Behind Iraq's protests, a call for better democracy

Motivated by recent shows of political strength by neighbors in Egypt, people in the Middle East and North Africa are taking to the streets of many cities to rally for change.
By Daniel Serwer
Thursday, March 3, 2011

The mood in Iraq has shifted with the uprisings across the Arab world. Frustration over jobs, corruption and services inspired Iraqis to take to the streets last Friday and over the weekend, precipitating the resignations of at least three provincial governors and prompting calls for long-promised local elections. While turnout was not overwhelming, Iraqis across the country demonstrated. The government tried to stifle the demonstrations by claiming they would be infiltrated by al-Qaeda. Security forces reacted violently, killing at least 17.

The forecast, however, is not all bad. When I was in Baghdad in January, just as Tunisia's revolution was unfolding, Iraqi politicians were pleased with the "national partnership" government that was taking power. The government includes most everyone who is anyone, except former prime minister Ayad Allawi (whose slate placed first in the parliamentary elections last March but who hesitated too long in joining Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, only to see others in his mostly Sunni coalition jump on board once Shiite firebrand Moqtada al-Sadr signed up).

Overall violence was down, though suicide bombings and targeted assassinations of key people in the security forces continued. Sadr has made it clear that he intends to play politics, while holding his militia forces in reserve. The Sunni militia equivalents had burned their bridges with al-Qaeda and likewise taken up politics.

Arabs and Kurds, who dispute control over a wide arc of northern Iraq, agreed to restart oil exports from Kurdistan in February. Kuwaitis and Iraqis, who have been at odds over various issues since the Persian Gulf War, are also talking with each other.

Iraqis have been thinking about what they need to do to achieve national reconciliation: Redefine the relationship between citizens and the state, reform education at all levels, suppress incitement, limit foreign interference in domestic politics. Members of parliament I spoke with wondered what it would take to produce a "culture of forgiveness." There was a healthy debate.

Although the protests could grow, it is significant that Iraqis are demanding not regime change but better democratic government. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's leading Shiite cleric, has endorsed the calls for better services. Demonstrators have criticized the ethnic and sectarian quotas used to form the new government, which encourage corruption and hamper efficient delivery of services. But few are calling for less democracy.

Maliki has given his ministers 100 days to deliver. Oil prices have risen well above the level used to calculate Iraq's budget, which is good news for Baghdad. Production is still increasing, and international companies have signed contracts to boost it further. The windfall allows Baghdad to imagine that it can begin to deliver electricity, water, sanitation and other services at levels not seen since 2003. The government is planning to host the Arab League summit this month. Downtown hotels are replacing their war-scarred facades, and uniformed street sweepers are cleaning the Green Zone, where the prime minister's new guest house is lit at night.

Yet the tussle between Islamists and secularists continues, with Allawi hoping that the national council for strategic policies that he is slated to chair will provide the vehicle he needs to turn Iraq in a more secular direction. The Shiite-Sunni divide is quiet but could rumble again. Arabs and Kurds have not yet agreed on the boundaries of Kurdistan, including important oil fields and the city of Kirkuk. As Americans withdraw, the United Nations needs to ensure that tensions between the Iraqi army and the Kurdish pesh merga do not get out of control.

From an American perspective, the most important problems awaiting resolution pertain to Iraq's military and oil.

Sadrists oppose the presence of U.S. forces on Iraqi territory past the agreed deadline of Dec. 31. But the Iraqi air force and navy will not be ready for prime time by then. We risk leaving Iraq exposed to aerial and maritime military pressure from neighbors, particularly Iran, unless a major American military training mission - numbering at least 1,000 - is attached to the U.S. Embassy.

Oil is a separate issue. Iraq can produce great volumes at low cost from giant reserves - possibly on the order of those in Saudi Arabia - but it does not have the infrastructure to get the oil to world markets. Iraq traditionally has exported most of its oil through the Persian Gulf, a route that is exposed to Iranian pressure. A safer option would be to use pipelines north and west to Turkey and Syria, which would send crude into European markets at lower cost than shipping through the Gulf while also reducing Iranian leverage.

The United States must live with the mistake of having gone to war in Iraq, but it can still get some return on its enormous investment if Iraq becomes a reliable, high-volume supplier of oil to world markets and a country that can defend itself with only a modicum of U.S. support. If at the same time Iraq remains a state in which leaders are chosen in relatively free and fair elections that put in power people who reflect the wide diversity of the population and feel real pressure to delivery services efficiently, something approaching a modest postwar success is possible. As U.S. troops draw down, American diplomats and aid workers have a tough, but potentially rewarding, challenge.

Daniel Serwer is a scholar at the Middle East Institute and a professorial lecturer at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He blogs at

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