The Middle East Channel

A decade of democratic transition in Iraq

Following the successful ousting of the Baath regime on April 9, 2003, Iraq began its transition toward a process of democratization that gradually achieved important gains in transferring some powers to the previously disenfranchised population. This transition has progressed from direct U.S. rule to partial Iraqi participation, and finally full Iraqi administration of the country. Since Iraqis reclaimed sovereignty in 2004 they have managed to write and ratify a constitution, hold regular provincial and general elections, and begin to establish a tradition of peaceful transfer of political power and parliamentary life. This is a very significant reversal of the authoritarian rule in Iraq between 1958 and 2003, when governments were only replaced by violence and coups.

However, the slow transition to democracy and the many setbacks in the process are still frustrating to many Iraqis. This is mainly because Iraqis have no consensus on the shape of their future regime. They are divided on the questions of federalism and the scope of the central government's powers; a majority government versus a power-sharing arrangement; the identity of Iraq as a neutral state with policies driven by its national interests or as a part of some larger regional context (Arab, Islamic, etc.); among many other disputes. 

As far as electoral politics are concerned, Iraqi politicians and the electorate have not matured enough to trust the performance-based appeal and leave the comfort zones of ethnic and sectarian affinities. So far, all Iraqi election results have followed the country's sectarian and ethnic composition. This social comfort zone has encouraged Iraqi political players to take their constituents for granted and lose the sense of urgency to improve the country's conditions or curb the epidemic of corruption. Additionally, electing candidates on the basis of sub-identities has denied Iraq a national leader, who could inspire a majority of Iraqis from all ethnic and sectarian backgrounds. Conversely, it is possible that the lack of such an inspiring statesman in Iraq has left the electorate with solely ethnic and sectarian leaders. Whatever the case might be, such a leader is desperately needed to lead the country with genuine authority.

Although it is fashionable to condemn everything that happened in Iraq post-2003, there are signs of hope for a progress toward a successful democratization. The U.S. withdrawal has removed one of the major obstacles prohibiting a faster transition toward democratization, because the United States has often interfered to secure political outcomes that have guaranteed the safety of U.S. troops or long-term interests in Iraq, but not necessarily in order to help a healthy transition toward democracy. Also, the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces took away any legitimacy from the calls for violent opposition to the political process. With the "occupation" out of the way, all that is left for the detractors of the political process is the debate over policies, like the protests in the three Sunni Arab provinces held over the past weeks.

Another good sign is the improving performance of the Iraqi judiciary and its independence, despite the occasional accusations of being otherwise. So far, the judiciary has ruled in favor of almost every group that has presented a strong case and disappointed every group when the claims were not based on solid grounds. Even Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, often accused of manipulating the judiciary, has suffered some significant defeats in court, the latest of which was his attempt to challenge the law limiting his terms. This trend, if it continues, is a strong sign of rule of law, which in turn will forward the democratization process.

One final sign of hope is the new culture of subordinating the armed forces to civilian control. The Iraqi military, which has had an awful history of destructive involvement in politics since the 1936 coup, is following a strict professional policy of adhering to civilian command. If this culture is maintained, Iraqi forces will be an important supporter of the democratic system, when it is finally consolidated.

So far, Iraqi forces have been effective in providing protection for major events in Iraq, with many cities becoming areas of responsibility: regions during countrywide election days and several southern cities during religious rituals, where millions of Iraqis and foreigners gather to commemorate the martyrdom of historic Shiite Imams. However, on the external front, the Iraqi Armed Forces are very far from being ready to defend the country against a foreign aggression. After being a cause of concern for all Middle Eastern countries, the Iraqi Armed Forces are not in a position to hold their ground against any of their neighbors. 

One of the most disturbing negative aspects the post-2003 period is the level of corruption in Iraq. There are three forms of corruption currently plaguing Iraq: political, administrative, and financial. Each form contributes in its own way, and in collaboration with the others, to the failure of the country in its pursuit of progress and development. The ultimate result of this failure to curb corruption can be seen in the rising apathy of Iraqis and their lack of confidence in their government and the future of the country. In a country like Iraq that exists in severe post-conflict conditions and significant internal discord, corruption takes a secondary level of importance for the government, after the more pressing issues, such as the lack of security, economic hardship and high unemployment, the collapse of services, and the lack of effective governance. 

More dangerous still is the contribution of corruption to the country's instability and the continued political violence. In addition to causing the lack of services, lack of economic progress, and poor governance, it is clear from the empirical evidence that all three forms of corruption have contributed greatly to the deterioration of security in post-2003 Iraq. Corrupt politicians at all governmental levels have sponsored terrorism, collaborated with insurgents, or looked the other way in exchange for political gains to themselves or their respective political parties.

Does the United States have a coherent policy to help steer Iraq toward the path of transparency and democratic governance? It is hard to say. The post-Saddam U.S. policy has been more focused on keeping Iraq's various factions glued together, while lack of efficiency, transparency, and good governance are highly tolerated. The U.S. obsession with the political process and the "democratization" of Iraq has caused a troublesome deficit in the attention paid to combating corruption. To make matters worse, the current U.S. administration has turned away from full engagement with Iraq. Even the implementation of the Strategic Framework Agreement that was signed between the two countries in 2008 is hardly visible for the most informed observers of U.S. and Iraqi relations. One cannot pass any opportunity to note that there is still a window of opportunity for a higher level of positive engagement with Iraq, especially on this front.

