Iraq: The Failures of Democratization

The failures of Iraqi democratization as advocated by the Bush administration should not be blamed primarily on the Iraqis. Nor should they be used to reinforce racist notions that Arabs or Muslims are somehow incapable of building democratic institutions and living in a democratic society. Rather, democracy from the outset has been more of a self-serving rationalization for American strategic and economic interests in the region than a genuine concern for the right of the Iraq people to democratic self-governance.

Many Iraqis might have dreamed about democracy. What they got instead was occupation.

The U.S. government, despite much rhetoric about democracy, imposed its own political structures on Iraq, agreed to more representative procedures and institutions only when pushed to do so by the Iraqi people, presided over the breakdown of civil order, and violated the human rights of tens of thousands of Iraqi citizens. In short, Washington acted as an occupation force. By associating its actions with democracy promotion, it ended up giving democracy a bad name.

Never About Democracy

Once the arguments about “weapons of mass destruction” and links to al-Qaida were exposed as fictions, bringing democracy to Iraq became a major rationale for the U.S. invasion. Yet the Bush administration, during most of the first year of the U.S. occupation, strongly opposed holding direct elections. Soon after occupying the country, the United States appointed an “Iraqi Governing Council” (IGC) as a consultative body. Initially, Washington supported the installation of Ahmed Chalabi or some other compliant pro-American exile as leader of Iraq. When that plan proved unacceptable, U.S. officials tried to keep their viceroy Paul Bremer in power indefinitely. When it became clear that Iraqis and the international community would not tolerate that option either, the Bush administration pushed for a caucus system in which American appointees would choose the new government and write the constitution. Only in January 2004, when that plan prompted hundreds of thousands of Iraqis to take to the streets to protest the proposed caucus system and demand a popular vote, did President Bush give in and reluctantly agree to allow direct elections to move forward.

Instead of going ahead with the poll in May as called for by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and other Iraqi leaders, however, U.S. officials postponed the elections until January 2005. They argued that there was inadequate time to register voters and that the ration lists developed during the UN-supervised Oil for Food program were inadequate (though the voter rolls for the election were based in large part on the ration lists anyway.) In the meantime, however, the dramatic growth of the insurgency during the eight-month delay resulted in a serious deterioration of the security situation. By the time the elections finally took place, the large and important Sunni Arab minority was largely unable or unwilling to participate. In most Sunni-dominated parts of Arab-populated Iraq, threats by insurgents made it physically unsafe to go to the polls. In addition, the major Sunni parties—angered by U.S. counter-insurgency operations that killed enormous numbers of civilians during the months leading up to the election—had called for a boycott.

In the meantime, the U.S. occupation authorities announced they would formally transfer power to Iraqis at the end of June 2004. Originally, this transfer was planned as a grand public event, with parades and speeches. The highlight was supposed to be President Bush—already in neighboring Turkey at the conclusion of the NATO summit—coming down to join the festivities to formally hand over power.

To deny terrorists an opportunity for a dramatic strike, however, the authorities conducted the formal transfer two days early. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice informed Bush of the handover in a hand-written note, to which the president scribbled his now famous response, “Let freedom reign!” This oxymoron in many ways represents the contradictions inherent in any effort to forcefully impose a liberal democratic system through conquest and subjugation. Indeed, the small, short, hurried, and unannounced handover ceremony was hardly an auspicious beginning for Iraqi self-rule.

Democratic Transition

Washington chose Ayad Allawi as the leader of the U.S.-appointed interim government, despite polls of Iraqis showing that Allawi’s popularity ranked quite low. His earlier career as a Baathist, which included active support for political repression, combined with his later years in exile and his ties to the CIA and anti-government terrorist groups, raised concerns regarding his commitment to democracy and human rights. Not surprisingly, he proved to be an unpopular leader. His autocratic governing style and his support for offensive military actions by U.S. and Iraqi government forces, which resulted in large-scale civilian casualties, undercut any claims to democratic rule.

