Four years after the occupation of Iraq started, many Iraqis and Americans are starting to wonder if the nightmare is finally nearing its end. In the United States, political machinations between the Democratic Party (which has been working to establish at least a nominal timetable for a withdrawal of United States troops in Iraq) and the Republicans (who have unwisely decided to side with their president) have brought hope to those that have been striving for a peaceful resolution to the most unnecessary and destructive war of recent times. Sadly, their wishes will remain unheeded because only George W Bush (and Dick Cheney) has the power to decide when the war should end, and because the Democrats remain trapped by the same intellectual and moral cowardice that led its leading representatives to vote in favour of the invasion of Iraq in the first place.
Bush, however misguided, remains a man committed to his principles and has consistently maintained that he will not withdraw from Iraq come what may. Whether or not he truly cares is anyone's guess, but the consequence of his intransigence is that Iraq will continue its rapid descent into the worst state of misery imaginable. Its people will continue to run for the hills and to flee in their thousands; new fronts between rival armed factions will continue to develop at ever increasing rates; the government will continue to crumble; and the deathrate amongst US soldiers and, especially, Iraqis will continue to rise.
Iraq's agony will last until the start of 2009, and it will only be then that we will know if the country can be saved. Barack Obama is the only candidate with both a chance of winning in the 2008 presidential elections who is also convincingly committed to withdrawing from Iraq. If he assumes the presidency in 2009, then there is at least some chance that Iraqis will finally regain their sovereignty and that they may at long last begin to pick up the pieces that Saddam Hussein and the US have left for them. On the other hand, it is more than likely that if Obama were to lose to any of the other candidates (including Hillary Clinton, whose moral integrity in relation to Iraq is just about as solid as John Kerry's) then the corrosive influence of the occupation will continue for years to come.
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.
Zaid Al-Ali is currently writing a book on the Iraqi constitution with Jõrg Fedtke; it will be published in 2009
Among Zaid Al-Ali's articles on openDemocracy:
"Iraq: the lost generation"
(7 November 2004)
"Iraqs 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)
"Iraqs 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)
"Iraqis in freefall"
(21 March 2007)
A sectarian legacy
The impact of the occupation on Iraqi society is difficult to measure, and the extent of its destructive influence may not be known for years to come. Mainly, however, US officials have successfully managed to impose their simplistic understanding of Iraqi, Arab and Middle Eastern society on the country's political system, and even on the population as a whole. True to the legacy of European colonialism, which apparently has not managed to evolve since the Sykes-Picot agreement of May 1916 was entered into, American and British officials imagined from the start that Iraqis are incapable of identifying themselves other than through the most basic and primitive of prisms - which is to say, race and religion.
This manner of thinking was imposed on the country, regardless of whether or not Iraqis were in favor. Shortly after the start of the occupation in 2003, the US occupation established the Iraqi Governing Council, Iraq's first-ever sectarian government. Twelve ministries were reserved for the majority Shi'a community, five for the Sunnis, five for the Kurds, with the remaining three granted to some of Iraq's smaller communities. Nothing was set aside for those Iraqis who refused to define themselves along sectarian lines. Even the representative from the Iraqi Communist Party was only allowed to join as one of the twelve Shi'a members. Although most of Iraq's large intelligentsia was shocked at this manner of proceeding, the job was made easy for the occupation authorities by the fact that they had dozens of exiled politicians who were more than happy to play along. In that way, political ideologies and affiliations were immediately rendered meaningless - the only thing that mattered was the sect to which you belonged.
The trend set by the US occupation was accentuated by the emergence of a number of terrorist organisations, previously unheard of in the country, that were determined to provoke a civil war. The combined effect is that today, virtually all of the country's political parties identify themselves on the basis of race and religion, the only exception being the Iraqiya list, which has been tainted by serious and credible allegations of corruption. The result is a sectarian system of government that rivals (and perhaps even exceeds) the failed constitutional arrangement that was put in place in Lebanon by the French at the start of the 20th century.
In Iraq today, the president is from the Kurdish north, and has two deputies, one Sunni and one Shi'a. The prime minister is Shi'a, with one Sunni and one Kurdish deputy. The president of the parliament is Sunni, with a Shi'a and a Kurd to back him up. This same way of thinking has been imposed at just about every level. The result has been deadlock in Iraq's government, which has done nothing but contribute to the erosion of Iraqi society.
Sectarianism has had such a damaging effect on the country that political parties that have previously identified themselves first and foremost on the basis of their religion have now started re-establishing their patriotic and non-sectarian credentials. The first to reclaim a sense of moral integrity was the al-Fadhila (Virtue) party, which broke from the government's ruling coalition in March 2007. The following month, the Sadrist movement withdrew its six ministers from government in part because it now rejects its sectarian taint. Other parties are said to be at the point of withdrawing as well, which would have the effect of bringing down the government.
An Iraqi revival
This reawakening of the Iraqi national spirit has been taking place despite, and not because of, the intentions of the US occupation. As if to underline that point, the US military has recently begun its most audacious and dangerous plan to date: it is building a three-mile concrete wall in the centre of Baghdad in order to separate al-Adhamiya, one of the city's most important areas, from its Shi'a neighbours. Construction began on 10 April and it is said that the entire neighbourhood will soon be surrounded. According to plans announced by the US military, there will be one point of entry and exit, and a special ID will be granted to residents who will need to present it at the checkpoint in order to gain access to their homes.
Al-Adhamiya is a historically important Sunni neighbourhood in the center of Baghdad. It owes its origin to the tomb of Abu Hanifa, a leading Sunni jurist of the 8th century. At the turn of the 20th century, its inhabitants were exclusively Sunni and for the most part hailed from a particular tribe. As the country modernised, the neighbourhood inevitably lost its homogeneous character, and the diversity it gained merely added to the unbending nationalism of its inhabitants. As such, the last time the British army occupied the country, students from al-Adhamiya joined a massive protest (known as al-Wathbah or "the revolt" in Arabic) against the ruling authorities in January 1948 that was quelled by force of arms. Protests were a regular feature in the neighbourhood until Saddam Hussein seized power in 1979.
Since the arrival of US troops in 2003, residents reacted predictably by resisting the occupation at every opportunity. The neighbourhood was littered with checkpoints, roadblocks and barbed wire in an effort to quell the resistance, but to no avail. To make matters worse, since February 2006, when an important Shi'a shrine was bombed in Samarra, north of Baghdad, al-Adhamiya also became a battleground between pro-occupation government forces and its residents. The US could not control the neighbourhood, and it was in this state of despair that they designed the plan to construct the wall.
Iraqis were outraged when they heard that a wall was being built in their capital to separate one people from another. Demonstrations broke out everywhere - with both Sunnis and Shi'a joining in - to protest the plan. Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, whose influence over the US military is just about nil, laughably "ordered" that construction be halted. It is uncertain if al-Maliki was being genuine or not, but in any event, the Americans have continued to proceed apace, and have even claimed that the Iraqi government continues to support its plan. Iraqi politicians who reject sectarianism know where this is leading and fear the worst. "Al-Adhimiya today, Sadr city tomorrow. We are being cantonised", they say.
The US occupation has brought untold horrors to Iraq, including sectarian violence and international terrorism, and it now maintains that its continued presence is necessary in order to fight these evils. Bush, with his blind religiosity and self-righteousness, will perhaps never realise that the best way to achieve his stated aims is to do precisely what he won't consider: to leave Iraq for good, and to let its people govern themselves, once and for all.