Success of Iraqi democracy in Iraqis' hands

May 19, 2004|By Austin Bay

JUNE 30, when the Coalition Provisional Authority officially returns responsibility for governing Iraq to Iraqis, won't be a magic moment.

No one with any fact-based awareness of the human condition ever expected abracadabra democracy - certainly not in Iraq. The great American democratic political experiment remains a work in progress, and that experiment's most terrible explosion, the Civil War, nearly destroyed the lab.

The Iraqi experiment is just beginning. America has created history's greatest opportunity for fundamental change in the Middle East, change dramatically favoring the extension of basic human rights to people perpetually denied such rights. The end of the dictator's graft and nepotism, as well as large doses of capital for rebuilding wrecked infrastructure, sets the stage for a more productive and just economy.

However, the final formula for success is up to the people of Iraq. There will be years of trial and error.

Is the American strategic goal of a self-policing, economically productive and politically exemplary (meaning rule of law in some democratic shape, form or fashion) Iraq achievable?

Yes, it is - if the approximately 250 community governments already functioning as democratic incubators are used as an effective support network for the "federal" Iraq that is emerging with the encouragement of the United States and its coalition partners.

The basic federal model for Iraq is no mystery: a Kurd region, a Shiite region, a Sunni region and a "federal city" region of Baghdad. A functioning federal system, of course, presumes a high degree of local control and authority.

The day-to-day experience of local governments fixing potholes bodes well for the long haul, but security - protecting the lives of locals - must become an Iraqi responsibility. Iraq's most influential Shiite leaders and clerics recently demanded that rebel leader Muqtada al-Sadr pull his militiamen out of the Shiite holy cities of a Najaf and Karbala. It's another indication that responsible Iraqi leaders now have the confidence to act against their own local militants.

The Shiite leaders condemned Mr. al-Sadr for using mosques as ammo dumps. The most telling demand, however, was that Mr. al-Sadr submit to Iraqi police. Mr. al-Sadr's Mahdi militia isn't finished, but its Iranian roots are being exposed. More on that in a moment.

In terms of preparation for self-rule, Iraqi Kurds have a decade's jump on Sunni and Shiite Arab citizens. Recall, however, that the Kurds' security situation under Saddam Hussein, even with the "Northern Watch" air umbrella provided by U.S. and allied aircraft, was never certain. Internal Kurd divisions sparked shooting. Mr. Hussein invaded Kurdistan in 1996, under the pretext of supporting a Kurdish faction. Ansar-al-Islam, Iraq's al-Qaida affiliate, attacked Kurds, and probably still does, via car bombs.

The Kurds, however, have made an effort to police their region, and the effort has paid off.

The Sunni situation is far more tenuous, but encouraging Sunni leaders was one of the shadow games behind the U.S. Marine operations in Fallujah. Every Marine attack left more militants dead or arrested, creating a larger "political space" for Sunni moderates to emerge.

What will keep "federal new Iraq" cooperating instead of fragmenting?

Several things.

A "fair shake for all" in the distribution of Iraq's oil revenue is absolutely essential.

International economic and infrastructure aid will flow only if Iraq remains unified.

U.S. security guarantees.

New Iraq has enemies that are actively trying to destroy it, such as Iran. Mr. al-Sadr and his militia serve as a covert Iranian army probing Iraq, and the Shiites know it. An "independent Shiite state" stands a high chance of being utterly dominated by Iran. Syria is also a threat. Turkey will not allow a separate Kurd state - that's another factor. Saudi Arabia isn't quite sure about new Iraq, but then the Saudis are never quite sure about anything.

The Saudis' own internal war with al-Qaida is boiling. Crown Prince Abdullah is now publicly criticizing Saudis sympathizing with al-Qaida and anti-House of Saud militants. The Saudis also have no interest in a separate Shiite state emerging on their border.

A new Iraqi national army.

An integrated, federal force may be years away, but building it will be a politically unifying process.

Austin Bay is a syndicated columnist.

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