BRIA 21 2 a Is Iraq on the Way to Democracy?

Bill of Rights in Action
Spring 2005 (21:2)

American Interventions

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Is Iraq on the Way to Democracy?

Can Iraq’s religious and ethnic groups overcome decades of distrust and violence to form a united democracy?

One hundred years ago, the modern state of Iraq did not exist. The land it today occupies was part of three outlying provinces of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. During World War I, Great Britain invaded and occupied most of these provinces. By the end of the war, the Ottoman Empire had collapsed. Since the Ottoman Turks were on the losing side of the war, they surrendered control of these provinces to Britain under the authority of the League of Nations. The British were primarily interested in the oil reserves of this area.

A People Divided

The British put the provinces together to serve their strategic and economic interests. The Iraqis, however, were then, as they are now, a people divided by religion and ethnicity. Iraq is mainly inhabited by three major ethnic groups—Sunni Arabs, Shiite Arabs, and Kurds.

Arabs trace their ethnic origins to the desert tribes of Arabia, and Muhammad converted these tribes to Islam in the early 600s. Arabic is the language of the Koran, the sacred book received by Muhammad.

The Sunni Arabs form 20 percent of Iraq’s population, living mainly in several provinces surrounding the city of Baghdad. This group of Muslims calls itself “Sunnis” after the Sunnah, the way of life based on the teachings of Muhammad. Nearly all Muslim nations in the world today follow the Sunni tradition of Islam. Although the Sunni Arabs are a minority in Iraq, they have ruled most of Iraq for centuries.

The Shiite Arabs make up about 60 percent of the Iraqi population. They heavily populate the southern part of Iraq around Basra, Iraq’s second largest city and main port. The south is the major oil production area of the country. In this area more than 1,000 years ago, the Shiites established their form of Islam after they lost a war over Muhammad’s successor. The Shiites believe only a descendant of Muhammad qualifies as the rightful leader of Islam.

Shiites make up a solid majority of Muslims only in Iran, Iraq, and Bahrain. The Sunni Arab rulers of Iraq have long discriminated against and oppressed the Shiite Arab majority.

The Kurds mostly live in northern Iraq around the cities of Mosul and Kirkuk. Composing about 15 percent of Iraq’s population, they are a mountain people with their own distinct culture and language. Most are Sunni Muslims, but they are not Arabs. The area they reside in contains an estimated 40 percent of the country’s oil reserves.

In 1920, both Sunnis and Shiites revolted against the British occupation. The British quickly put down the revolt, killing thousands by attacking villages from the air.

In setting up a government, Britain favored the Sunni Arab elite, which had administered the Ottoman provinces. In 1921, the British held elections, which the Shiite Arabs boycotted, to install a Sunni Arab king and parliament. British advisors wrote a constitution and occupied key positions in the government.

A few years later, Britain added to Iraq an oil-rich area in the mountainous north, homeland of non-Arab Kurds. In 1932, the League of Nations admitted Iraq, and the British ended their military occupation. But they left their advisors in Iraq’s government.

The Baath Party

After the British ended their military occupation, violence often erupted. The Sunni-dominated government twice violently put down Shiite rebellions. Sunni military officers attempted several coups. When officers started meeting with German officials during World War II, British troops re-occupied Iraq. After the war, however, they left Iraq for good. Riots and more plots against the monarchy finally ended in 1958 with a military takeover and the murder of the entire royal family.

For a brief period, a Sunni, Shiite, and Kurd military council ruled Iraq. But a struggle for power among Sunni military officers kept the country in turmoil. Then, in 1967, a new Arab socialist movement in the Middle East led by the Baath Party grabbed control of Iraq.

The mainly Sunni Baathists established a government-controlled economy. They also wanted Iraq to be a secular state where religion had little role in political affairs. To hold onto power, the Baathists imprisoned and executed thousands of their opponents.

In the 1970s, the Baathists embarked on an ambitious campaign to modernize Iraq. They ended foreign control of the oil industry and improved health care and education.