The interim constitution designed by U.S. occupation authorities required super-majorities in the national assembly and a consensus among the presidential council for major legislation to pass. Supporters of such a system noted that such a broad consensus was necessary to promote unity in a country emerging from dictatorship and divided by ethnic and tribal loyalties. Critics charged, however, that it crippled the new government from taking decisive action on pressing concerns and kept the country overly dependent on the United States. Indeed, it was nearly two months before an interim cabinet was approved and the transitional government could begin governing.

The transitional Iraqi government was unable to overturn many of the edicts of Bremer and his Iraqi appointees in the IGC, and was therefore unable to chart an independent course. For example, even in cases where the transitional government technically could have overturned U.S.-imposed laws, it required a consensus of the president, prime minister, vice premiers, and other government officials. As a result, virtually all these laws remained in effect. With the UN’s reluctant stamp of approval on the transitional government, the U.S.-appointed IGC filled virtually all the major positions in the interim Iraqi government—including president and prime ministers—with its own members.

Similarly, neither the transitional government nor its successors have been able to exercise much authority when it comes to security. U.S. forces have been able to operate throughout the country at will, and the “sovereign” Iraqi government has had no right to limit their activities. Secretary of State Colin Powell claimed that U.S. forces and their sprawling bases throughout Iraq—which are expanding in ways that appear to indicate an intention to stay for the long term—were no different than U.S. bases in Germany or South Korea. However, unlike Iraq, the United States does not have a right to bomb German or South Korean cities without permission of their governments.

In addition, the U.S. ambassadors have not been “just like any other ambassador”—as the Bush administration has claimed. Many of the more than 1,500 Americans attached to their “embassy” hold prominent positions in nearly every Iraqi ministry, and the ambassador’s office controls much of the Iraqi government’s budget. The new 25-hectare U.S. embassy complex under construction in the heart of Baghdad consists of 21 buildings, housing for 3,500 diplomatic and support staff, a sports center, beauty parlor, swimming pool, and American short-order restaurants. With their own water supply and power generation, the employees have electricity and water 24 hours a day, unlike virtually anyone else in that nation’s capital city.

U.S. citizens in Iraq continue to enjoy extraterritorial rights. They cannot be prosecuted in Iraq for any crime, no matter how serious. U.S. military forces—numbering over 165,000—can move and attack anywhere in the country without the government’s consent. U.S. appointees with terms lasting through 2009 are in charge of “control commissions” that oversee fiscal policy, the media, and other important regulatory areas. U.S. appointees also dominate the judiciary, which has the power to overturn any law passed by the newly elected government.

New Iraqi Government

The long-delayed vote to elect a national assembly and write a permanent constitution finally took place on January 30, 2005. The election had few international observers, experienced widespread irregularities, was boycotted in a number of key provinces, and took place under the rule of a foreign occupying power that had imposed the electoral laws and selected the electoral commission that oversaw it.

However, despite not meeting most internationally recognized criteria for legitimacy, the election was certainly an improvement over the utter lack of electoral democracy under Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. Most Iraqis clearly welcomed the opportunity to participate in the process. And despite its many problems and limitations, the election was a remarkable testament to the Iraqi people’s desire for self-determination and for accountable government. Two of the country’s three major ethno-religious communities came out en masse against great odds in an impressive attempt to establish at least some semblance of self-determination—after decades of dictatorial rule followed by 18 months of U.S. military occupation. Contrary to charges by some critics, the elected representatives are not puppets of the United States. However, this direct election for the National Assembly—which was charged with writing the country’s new constitution—came despite, rather than because of, the efforts of President George W. Bush.

U.S. officials had apparently hoped for a victory by the pro-American slate led by the U.S.-appointed interim Prime Minister Allawi, whose party had superior funding and organization relative to other parties. In addition, the U.S.-organized election process allowed up to two million Iraqi-born expatriates—who would presumably be more pro-Western—to vote. Voting centers for Iraqi emigrants living in the United States were established at a number of military bases. Despite these efforts, however, Allawi’s party came in a poor third.

