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On Point

Iraqi Democracy, Two Years On


by Austin Bay
May 28, 2008

Considering the violent threats, fractured politics and bitter history it confronts, Iraq's democratic government has accomplished much in two short years.

For a variety of reasons -- most self-serving, a few disgustingly dishonest -- American and European debate over Iraq all too often loses or conveniently discards three pertinent facts regarding the Iraq of May 2008: It has survived in very complex conditions, it is the product of democratic elections, and it has several hard-fought but significant accomplishments in its two bloody years of existence.

Its birth was hard, and frankly, its birth isn't over. The Iraqi general elections of December 2005 -- which laid the foundations for the new government -- reflected not only the deep and fractured politics of post-despotism Iraq but provided a representative sample of the entire Middle East's fractious ethnic and sectarian divisions.

For at least seven millennia, Mesopotamia has been precious terrain, and that long history involves multiple births, collisions and deaths. The present sectarian and ethnic mosaic is a product of that rich history. Mesopotamia has seen several determinative births, including the Agricultural Revolution and, if you credit Abraham of Ur, the birth of Western monotheism. Empires have expanded and shrunken to ruins, with Babylon (its bricks lie south of Baghdad) as a premier example.

Many Mesopotamian collisions remain unresolved -- not just between Shia and Sunni Muslims (a product in part of the battle of Karbala in A.D. 680), but between Semitic Arabs and Iranians. And don't forget Arabs encountering Turks, with Kurds in the buffer.

Vicious tyranny put a murderous, exploitative clamp on these people -- in Saddam's case an adventurous tyranny willing to invade Iran and Kuwait and wage 12 years of sanctions war with the United Nations. Various terrorist groups promise various utopias (in al-Qaeda's case, a global "sectarian cleansing").

The December 2005 elections continued the difficult process of mitigating these collisions and divisions, a process arguably begun when the United Nations established post-Desert Storm no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq. Post-election attempts to form a government repeatedly failed. A mid-March 2006 goal for establishing a government came and went. The February 2006 terror attack that destroyed Samarra's Golden Mosque was timed to thwart any parliamentary compromise.

Yet Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki never buckled. In late May 2006, the fractious parliament approved a cabinet -- another step in the birth process of democratic government in Mesopotamia.

Maliki faced repeated attempt to oust him -- attempts using terror and violence but also using parliamentary means, which are, paradoxically, a positive sign.

The Iraqi government hasn't met American expectations, which are largely shaped by the American presidential election cycle, but dismissing its achievements is arrogant and ignorant. It is also myopic, given the century-shaping regional and global implications of Iraqi success.

The Federalism Law, de-Baathification reforms and amnesty laws, and the Provincial Powers Act are major acts of legislation, especially when crafted, debated and passed in the midst of sensational terrorist attacks designed to shake the confidence of Iraqis and keep international media focused on conflict instead of maturing compromise.

Reconciliation and consolidation have not been achieved, though Iraqis clearly know a lot more about reconciliation in Iraq than Americans. The December 2006 execution of Saddam, marred though it was, removed the personality from the tyrant's cult of the personality. Saddam's "former regime elements" believed that if they hung on Saddam would return to power. The dictator's open and fair trial also served as a forum to express the people's shared suffering.

Operation Charge of the Knights, begun in southern Iraq in March, followed by Lion's Roar in the Mosul area, are security operations that have clearly served the larger political purposes of strengthening national support for the federal government. Kurds and Sunni Arabs expressed overwhelming support for Charge of the Knights attacks on Shia gangs. The Mosul offensive was designed to destroy al-Qaeda cells that have increasingly focused their violence on Iraqi Sunnis who have joined the political process.

Success over the last two years has been incremental -- democracies tend to work that way. There are signs, however that a democratic foundation is being built for a more secure, productive and free Iraqi future.

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