October 22, 2005
"Not the kind of state the coalition had hoped to create"
Prospect magazine has a very interesting article by Rory Stewart, a former governing deputy for the UK in two southern Iraqi provinces. He discusses in considerable detail the different Shi'ite political parties (and their associated militias) and the ways in which they have held used their power in the South, before concluding:
The new order in southern Iraq is, in short, hard to define. It is an improvement on the political exclusion and sadistic inhumanity of Saddam and has a great deal to teach the Sunni areas about prosperity, security and politics. But it is also reactionary, violent, intolerant towards women and religious minorities and uncooperative with the coalition. The new leaders have dark histories and dubious allies; they enforce a narrow social code and ignore the rural areas.
Southern Iraq is a democracy but we should not assume that this or any of the other terms which we deploy frequently about Iraq—insurgency, civil society, civil war, police force or even political party— mean what they do in Britain. There have been elections, but the government is not responsive to or respectful of human rights. In many ways it resembles Iran, but it is not governed by clerics. Its militias are not infiltrators, they are an integral element of the elected parties. The new government is oppressive, but has a popular mandate; it is supported by illegal militias, but it has improved security.
This is not the kind of state the coalition had hoped to create.
The British soldier engulfed by flames and his colleagues who were kidnapped were not simply victims of mob violence, or even of an illegal militia. They were confronting the authorities of an independent state. In place of last year's insurgency, there is now an increasingly confident governing apparatus in the south, which extends from governors and provincial councillors to the militias, police and ministries. The leaders of these groups have a distinctive Islamist ideology and complex history. This new Islamist state is elected, it functions and it is relatively popular. We may not like it, but we can only try to understand it and acknowledge that there is now little we can do to influence it.
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Interesting, I was pondering these things just this weekend, from my purely personal position.
I am not sure I would call the emerging Shi'ite centered quasi-fundamentalist power centes a coherent system or anything of the like, but certainly they will be the powers in a future Iraq.
One simply has to make peace with that if one wants to do anything.
Posted by: lounsbury at October 24, 2005 06:21 AM
I have always felt hopeful about Iran. It may have an oppressive clerical oligarchy, but on the whole there has always seemed to be a potential for reform there that was totally lacking in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Maybe that's how things will develop in southern Iraq, given time. There has always been the ever-present concern in the past that if you allow a democracy in a Muslim country, then radical Islamists will end up in power. That's the thing about democracy, you don't get what you want, you get what the majority want. And under the extremely effective domination of Saddam Hussein's rule, maybe only the deeply held convictions of religion managed to survive in a structured form in the south, ready to take over in the power vaccuum with popular support. No doubt with help from Iran, which has the same structure. Religion is always harder to fight against, given its deeply personal and sacred nature, not to mention the greater Shia-Sunni struggle.
To me, the greatest tragedy of Saddam Hussein's Iraq is that it systematically destroyed all the leadership potential in the country that didn't side with it, and continued to do so until his removal. That kind of oppression screws up a country for decades, and can't help but create a huge mess once that oppression is removed.
Maybe southern Iraq will have to go through the same steps as Iran. Hopefully that includes the beginnings of a reform movement in the future, when the population feels more secure and grabs a little prosperity. The danger, of course, being that in the meantime the ruling authorities might too securely establish their means of holding on to power. I suppose it could have gone better than this, but that would have taken a lot of planning, and, well...
Posted by: zurn at October 24, 2005 03:03 PM