Exit polls indicated that Iraqis went to the polls primarily in the hope that establishing their own government would result in U.S. forces leaving their country. Parties opposed to the ongoing U.S. military presence in Iraq won the overwhelming majority of the votes.

The victorious United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), which won 140 seats in the 275-seat parliament, consisted of 22 parties, dominated by Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the Islamic Dawa Party. The Islamic Republic of Iran supported both of these parties while they operated in exile and underground during Saddam Hussein’s regime. The UIA-dominated government appointed Ibrahim al-Jaafari—who spent most of the 1980s in exile in Iran—as the new prime minister. The election platform of the governing United Iraqi Alliance called for a timetable for an early withdrawal of foreign forces from their country. Faced with a growing insurgency and inadequate forces of their own, however, the newly elected government soon altered its position and asked for American troops to remain indefinitely.

With pro-Iranian parties and political leaders dominating Iraqi’s elected transitional government, the new democratic Iraq did not appear to be pro-American. Indeed, U.S. officials have had a hard time accepting that a truly representative government in Iraq would not strongly support U.S. policy in the region. In short, Iraq could have a democratic government or a pro-American government. It was unlikely to have both.

In the national elections of December 15, 2005, following the U.S.-led writing of the new Iraqi constitution, the Shi’ite United Iraqi Alliance won 128 votes out of the total 275-member assembly. The Kurdish Alliance won 53 seats, and the Sunni Arab parties took a total of 55 seats, a major gain from the earlier election, which was largely boycotted by the Sunni community. Allawi’s Iraqi National List only got 25 seats. Again, it took several months before the government could be formed.

The United States sought to block al-Jaffari’s re-election as prime minister, given his refusal to crack down on sectarian militias, his close cooperation with Iran, his dependence on support from the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, his failure to forge multi-ethnic common ground, and his growing unpopularity with the Iraqi people. The United States successfully lobbied for the formation of a somewhat more inclusive government with Nouri al-Maliki, also a Dawa Party leader, as the new prime minister. While American concerns about al-Jafaari were not unfounded, many Iraqis viewed this interference as neo-colonialism. And indeed, Maliki has not been any more successful or popular than his predecessor.

Human Rights in Iraq

Saddam Hussein was indeed one of the world’s most brutal tyrants, responsible for, among other abuses, the Anfal campaign in the late 1980s, and the suppression of the popular uprisings in March of 1991. But the no-fly zones and arms embargo in place for more than a dozen years prior to his ouster in March 2003 had severely weakened his capacity to inflict large-scale violence.

Since U.S. forces took over the country, the level of violence has steadily increased, not only dwarfing the violence during Saddam’s final years in power but tripling the average annual death rates during his entire quarter century in power. In addition, the sheer randomness of the violence has left millions of Iraqis in a state of perpetual terror. Since the U.S. invasion in 2003, anywhere from 50,000 to 700,000 Iraqi civilians have died, many at the hands of U.S. forces, but increasingly from terrorist groups and Iraqi government death squads. Thousands of more Iraqi soldiers and police have also been killed. Violent crime, including kidnapping, rape, and armed robbery, has grown to record levels. There has been a dramatic proliferation of small arms, and private militias have been growing rapidly.

In addition, U.S. forces imprisoned over 50,000 Iraqis since the invasion, but only one and a half percent of them have been convicted of any crime. U.S. forces currently hold 15-18,000 Iraqi prisoners, more than were imprisoned under Saddam Hussein. Amnesty International and other human rights groups have cited U.S. forces for widespread violations of international humanitarian law, including torture and other abuses of prisoners. Despite the largely successful efforts of the Bush administration to cover up the extent of U.S. torture of Iraqi prisoners, the revelations of abuse in the Abu Ghraib prison were just the tip of the iceberg. Given that the overwhelming majority of detainees at Abu Ghraib were not terrorists or guerrillas, but simply ordinary young Iraqi men arrested in massive sweeps by U.S. occupation forces, popular outrage at the United States increased still further.

