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Can Baghdad Learn from Rome?
Italy’s postwar history is an encouraging example for a country that hears little good news.


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Picture a country that has just emerged from six years of war. The economy is destroyed, and foreign troops occupy its land. Many of its people are poor and rural, and abide by customs and technologies that have not changed for centuries. With identities most strongly tied to city or region, there is little sense of national unity, and there are no strong federal institutions. The public has just approved a new constitution in a contentious referendum, following decades of dictatorship. However, the new and nominally democratic government is a vessel of patronage and corruption whereby funds, jobs, and contracts in the largely state-run economy are doled out along regional and political lines.

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This sounds an awful lot like Iraq today, but it actually describes Italy in the years immediately following World War II. The Italian experience over the past 65 years — replete with uneven economic growth, ever-changing governments, and Mafia-laced corruption — is one that few modern countries would seek to emulate. However, Italy is today a wealthy and stable country. Its postwar condition has enough commonalities with that of today’s Iraq that its growth trajectory serves as a best-case scenario to which Baghdad can aspire. In Italy’s case, a system of political favoritism actually helped preserve the peace from 1946 until the arrival of the “economic miracle” of the 1960s. As the newly formed Iraqi government finally gets down to the important business of governance, it should look to Italy and know that the chance of a positive outcome for its country still lies within reach.

Iraq is well known to be divided among its Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish factions, which (with plenty of exceptions) are roughly situated in the central, southern, and northern areas of the country respectively. Many of the state’s institutions are controlled by political parties that generally fall along factional lines. While Italy’s 1946 internal divides never reached the near-civil-war conditions of Iraq’s 2005–07 sectarian violence, the Italian rift was significant. Northern and southern Italy had very different wartime experiences. American and British troops occupied the relatively peaceful though poor and agrarian south, to which King Victor Emmanuel III ultimately fled. In contrast, Nazi troops occupied the urban and industrial north, in the form of the puppet-state Italian Social Republic. Northerners turned against their neighbors, split between republicans and post-fascists — or more bluntly, resisters and collaborators. Compounding these differences was the fact that the formal Italian language was little used outside of official matters, as most people preferred regional dialects. It was not until southerners migrated to the north en masse in the 1960s that the country began to unite around standard Italian. As Tony Judt observes in his masterpiece, Postwar, “‘Italians,’ for good or ill, were forged more by the shared experience of watching sports or variety shows on RAI [the national broadcasting network, which entered the television market in 1952] than by a century of unified national government.”

In both countries, internal divisions extended to the voting booth. One year after Mussolini’s execution, Italians voted to form a republic in a 1946 referendum that mirrors Iraq’s constitutional referendum of 2005. The north/south divide shaped a polarizing outcome, with all the northern regions voting strongly in favor of a republic (Trento’s 85 percent vote being the highest), and the southern regions supporting the monarchy (Campania led the way at 77 percent). Such extreme divisions over fundamental political questions are alarming for the unity of any country, and they persist in Iraq as well, where the results of the March 2010 parliamentary elections fell along largely sectarian and regional lines. The Shiite southern provinces voted heavily for the State of Law Coalition, the Sunni center for the secular Iraqi National Movement, and the Kurdish north for the Kurdistan Alliance. Amidst allegations of fraud, it took the Iraqis nine months to form a government.



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