Within the Baath Party, however, Sunni Arabs fought each other for power. In 1979, one of the most ruthless Sunni Baathist leaders, Saddam Hussein, rose to power by jailing, murdering, or executing his opponents. He became Iraq’s president and military commander.

Saddam Hussein

That same year, Iraq’s neighbor Iran overthrew its monarch and installed a radical Islamist government. Its new Shiite religious and government leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, called for Iraqi Shiites to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Some Shiites rebelled, but Hussein crushed the rebellion. Seeing Iran as a continuing threat to his regime and believing his army far superior to Iran’s, Hussein invaded Iran.

The Iran-Iraq War lasted nearly 10 years (the United States supported Iraq). Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Iranians died. During the conflict, Hussein used chemical weapons against Iran.

Most Shiite Iraqis chose country over religion and fought against the Shiite Iranians. But the Kurds in the north aided Iran. Hussein punished them by ordering chemical weapon attacks against hundreds of Kurd villages. Iraqi forces demolished thousands of Kurd villages and some small cities. Hussein expelled more than 200,000 Kurds from Kirkuk, a city important to Iraq’s oil industry, and replaced them with Arab settlers.

The Iran-Iraq War ended in a stalemate. Hussein had borrowed billions of dollars from other countries. One of these countries was Kuwait, a small oil-rich kingdom bordering Iraq on the Persian Gulf. Kuwait insisted on collecting on its loan and pressured Hussein by forcing oil prices lower. This threatened Iraq’s oil-financed economy and Hussein’s grip on the country.

Iraq had long claimed Kuwait as its own. In August 1990, Hussein sent his armies into Kuwait, annexing it as an Iraqi province. In response, the United States led a military action, approved by the United Nations, to drive Hussein’s soldiers out of Kuwait.

After this war, President George H.W. Bush (the current president’s father) encouraged Iraqis to overthrow Saddam Hussein. When the Shiite Arabs and Kurds revolted, however, the United States offered no aid. Hussein’s Sunni Arab elite military units slaughtered tens of thousands of them.

The United States and its allies then established no-fly zones in the Shiite south and Kurd north. U.S. and British warplanes protected the Shiites and Kurds from any attacks by Hussein’s air force. Because Hussein had few troops in the northern Kurdish areas, the no-fly zones protected the Kurds. But in the south, where Hussein had many troops, he kept persecuting the Shiites. His troops arrested and shot thousands of Shiites. They drained the marshes in southern Iraq destroying the way of life of hundreds of thousands of Shiites.

When Saddam Hussein surrendered at the end of the Gulf War, he had agreed to U.N. inspections to rid Iraq of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons of mass destruction. During the 1990s, however, he constantly refused to cooperate with United Nations’ inspectors.

The United Nations tried to pressure Hussein to allow the inspections by imposing trade restrictions on what Iraq could import. The pressure failed to persuade him. The restrictions caused great economic hardship for the Iraqi people and led to a decline in their health, especially among children. But Hussein, his family, and close Baathist allies skimmed millions of dollars from oil revenues that were supposed to benefit the Iraqi people.

Hussein’s continuing obstruction caused U.N. inspectors to withdraw from Iraq in 1998. U.S. intelligence reports, which later proved false, persuaded President George W. Bush that Saddam Hussein was a threat to U.S. security because he was hiding stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. A group of President Bush’s advisors had long argued for the removal of Hussein from power in Iraq. They viewed this as a first step to bring democracy and eliminate Islamist terrorism throughout the Middle East.

President Bush considered getting specific U.N. Security Council approval to invade Iraq, but eventually decided against it. In March 2003, he ordered U.S. military forces to lead a coalition of nations to remove the Iraqi dictator.

The Occupation

A quick military victory ended Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. But looting and lawlessness erupted, and soon a bloody guerilla insurgency arose. It was centered in the Sunni Arab provinces around Baghdad. The U.S. Congress approved billions of dollars to reconstruct Iraq’s economic and social infrastructure. But insurgent violence has stalled some of this effort.

