Another side of the surge (Part 3)

This is the final section of my recent article in the Pittsburgh Political Review.

There’s got to be a different way to run Iraq
Ali Fadel al-Misir deserted from Saddam’s army in the 1980’s near the end of the war with Iran. Like many deserters, he bounced around the neighboring countries of the Middle East waiting for the right time to slip back to his family in Baghdad without drawing any attention. He connected with a few of the Shia anti-Saddam groups in exile in Iran and Syria, but never felt compelled to join up with these emerging insurgent movements. He did make it back to his family (riding a motorcycle through the desert from Damascus to Baghdad) and then watched as his country suffered the shame of the 1991 Gulf War and the decade of UN sanctions. He praised the fall of the Saddam regime and was eager to support the efforts of building a new democracy in 2003. He was selected by his neighborhood to serve on the local council and was soon moved up to higher positions within the district, and then the Provincial Council. In late 2004, the Provincial Council chose Ali Fadel to serve as Governor of Baghdad following the assassination of Governor Ali al-Haidary.

The elections of 2005 were a major turning point for Iraq’s democracy – but not in the way that they are commonly portrayed. They did feature millions of Iraqis participating in one of the cornerstones of democracy, an election; however, it is crucial to look deeper into this event to see some of its later ramifications. Before these elections, most Iraqis serving in Baghdad’s provincial government were local community leaders with no partisan affiliation, and were generally dedicated to a “moderate” conception of what they wanted Iraq’s new democracy to look like, rejecting violence as a means to achieve political ends, respecting the rule of law and believing in human rights for all regardless of sect, ethnicity or creed. After these elections, the Baghdad Provincial Council’s membership did not represent Baghdad’s districts; they represented Baghdad’s major political parties (the system changed from geographical representation to a party-list vote). Furthermore, one can generalize that most of these partisan loyalists conceive of politics as a winner-take-all endeavor; democracy is a way to take power – not share it.

Ali Fadel and a number of other moderate leaders were swept from power in 2005, and watched from the sidelines as much of their democracy-building efforts were undone as a new era of sectarian politics was ushered into Baghdad. The new Shia-dominated Provincial Council (45 of 51 seats in that assembly) used their leverage to fire a number of municipal employees and replace them with political appointees in blatant episodes of partisan patronage. Local councils that did not toe the line of new Provincial Council directives found their budgets confiscated. The reverberations of this sudden and acrimonious divide between the local moderates and the provincial partisans still affect governance in Baghdad.

Politics everywhere can often be seen as some form of a client/patron relationship; in return for political loyalty, leaders distribute money, jobs and other forms of largesse (like protection) to their followers. This is particularly evident in Baghdad, as what we generally consider political parties are merely the political wings of complex organizations that have massive charity components as well as militia elements; many developed as underground and/or international resistance groups to the Saddam regime, and bring this mentality into Baghdad’s politics. After a meeting I brokered between the current Governor of Baghdad, Hussein al-Tahan and the Commander of the 4th Infantry Division, where these two men argued over the best way to fight the insurgency in Baghdad, Governor Hussein, a former Badr Corps commander, candidly told me that he felt the American commander wasn’t taking his ideas seriously enough. “I think I know what I am talking about,” he said, a clear reference to his former career leading insurgent attacks in Baghdad – against the Saddam regime. Governor Hussein’s temperamental leadership style and his relentless advocacy on behalf of Baghdad’s Shia community were clear indications of his past, and his strong connections to Tehran built during years in exile in neighboring Iran.

New political parties that do not have such a legacy in armed resistance or the resources of a social welfare network are at a severe disadvantage in Baghdad’s political arena. However, Baghdad does have a sizable population of politically active individuals that would like to see politics change; many want to see the current politics of identity transform into a politics of issues and ideals. After being pushed out of politics in 2005, many of these local leaders turned their efforts to civil society organizations and local social activism. Spurned by their own government, many of these leaders turned to American and international sources for funding. While we recognized that such one-off support to local moderates was indeed good for Baghdad, it did not seem to be either sustainable or conducive to helping these moderates affect change in the political system. Former Governor Ali Fadel al-Misir suggested a shift in our tactics.

Feeling left out of politics? How about a support group…
Along with the “civilian surge” of PRT personnel came a surge of money, in the form of Quick Reaction Funds (QRF), which we were to spend on “soft” development (as opposed to “hard” spending on infrastructure projects). We had QRF money to spend on training sessions, cultural events, democracy workshops; the conceptual shift that developed through the genesis of the Baghdad League was that the spending of this money could help Iraqi moderates build a support network amongst themselves – not just become dependent upon American aid. Ali Fadel suggested that a board of directors of elite Baghdad moderates made up of individuals with some public notoriety like himself and notable activist Madeeha Hasan Odhaib (named to TIME magazine’s list of the World’s 100 Most Influential People (2008) for her advocacy on the plight of displaced persons in Baghdad), assist with the PRT’s outreach efforts to support local activism and civil society organizations across Baghdad. Thus American money would take on an Iraqi face and facilitate a different type of client/patron relationship – one based on shared ideals for public activism, not sectarian identity. Under the leadership of Ali Fadel, the Baghdad League took shape as a forum for many moderates who lack an outlet in active politics, but inspired by a sense of community and comradeship may throw their hats in the ring in future elections. With a new round of provincial elections scheduled for early 2009, there are many in Baghdad hopeful about changes that can bring a better future. Changes they have a say in.

Change we can believe in?
Iraq has entered a new phase. The earlier threat of all-out sectarian civil war has passed; most of the violence is now criminally-driven enterprise in a weak-state environment. The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has made strides in enforcing its will, notably with the actions in Basra, Sadr City and Mosul; moves that are forcing individuals like Moqtada al-Sadr to recalculate his movement’s participation in legitimate versus illicit activities. Maliki’s progress is due to a number of factors, but one I want to stress is simply that he and many others currently serving in the government are merely just getting better at doing their jobs. Running a government isn’t easy in any circumstances; fighting a complex insurgency is a tough way to get on-the-job training.

Regarding American involvement in Iraq, it is tempting and quite common to have beliefs on one hand, that the US is imposing “democracy at the point of a gun” in Iraq; or on the other, that democracy is doomed to failure in the Middle East for historical and cultural reasons. Both arguments are cynical and completely inaccurate. Iraqi politics is a competitive arena where many visions contend for supremacy; pluralistic democracy would be the goal of many with or without the US occupation. The people of Iraq continue to cope with the violent transformation of their society; it is crucial to understand the complexity of this situation and the contours of its trajectory in order to determine the best course of action for the future. Baghdad is still a very violent place. True political reconciliation is still an objective, not a reality. The trains are not running on time, and they won’t for a while. But we are also not where we were when the Iraq Study Group stated that “the situation is grave and deteriorating.” Probably the most important factor that led to the success of the surge is that we even tried it in the first place.

Cheers for Baghdad
Where can you get a six-pack of beer in downtown Baghdad? Nowadays, just about anywhere. That wasn’t the case in early 2007. The city was a violent mess. Citizens lived in constant fear of finding themselves on the wrong side of the militant thugs, criminal gangs and religious zealots that controlled their neighborhoods. Bars, restaurants, and discos were shuttered. I asked my friend, a former Iraqi army officer and born-and-bred Baghdadi, Omar al-Rahmani, how would we know if life in Baghdad was getting any better? He said, “When we start drinking again.” One evening Omar and I got the chance to split a bottle of Scotch, drinking to the endurance of an extraordinary city and its courageous people.