Violence in Iraq has surged in recent months to levels not seen for years. Al-Qaida is resurgent, explosions continue to rip through civilian neighbourhoods and foreign backed militias are engaged in combat in broad daylight, sometimes alongside government forces. Large swathes of the country are now out of the state’s control, others are subject to a constant barrage of shelling, forcing hundreds of thousands from their homes. Many of the gruesome practices that were common during the civil conflict, including beheadings, are once again an almost daily occurrence. Why is all this happening now and is there a solution?
Some of the causes for this desperate state of affairs are beyond the government’s capacity to control, including the conflict in Syria and the obvious spillover effect it has had in Iraq. Nevertheless, the government has clearly exacerbated security risks by engaging in highly questionable practices for years now. Amongst other things, various sources including the United Nations, international and Iraqi human rights organisations and the ministry of human rights, have documented serious abuses in detention. Men and women are still arrested in large numbers for no good reason, maintained in detention without charge for weeks, sometimes months, and subjected to brutal treatment. If their cases are brought to court and they are found not-guilty, they are maintained in detention illegally merely so that prison officers can extract bribes from desperate family members. The due process rules that are provided for in the constitution are totally ignored.
Corruption has also been a major contributing factor to worsening security. Despite billions of dollars disappearing into thin air since 2003, anti-corruption frameworks in 2014 are almost exactly the same as they were 11 years ago. The notoriously useless and incredibly overpriced bomb detectors that James McCormick sold to the Iraqi government, for which he was sentenced by a London court to ten years in prison, are still used throughout Iraq today as the principle means to detect explosives. When questioned about their use after McCormick was sentenced, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki insisted that the devices did in fact work; incredibly they are still in use today, more than one year later. Militias, terrorist organisations and other criminal elements also now run a racket in large parts of Iraq, forcing local businesses to pay protection money, either with the acquiescence or assistance of the state’s security forces.
The state’s failure to significantly improve the delivery of basic services to the people has also discouraged average Iraqis from rallying to its side in a worsening conflict. As security worsens, electricity, education, health care services are all essentially stagnating at a very poor level. Even worse is Iraq’s now worsening environmental disaster, resulting in debilitating dust storms throughout most of the year and, for the past two years, davastating floods destroying property and lives without any action on the part of the government. The situation is so desperate that riots, leading to the torching of government offices are now commonplace throughout the long and difficult summer months, particularly in the south of the country where the temperature and poverty are highest.
Rather than seeking to improve their performance, or accept responsibility for their failures, state officials scandalously resort to sectarianism to deflect attention in the most crude and vulgar manner. The practice started years ago, but has worsened in the past few months.
Friday preachers are broadcast live on mainstream channels arguing in favour of a war between communities, and urging their flock to forgive the government for its mistakes given that it professes to protect one community from another. Senior officials openly call for retribution against rival communities when members of their own co-religionists or members of their race are killed by another.
A few weeks ago, various parties in government even sponsored new legislation that would repeal parts of Iraq’s unified 1959 personal status law (which governs marriage, divorce, inheritance, etc.) in favour of a system that would only apply to the members of one sect, thereby creating new divisions between Iraqis at a time of increasing violence. The new draft law was in fact so poorly drafted that it was trashed by scholars and the religious establishment as having been concocted by the relevant parties purely for electoral purposes, to rally their sectarian base. The use of overtly violent language has become so routine that it is scarcely newsworthy in Iraq today. The effect is that sectarian relations have undeniably worsened in the country since 2003.
What is the solution to this problem? Some have argued in favour of a more rigorous application of the 2005 constitution, but it is unclear that that would help given how delinquent the text is and how dysfunctional the drafting process was. Iraqis generally have very little sense of attachment to their constitution, which has comprehensively failed to deliver on the promise a more just and prosperous country for all.
The problem however is that, in the absence of a clear set of rules to govern how the state’s institutions should function, we are now completely at the mercy of our political class. These individuals, for the most part, have revealed themselves as being incompetent, lazy, conspiracy-minded, deceitful, unashamedly arrogant and corrupt. Because of various circumstances in 2003 and 2004, more principled Iraqis either refused to participate in government, were pushed out, or were disappeared.
Some observers have argued that Iraqis have the leaders that they deserve, and that we have had many opportunities to choose a different set of leaders through elections. The truth however is that Iraqis were never given a meaningful choice in this matter. By the time the first elections were organised in 2005, a select group of political parties – who had been selected and given access to power by the US, the UK, Iran and some Gulf countries – had already been in power in Iraq for close on two years. It was they who had been given the benefit of visibility and access to massive funds by virtue of the positions that they had been granted in government.
In power, perhaps not surprisingly, these parties have refused to pass a political parties law or any rules that could govern their use of illicit funds to finance their operations. Eleven years on, political parties have become major financial empires: many operate businesses, television networks, radio stations, newspapers, websites. They own large tracks of land and property, run extensive patronage networks, etc. To have a chance to compete in an election, any outsiders or reformers would have to secure enough funds to finance a national campaign that could make themselves heard over the din of the current ruling elites’ near monopoly over public discourse.
Within that context, what can realistically be achieved in the elections that are due to take place at the end of April 2014?
Given the context, it is almost a foregone conclusion that the current ruling parties will almost all be returned in the next parliament and in government. There can be no newcomers, no major surprises; many of the same faces will return, and those who are new to us will have been imposed on us by the same party structures that have been running the country since 2003.
The forthcoming elections represent an opportunity to realign the balance of powers between the current ruling parties, nothing more and nothing less. At best therefore, what we can hope for is for some of the worst elements in the current administration to lose some of their clout, to allow for a relatively peaceful transfer of power to another alliance of forces, and create a new dynamic in the country that will hopefully allow for some of the trends set out above to be halted and possibly reversed. In particular what that suggests is a change of guard from prime minister al-Maliki and the senior officials who surround him in favour of some other group.
Given how negative the current trajectory is, any change would be welcome and would at least open up the possibility of an improvement in security and in sectarian relations. Much of the blood that has been spilled, of the hatred and vitriol that have been aired since 2006 have naturally been attributed to al-Maliki, given his control over the state and the security services. His mere presence has become such a major source of tension throughout the country that there can be very little benefit to him remaining in office, given the many failures of the past eight years.
The best that we can hope for in the current climate would be to have him replaced in favour of anyone who can demonstrate some good faith and who has a better capacity to deliver than al-Maliki. In case there is any doubt about this: there is no shortage of such people in Iraq.