Coalition troops could not guarantee the security of 25 million Iraqis. Some have criticized the American occupation chief, L. Paul Bremer, for disbanding Iraq’s army and firing thousands of Baath Party officials. These actions resulted in large numbers of unemployed men whom the insurgency sometimes recruited. Bremer believed his policy was necessary to rid Iraq of the tight grip the Baath Party held on Iraq.

In June 2004, the American-led occupation government handed over sovereignty (supreme political authority) to an Interim Iraqi Government carefully chosen by U.S. and U.N. officials to represent Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds. But the interim Iraqi leaders still depended heavily on the 160,000, mostly American, occupation troops to fight the growing insurgent violence.

Bringing Democracy to Iraq

In his Inaugural Address in January 2005, President Bush declared, “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands.” Bush went on to say that “America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling,” but will help other peoples “attain their own freedom, and make their own way.”

The insurgency, however, has blocked progress in Iraq. It is composed mostly of Sunni Iraqis and Baathists who resent their loss of power, oppose the foreign military occupation, and fear Shiite majority rule. In addition, foreign Islamist terrorists have entered the country to add to the violence.

January 2005 Election

U.S. and U.N. officials set the country’s first free election in January 2005. Iraqis elected 275 representatives to a National Assembly. The National Assembly is empowered to select a transitional president, two deputy presidents, a prime minister, and a supreme court. Its most important responsibility, however, is to write a permanent constitution that Iraqis will vote on in October. If the voters approve the constitution, they will vote again in December to choose a permanent government.

In the January election, Iraqis voted for one of 111 political groups or lists of candidates. Each list represented one or more political parties. The lists won seats in the National Assembly according to the percentage of votes they got in the election. For example, if a list got 40 percent of the total vote, it received 40 percent of the 275 seats (110).

Insurgent violence constantly threatened the election campaign. The insurgents denounced democracy itself since, they said, it put governing into the hands of the people rather than God and Islamic law.

Shiite clerics, however, said it was a religious duty for their followers to vote. Rival Kurd political parties joined to maximize their vote turnout. But Sunni religious leaders, objecting to an election held during foreign occupation, called for Sunnis to stay home on election day.

Most of the 7,000 candidates on the party lists kept their names secret to avoid assassination. Party campaigning relied heavily on posters pasted on walls and television ads.

There was little public debate among the parties or candidates. A poll taken just before the election by the International Republican Institute indicated that the top three concerns of Iraqis were unemployment, infrastructure problems (like unreliable electric power), and health care. Only 28 percent favored electing religious leaders to political office, while 51 percent said religion and government should remain apart.

The Iraqi government virtually closed down the country on election day, January 30, 2005, banning automobile traffic to prevent car bombings. Iraqi police and soldiers, with U.S. troops nearby, guarded polling stations.

Despite insurgent threats to kill those who voted, Shiite Arabs and Kurds courageously and enthusiastically cast ballots in huge numbers. Almost 60 percent of registered voters turned out to vote. The turnout in the northern Kurdish regions averaged 85 percent. In the southern Shiite areas, it averaged 71 percent. Sunni Arab participation was far lower. In the Sunni Arab regions of Salahuddin, Nineveh, and Al Anbar, the turnout was 29 percent, 17 percent, 2 percent, respectively. The vote for parties broke down as follows:

United Iraqi Alliance (Shiite) 48 percent

Kurdistan Alliance (Kurd)     26 percent

Iraqi List (secular Shiite)       14 percent

Other parties                        12 percent

The future of Iraq depends on whether the three major ethnic groups can unite under a new government.

The Shiite Arab Majority

The big winner in the election was the United Iraqi Alliance, a coalition of diverse Shiite political parties. The most powerful Shiite religious leader in Iraq, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, worked to form the Alliance. It won 48 percent of the vote and 140 of the 275 seats in the National Assembly.