Abbas Kadhim is a senior fellow at the Boston University Institute for Iraq Studies. He is the author of Reclaiming Iraq: the 1920 Revolution and the founding of the modern state, University of Texas Press (2012).


The Middle East Channel

Syrian opposition leader resigns and an explosion injures FSA head

Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, the head of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), announced his resignation on Sunday via a statement written on his Facebook page. Al-Khatib wrote, "I announce my resignation from the National Coalition, so that I can work with a freedom that cannot possibly be had in an official institution." He has repeatedly voiced frustrations, particularly with the lack of international support to Syrian opposition fighters. There is also speculation that his resignation was related to last week's election of Ghassan Hitto as prime minister of an interim opposition government. Hitto is a moderate Islamist and an American citizen; and his victory provoked the resignation of several coalition members. Additionally, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has rejected Hitto, saying he did not have consensus support and was forced on the coalition. Meanwhile, on Sunday, Free Syrian Army founder and commander Colonel Riad al-Assad, was severely injured in an explosion while conducting a tour in the eastern town of Mayadeen, south of Deir al-Zour. Al-Assad reportedly lost his leg, and is currently being treated in Turkey. According to a report, the C.I.A. has been increasingly assisting Turkey and Arab governments in airlifting arms and equipment to Syrian opposition fighters. The United States has consistently refused to offer lethal aid to opposition forces. But, the involvement of the C.I.A., despite acting mostly in a consultative role according to U.S. officials, shows a possible shift in the Obama administration's willingness to support the opposition with lethal resources.


  • In a surprise visit to Iraq, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry pushed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to stop the flow of Iranian arms into Syria.
  • Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has raised customs rates on dozens of "non-essential" imports in efforts to address declining economic conditions.
  • Lebanon's Najib Mikati is defending his resignation and that of his government over the inability to approve an electoral commission and the failure to agree to an extension on the internal security chief's term. 

Arguments and Analysis

Syria: the failure of our so-called international community (Desmond Tutu, The Guardian)

What on earth will it take for this to finally happen? For two years, our so-called international community has allowed complex power plays to take priority over the terrible suffering of Syrians. It is so uncaring and cynical. If your loved ones were trapped there, would you not be moved to act? Would you care for politics rather than safety in the face of such carnage?

In the absence of a political solution, there is simply no excuse for the lack of concerted, neutral humanitarian efforts to reach the millions who are suffering everywhere in the country. Surely it is in the interest of anyone who cares for the future of Syria to keep families safe and children unscathed?

Iraq: ten years of hubris and incompetence (Zaid Al-Ali, OpenDemocracy)

"Ten years after the 2003 war, the Iraqi government credits itself with a number of achievements. All foreign soldiers have left the country, the 2005 constitution was approved by 80% of the population, several rounds of elections have taken place in the absence of credible accusations of massive fraud, and the annual state budget has reached unheard of proportions.  And yet, the country has millions of poor who live in slums without access to any government services to speak of, and millions of others have left the country never to return. The government is once again rearming. Women's rights have regressed. Political tensions, fueled by corruption, violence and sectarianism, appear to be worsening. 

There are many causes for this state of affairs, too many to address in any single analysis.  This article focuses on the rules that are designed to govern the political process, namely the 2005 constitution. The constitution was rushed, is undemocratic, and is rigged to encourage political tensions, instability and crisis. This is not "post-hindsight" analysis: in the summer of 2005, a few weeks before the referendum that was organised to approve the constitution, two of the world's leading legal scholars travelled to Baghdad and studied the then draft constitution. They wrote an analysis which was circulated to key officials, but was not published at the time. Their conclusion was that, if applied, the constitution posed a "grave risk to state and society". Their prophetic prognosis went unheeded and we are still paying the consequences today."

If We Won't Save Syria, Save the Syrians (Morton Abramowitz, The National Interest)

"The Syrian humanitarian situation worsens daily. It is also gradually destabilizing the region. The total displaced Syrian population, internally and externally, now exceeds the numbers in Darfur, where the displaced two million or so were at least in much warmer weather and more easily managed by the foreign humanitarian community.

While making such a comparison is painful, the more than two million displaced within Syria are all over the country, often in terrible circumstances, particularly with the present cold weather. They eke out survival with limited help from foreign humanitarian agencies. Their future looks abysmal.

... In previous massive human disasters, the United States has always aggressively taken the lead-for Indochinese refugees, Iraqi Kurds, Bosnians, Kosovars, Iraqis displaced from our second Gulf War and many others. We made things happen very impressively, preserving first asylum, resettling millions of refugees in this country, or providing the oomph and money to get nations to do some of the same. The voice of the United States now seems muted. Even many American humanitarian agencies are unduly quiet, perhaps afraid to bite the hands that feed them.

You would think that given our decision not to arm the rebels, we would be at least be aggressive in getting humanitarian help for a dying country and the humanitarian agencies would be out there urging the same. I can attest to the dedication and perseverance of those actually managing our humanitarian-emergency programs, but the voices of our high-level officials, public and private, are more quiet than usual. None even saw fit to attend the worldwide Kuwait pledging conference."

--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey