Iraq needs statesmen

by James Denselow

The political elite in Iraq have to be willing to sacrifice short-term, sectarian gain for the long-term interests of their country, Saturday 27 February 2010 16.00 GMT

Iraqis will go to the polls again on 7 March to elect 325 members of the country's council of representatives. The election represents another key milestone in the post-2003 development of the country. Although Iraqis have voted several times since the invasion (constitutional referendum, national elections and local elections) with US troops out of the cities and with their numbers below 100,000 for the first time since 2003, the country now has a far larger claim to its own sovereignty.

As Nato troops swarm across southern Afghanistan as part of Obama's surge, there is a crucial American need for quiet on the Iraqi front but, with just over a week before the elections, violence and fierce political disagreements continue to rock Iraq's nascent governmental institutions.

While much has been made of the significant improvement in security in the country, it is worth taking a moment to remember how dangerous Iraq really is. Nearly seven years after the toppling of Saddam it is only the multiple bombings such as the targeting of government ministries and Shia pilgrimages that break into the international media; the constant daily stories of death and destruction are largely unnoticed outside the country.

Indeed, although much of the western media has largely abandoned covering Iraq, McClatchy news publishes an important daily report of violence from police, military and medical sources. But even this fails to tally the actual daily violence, much of which goes unreported. Still, a typical report from last Monday shows, in Baghdad alone, terrifying levels of violence with several bombings, minibuses raked by gunfire, a family of eight massacred in their home, a policeman killed by a sniper and a university lecturer gunned down on the street.

Meanwhile, back in the political arena, Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister whose "State of Law" coalition has sought to claim credit for the relative improvements in security, has been quick to blame Ba'athists, not al-Qaida, for the recent large-scale attacks.

As the election approaches, the splitting of the Shia United Arab Alliance (UIA) into Maliki's coalition and the National Iraqi Alliance (NIA), led by his former boss, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, has meant that both sides are looking to take a hard line against former Ba'athists to solicit votes from their own sectarian communities.

Such short-term political positioning could have devastating consequences if large sections of the Sunni community boycott the election or find themselves without an effective role in the next governing coalition. This would fatally undermine the legitimacy of the next government and could lead to renewed large-scale fighting along sectarian fault lines.

Maliki in particular is guilty of switching from statesman (when he looked to incorporate Sunni parties into his coalition) to politician (when he decided to largely abandon the Sunni vote by supporting the decision to disqualify some 442 candidates) in order to shore up his own constituency which was under threat from the NIA.

Despite the regularity of all parties boasting their "national" credentials, it appears that Iraq is heading down the road of Lebanon with the primacy of identity-based politics, whether ethnic or sectarian in character. As Professor Juan Cole explained recently, "Iraqis typically are embarrassed by sectarianism and deny its importance. But when they have gone to the polls in the past five years, they have almost always voted for ethnic or sectarian parties once in the privacy of the voting booth".

Lebanon's current government took four months of political wrangling to form, and the US ambassador, Christopher Hill, warned that whatever the result of the Iraqi election it may take some time for a governing coalition to take shape as the parties argue over the allocation of ministries and connections into lucrative patronage networks.

Once the voting is out of the way, however, the leaders of the Shia parties should find it easier to include Sunni groups, such as the Allawi-led Iraqi National Movement (INM) into a unity coalition, the likes of which is seen in Beirut today. The flip side of such national unity governments is that they can easily become paralysed by a lack of agreement on the most fundamental issues.

Despite the apparent success of the Petraeus policy of "surgenomics" (a troop surge combined with simultaneous financial co-option of former enemies), it was designed to create a more peaceful space in which political agreement on key issues could be found. However, there is still no agreement on critical matters such as the nature of Iraqi federalism, an oil law, internal borders and national reconciliation.

If a national unity coalition is Iraq's best bet to prevent large-scale violence erupting, then the only hope to avoid the paralysis of such coalitions is through the emergence of statesmen who are able to leave sectarian politics at the ballot box.