections in January 2005 is accompanied by extreme violence and political uncertainty. Zaid Al-Ali asks whether Shi’a divisions over participation and the extent of Iranian influence in Iraq could further inflame a dangerous situation.

Iraq - the lost generation

A young Iraqi returns to his devastated homeland and commits himself to help rebuild its future.
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