Where Democracy and Civil War Meet in Iraq

  • Share
  • Read Later
The five cabinet positions left vacant in Tuesday's swearing in of a new Iraqi cabinet — and the decision by Sunni vice president Ghazi al-Yawer to boycott the ceremony — suggest that democracy and civil war are not mutually exclusive in Iraq. To be sure, the cabinet of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari— the first government chosen by Iraqis themselves in a half-century—is an historic milestone. It is difficult to envisage circumstances in which Iraqis would be prepared to surrender their hard-earned right to choose their leaders. Unfortunately, democracy has not resolved the ethnic conflict among them, which is being played out both in parliament and in the daily bloodbaths served up by the insurgency.

The five cabinet positions were to have been given to Sunnis, and their absence points to growing fissures in Iraq. The new government is dominated by the Shiite coalition that won January's election, and most of the remaining seats went to the Kurdish parties that finished second with some 27 percent of the vote. The ethnic makeup of the government, in itself, is a revolutionary development, since the Shiite majority and the Kurdish minority have always been marginalized from power in Baghdad — as they have throughout the Arab world — by a Sunni Arab minority that numbers less than 20 percent of Iraq's population.

Conventional wisdom among Iraq's new leaders, and among U.S. officials, is that that bringing on board credible Sunni leaders is the key to defeating the insurgency. Still, even that may be wishful thinking. Reserving five of the 37 cabinet position for Sunni Arabs may be based on an estimation of their proportion of the population, but the Sunni Arabs have ruled Iraq ever since the country was invented by the British in the wake of World War I, and a reluctance to let go of their traditional authority may make many wary of simply submitting to the combination of democracy and demography.

The Sunni boycott of the polls underscores the fact that those Sunnis currently sitting in parliament are not considered representative by the community, and more influential clerical and political groups have thus far kept their distance from the new order. That has created a situation where the insurgents have the loudest Sunni voice in the current political landscape. Although the spectacular terror strikes of the Zarqawi-led al-Qaeda faction may get the most headlines, the bulk of the insurgency is believed to be composed of Sunni fighters motivated by a combination of nationalist and Islamist sentiments and led by mid-level intelligence and military operatives of the old regime. They have systematically targeted the building blocks of stability for a new order: the nascent Iraqi security forces to whom the U.S. hopes to transfer security responsibility; the oil pipelines that represent the economic lifeline of a new government; and local and national political and administrative leaders. They have also taken a massive and bloody toll among Shiite and Kurdish civilians, who they have sought to provoke into a sectarian retaliation that would deepen the rift between those communities and the Sunnis.

Hopes that the insurgency might be waning in the wake of January's elections have proved premature. It appears to have been retooling and reorganizing, launching a blistering wave of attacks that range from full-blown daylight assaults by guerrilla units to relentless terror strikes on Shiite and Kurdish civilians. More than 200 people have been killed in insurgent attacks since last Friday, and Baghdad sees an average of 20 insurgent attacks a day.

Optimists hope that the creation of the new government may begin to reverse the insurgency's momentum, but it may be some time before the new political order attracts the support of the bulk of the Sunnis. The insurgents, by repeatedly and consistently demonstrating their considerable capability for violent disruption, hope to convince the Sunnis that they needn't settle for the minority stake in power being offered by Jaafari. And the very fact that the new government feels compelled to try and accommodate them despite their absence at the polls may reinforce that perception.

Even more contentious than the number of cabinet positions being offered to Sunnis has been the plan by Jaafari's alliance to oust former Baathists from the security services and deny anyone with a Baathist past a cabinet position. Debaathification has been vigorously opposed by Sunni representatives in negotiations with Jaafari, and the U.S. has also urged the new prime minister to abandon plans for a purge of Baathists from the security services, believing that this could fatally weaken the ability of the Iraqi security forces to fight the insurgency. Jaafari is reportedly backing away from a wholesale purge, recognizing that most Sunnis with the competence to play executive roles and the credibility to represent their community are likely to have had some involvement in the old regime — and that as distasteful as it may be to the Shiites and Kurds who suffered most under Saddam's reign of terror, precluding all former Baathists from power would play into the hands of the insurgency by deepening Sunni alienation from the new regime.

Jaafari's alliance is significantly divided on a number of questions, ranging from the place of Islam in a future constitution to the issue of whether to seek a timetable for U.S. withdrawal. And the halting process by which it has taken three months from election day to seat a partial cabinet is not an encouraging indicator of the prospects for the National Assembly to complete its primary function, drafting a permanent constitution for Iraq, by the August 15 deadline — or even, for that matter, by the fallback date next February.

Still, the insurgency also be divided. The intractable global jihadists around Zarqawi have no interest in any future accommodation with a new order, but the same may not be true for the Baathists. The new government has already been discreetly talking with insurgent link groups over the terms of a truce, which would potentially involve prisoner releases, an amnesty for insurgent fighters and even possibly a timetable for U.S. withdrawal. The infighting on both sides will be intense, and complicated by fact that the insurgency is not answerable to a single political command structure.

If 140,000 U.S. troops have failed over two years to eliminate the insurgency, it's unrealistic to expect that newly minted Iraqi forces will be able to complete the job any time soon. They're certainly enjoying a lot more successes against the insurgents than before, but the insurgency has also grown in scale and capability. But for all its proven ability to disrupt and sabotage the new order in Iraq, an insurgency based on the sectarian militancy of the Sunni minority can't easily succeed in restoring Sunni-Baathist authority over the newly empowered Shiites and Kurds, whose own militias render such an outcome unlikely even if U.S. troops were to withdraw. So, even if a civil war is already under way, it's worth remembering that civil wars do end — either when one side vanquishes the other, or else in a political solution when neither side is capable of delivering the knockout blow. But until the protagonists recognize that reality, the struggle for power in Iraq will rage as intensely on the streets as in the legislative chambers.