Both through the suffering inflicted upon Iraqis by American forces and the initial reluctance to allow for direct elections, the United States has not been able to establish much credibility as a force for human rights among the Iraqi people. Adding to the problem is the U.S.-backed Iraqi government itself, dominated by incompetent Shi’ite Islamist extremists closely allied with hard-line Iranian clerics. Isolated within the U.S.-fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, the Iraqi government is so weak, divided, and corrupt it can barely be considered a functional government.

Nearly four years after the invasion, the Pentagon acknowledges that Iraqi forces are still “largely dependent” on American combat troops for logistics, supplies, and support. Indeed, not a single Iraqi unit is yet capable of fully independent operations, and the Iraqi government still has little say over U.S. military operations within its own country. U.S. forces have expanded by integrating local Iraqi units into their command structure and away from the control of the Iraqi government.

Human rights abuses are increasing, largely at the hands of the only security branch controlled to some degree by the government. These Special Forces, populated for the most part by Shi’ite militias, have emerged as death squads that every month have killed hundreds of civilians, mostly Sunni Arab males. The death toll surpasses even that of the insurgency, which has primarily targeted Shi’ite Arab civilians. Amnesty International reports that “not only has the Iraqi government failed to provide minimal protection for its citizens, it has pursued a policy of rounding up and torturing innocent men and women. Its failure to punish those who have committed torture has added to the breakdown of the rule of law.”

In the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq, the ruling U.S.-backed coalition—of two nationalist parties with sizable armed militias—is not much better. Corruption is widespread, and opposition activists are routinely beaten, tortured, and killed. Kurdish-born Austrian lawyer and professor Kamal Sayid Qadir has reported that “the Kurdish parties transformed Iraqi Kurdistan into a fortress for oppression, theft of public funds, and serious abuses of human rights like murder, torture, amputation of ears and noses, and rape.” For his efforts to alert the international community about the U.S.-backed Kurdish government, a Kurdish court sentenced Qadir to 30 years in prison, though international pressure led to his release several months later.

The Democracy of Occupation

The Soviet Red Army freed Eastern European nations from Nazi occupation at the end of World War II only to impose a Soviet-style political and economic system and foreign policy priorities on compliant governments of their own creation. Increasing numbers of Iraqis view the United States as having similarly imposed its own priorities on Iraq. The Eastern Europeans eventually won their freedom largely through protracted, nonviolent struggles to create democratic systems. The Iraqis, however, are already in open rebellion. They are using guerrilla warfare and terrorism, and much of the organized resistance does not seek a particularly democratic society as the final outcome.

The Bush administration’s declaration that American forces are no longer an occupation force but are there at the request of a sovereign Iraqi government has not been enough to assuage most Iraqis. This is the same rationalization used by the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s and by the United States in South Vietnam in the 1960s. In reality, the majority of Afghans and South Vietnamese during these periods never saw the regimes in Kabul and Saigon as legitimate. Indeed, these unpopular dictatorships came to power and maintained their control only as result of superpower intervention. The majority of the subjected populations, despite enormous disadvantages in firepower, eventually forced out the foreign occupiers and their appointed successors. Similarly, the longer the United States is seen as an occupier in Iraq, the more the credibility of pro-democratic political figures will decline and support for more extremist elements will grow.

President Bush and his supporters still insist that Iraq is a model of “democracy” that other countries in the region should emulate. Just as the Soviets gave “socialism” a bad name through their conquest and occupation of Afghanistan, the U.S. conquest and occupation of Iraq along with subsequent events in that country have, in the eyes of many Muslims worldwide, tarnished the reputation of democracy. Democracy, alas, has become synonymous with war, chaos, domination by a foreign power, and massive human suffering.

Stephen Zunes is the Foreign Policy In Focus Middle East editor (www.fpif.org). He is a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco and the author of Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism (Common Courage Press, 2003).