Green Shoots of Democracy in Iraq

Green Shoots of Democracy in Iraq
AP Photo/Hadi Mizban
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In March 2003, the U.S. invaded Iraq, and in June 2004, it tendered sovereignty of the country back to the Iraqis.  Iraq’s first elections took place in January 2005 with images of purple fingertips marking the milestone, but elections alone do not make a democracy.  The record of the U.S. in fostering Iraqi democracy has been mixed, but despite the errors and setbacks, the U.S. still has an important opportunity to support something unusual: a stable, Arab democracy.

One of the early U.S. errors was the 2003 decision to order de-Ba’athification.  This meant that nearly anyone that was part of the government during the Saddam Hussein regime lost their jobs.  Those in favor of de-Ba’athification argued it was the only way to remove the Hussein-tainted operatives from the levers of power.  Hindsight shows that critics of this decision had the better argument.  With de-Ba’athification, the security situation in Iraq worsened, and since Ba’athists were largely Sunni, ethnic tensions amongst Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds were exacerbated. 

At the same time, that de-Ba’athification was enforced, first by the U.S. and then by the Iraqis, the size of U.S. military forces in Iraq diminished.  The years 2004-2006 saw some former Ba’athists joining forces or providing support to al Qaeda operatives.  In reaction to this Sunni threat, the Shia responded in kind.  Moqtada al-Sadr, a prominent Shia cleric, created a militia known as the Mahdi Army that attacked the U.S. military and ran death squads that murdered Sunni civilians.  Cycles of ethnic cleansing led to an ethnic civil war.

In response to this spiral of violence and insecurity, in 2007, President Bush ordered an increase of U.S. military personnel in Iraq.  At the same time,  Sunni tribes of the Anbar province, referred to as the “Anbar Awakening,” came together to fight against al Qaeda.  These two factors diminished al Qaeda’s ability to sew unrest and provided the security necessary for Iraqi governance.   In 2011, the U.S. made the strategic blunder of withdrawing its military from Iraq throwing the victory of the 2007 surge away. 

The departure of the U.S. military removed an important buffer between the Kurdish, Shia, and Sunni factions.  These divisions were exacerbated by the venal leadership of then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.  He refused to integrate into the military the Sunni tribal militias that contributed to defeat al Qaeda, and he degraded the Iraqi military’s fighting capacity and professionalism by treating it as a spoils system for Shia cronies.  Maliki also used this approach for key government positions.  He also allowed Iran to increase its influence in Iraq, which widened the Sunni-Shia divide.  Al-Maliki’s refusal to govern Iraq for the benefit of all Iraqis created the opening for ISIS to invade and take control of vast swaths of Iraqi territory.  The barbarism of ISIS and the Iraqi military’s inability to defend Mosul prompted President Obama to order the return of U.S. military forces in 2014.  This was the beginning of the end of ISIS in Iraq. 

The second change of 2014 was the arrival of al-Maliki’s successor as Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi.  From the beginning of his tenure, Al-Abadi, like Al-Maliki a Shia, has followed a more inclusive approach to governing.  Two recent Wall Street Journal articles give reason for guarded optimism.  Last week, al-Abadi visited Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish region, as part of his campaign efforts, and he was welcomed by Kurdish leadership.  The article noted that this was unprecedented.  Up to now, Iraqi election campaigning has been strictly divided along sectarian lines.  The second article described a growing level of engagement between Sunnis and Shias, and the pragmatic recognition that the key to the country’s future is working together.  Muqtada al-Sadr and his associates have crossed the sectarian divide to work with secular leftists to fight corruption.  Moving beyond local, ethnic, or religious affiliations in the context of political parties and governance to address common societal problems such as corruption, education, or the economy is a critical step towards a healthy democracy. 

This does not mean that Iraq’s continued progress is guaranteed.  A culture of democratic norms will take time, and it will require continued diplomatic and military support from the U.S.  A contingent U.S. military presence, even at numbers reduced from the peak of the fight against ISIS, is crucial because it maintains stability and encourages the political moderation that leads to more inclusive Iraqi governance.  We have seen the bloody consequences of U.S. withdrawal.  This presence also serves U.S. national interests because a stable and moderate Iraq can be an important hedge against Iran.  A stable and moderate Iraq can be an important ally for the U.S. in the Middle East.  And, a stable and moderate Iraq can be an important example of Arab democracy in the region.  The U.S. has had military forces in Germany, Japan, and Korea since the ends of World War II and the Korean War, and each country enjoys a robust, inclusive, and stable democracy as valued U.S. allies.  We should give the Iraqis the same chance.


Mr. Heiman is a Visiting Fellow at the National Security Institute at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School.  Previously, he was a lawyer with the National Security Division of the Department of Justice and the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad, Iraq.



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