On December 21, more than nine months after Iraq’s elections, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki finally announced his new cabinet. Many Iraq skeptics have used the delay to argue that democracy is anathema to Iraq. They are wrong. The problem is not Iraq’s democracy but rather its neighbors’ antipathy to representative government and their interference in Iraqi politics.
Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy worked with Turkey’s government and Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria to undermine government formation in Iraq. In repeated conversations with President Obama and Vice President Biden, Prime Minister Maliki has complained about Saudi and Turkish efforts to support the formation of a Sunni sectarian list and defeat his efforts to form a cross-sectarian slate. “We were making good progress,” one leader from Maliki’s Dawa party said. Ahmed Abu Risha, the Sunni leader who heads the Awakening Conference party, said he would join the coalition. “We had advanced talks with other secular Sunnis, with some members of the Iraqi Islamic Party, with Turkmen leaders, with technocrats and independents, and we even had some Kurdish politicians expressing a serious desire to become part of our national project,” Abu Risha reported. Then regional powers intervened. “Sunni politicians started coming to us saying, we would love to join you, but we have been threatened [by neighboring states]. Al-Iraqiya is being presented to us as our only alternative,” he said. Regional (and American) advocacy for former prime minister Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiya list forced Maliki into a corner and set back efforts to promote a moderate bloc for months.
Unfortunately, the Saudis and Turks were somewhat successful at selling their plan to Washington as a way to contain Iran’s influence. If the White House truly wishes to limit Iranian influence in Iraq, it should avoid these sectarian games. Iraqis — regardless of their sectarian preference — are nationalists. Iraqi Shia are no more Iranian than they are Saudi. Still, Iraqi Shia suffered disproportionately under the Baathist regime, while many Arab states, as well as Turkey and the United States, often turned a blind eye. Iraqis fear that their Arab neighbors harbor such sectarian hatred that they would again countenance repression of the Shia. This concern means that rather than repelling Iranian influence, the Saudi-Turkish strategy actually fuels it, as Iraqis turn out of fear rather than desire into Iran’s embrace. Perhaps this is why the Iraqi National Alliance — perhaps encouraged by Tehran — polarized the situation by pushing de-Baathification to the top of the agenda.
As Iraqis prepared to vote in March 2010, three choices emerged: a largely Shia list with Iranian backing, a largely Sunni list headed by a ceremonial Shia (Allawi) and backed by Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and Maliki’s State of Law list, with a Dawa core and a handful of Arab Sunni tribal sheikhs and independent politicians.
While voting was largely peaceful, the aftermath was problematic. Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission was inept at best and corrupt at worst. At key stations in Baghdad, Mosul, and elsewhere, there were illogical results, with candidates from the Sadrists or Iraqiya winning almost 100 percent. The Saudis and Turks rejoiced, and U.S. diplomats, perhaps fearing instability with a true recount, authenticated the process even before Iraq’s Supreme Court could do so. Maliki saw this as a betrayal, and Iraqis saw the United States as again siding with Saudi Arabia and Turkey’s efforts to turn back the clock on Iraq’s progress. As crowds of Iraqiya supporters reportedly went to the streets carrying pictures of Saddam Hussein, Iraqiya politicians promised to reintegrate the former Baath party into Iraqi politics as part of “sweeping national reconciliation.”
Against this backdrop of regional intrigue, Maliki is seeking a “third way.” He sees Iraq neither as part of an Iranian axis nor as part of a Saudi one. Iraqis do not want to be party to the regional conflicts that plague the Middle East. Rather, they want economic and cultural ties with all their neighbors, and with the world at large. Regrettably, the State Department has failed to use its influence to encourage Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Cooperation Council states to end their informal boycott of Iraq.
Too many outside observers dismiss as a pipedream the idea that an independent, prosperous, democratic Iraq can emerge from the recent turmoil. Their pessimism is nothing new, but Iraqis know better. In 2007, the same voices declared Iraq dead. They wrongly said Maliki would never confront the Shia militias. Few believed Maliki would work effectively with Sunni tribes to battle al-Qaeda, and few believed that American troops could depart without a complete deterioration in the country’s security situation. But Iraq in 2011 is a better place than it was in 2006, when Maliki entered office. As U.S. troops depart, security is much improved. Foreign investment grows steadily.
We now look toward the future. The “third way” will build a diverse alliance without backsliding toward a Lebanese-style confessional system. Maliki must now try to realize the vision of a free, peaceful, thriving democracy for which so many Iraqis and Americans have sacrificed. Let us hope that the United States and all responsible actors in the international community will help him succeed.
— Jaffar al-Rikabi is a researcher in Iraqi politics and economics based in London and Baghdad. He holds an M.A. (hon.) from Georgetown University’s Edmund Walsh School of Foreign Service.