At least two major Alliance parties have close ties and possible financing from Shiite Iran. Some of the parties want Islamic law to dominate Iraq’s constitution while others call for a secular government. The parties in the Alliance also disagree on how long foreign troops should remain in the country.

Ayatollah Sistani was not a candidate on the Alliance list, but Shiites deeply respect his views. During the election campaign, Sistani consistently restrained his followers from retaliating against the Sunnis when insurgents tried to provoke a religious war.

The Shiites are positioned to take the leading role in Iraq’s government for the first time. But Sistani must hold together the coalition of restless Shiite parties while also addressing the concerns of the Sunnis and Kurds.

The leading candidate for prime minister is Ibrahim Jaafari, leader of the Daawa, an Islamist party. He left the country during most of Hussein’s rule, living first in Iran and later in Britain. He is believed to be a moderate and desire Iraq unity. He has expressed the belief that Islamic law should rule Iraq.

The Sunni Arab Minority

Sunni Arabs have the most to lose in a democratic Iraq because they will no longer dominate. Even Sunnis who oppose insurgent violence are nervous about Shiite majority rule.

The Sunnis’ boycott of the election left them with few seats in the National Assembly. Unless the Shiites decide to involve them, their influence will be limited in writing the all-important constitution.

The Sunnis still have one political advantage. The new constitution will fail if three provinces reject it by a two-thirds vote. Since the Sunnis hold a majority in at least three of Iraq’s provinces, the Shiites may have to include them in the government and writing of the constitution.

The Kurd Minority

Protected by the “no-fly” zone after the Gulf War, the Kurds in Iraq have already held elections and practiced self-government for more than a decade. They favor a secular government, a free market, and greater equality for women. They oppose the imposition of Islamic law on them.

They want a great degree of regional self-rule in the new Iraqi constitution. Many want outright national independence. Many Kurds never accepted their forced attachment to Iraq by the British and have long demanded nationhood. Other Iraqis oppose Kurd independence. Also opposing it are neighboring Syria, Turkey, and Iran. They fear that their own Kurd populations would revolt to join it.

Another point of contention is Kirkuk. The Kurds want to regain control of this city, which was forcibly “Arabized” by Saddam Hussein. This remains a bitter issue between the Kurds and Arabs of Iraq.

Kurds make up the majority in three provinces. This means that, like the Sunnis, they could scuttle the new Iraq constitution if they strongly oppose its provisions.

The American Exit Strategy

President Bush says American troops should stay until Iraq becomes a democratic and peaceful nation. Much depends on how long it will take to train Iraqi police and soldiers to take over the fight against the insurgency. But the newly elected Iraqi government may press for an earlier withdrawal of foreign troops. The American public, too, may grow impatient if U.S. military deaths mount along with the high financial cost (currently about $4 billion per month).

For Discussion and Writing

1.         What are the forces pushing Iraq toward unity and a democratic government?

2.         What are the forces pushing Iraq away from unity and democracy?

3.         What are some scenarios—good and bad—for the future of Iraq? In terms of U.S. interests, what do you think would be the best possible outcome in Iraq? What would be the worst?

4.         What do you think should be the U.S.’s exit strategy from Iraq?

A C T I V I T YThe Future of Iraq

In small groups, do the following:

1.         Choose one of the following three scenarios and analyze whether or not it is likely to happen. Find at least two pieces of evidence in the article to support your conclusion.

            A.        The Shiite Arab majority will include the Sunni Arab and Kurd minorities in writing a constitution that will result in a united and democratic Iraqi nation.

            B.        Iraq will erupt into civil war.

            C.        The Iraqi constitution will not be ratified and Iraq will split up into two or three independent nations.

2.         Decide what you think will be the most likely scenario for the future of Iraq. It might be one of the three scenarios above or another scenario that you create. Be prepared to participate in a class debate on the most likely future of Iraq.

For Further Information

Constitutional Rights Foundation: War in Iraq Links



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