May 25, 2013
Beyond Kingmaker: Moqtada al-Sadr and the Future of Iraq
Posted on Oct 24, 2010
By Scott Ritter
More than seven months have passed since the national elections in Iraq on March 7. So far no government has been formed, and it is unlikely that one will emerge before year’s end, if at all. This election was touted by the United States as the vehicle that would produce an Iraqi government capable of unifying a divided nation, and in doing so provide a level of stability and security that would justify President Barack Obama’s decision to remove all combat troops from Iraq by August 2010. Instead, it has become clear that Iraq, some seven years after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein at the hands of a U.S.-led invasion, remains a deeply fractured country unable to produce a democratically elected central government capable of bringing the nation together. This ongoing political paralysis paves the way for the resurgence of both major sectarian fighting and an anti-government insurgency that would severely erode whatever limited progress Iraq has made in the post-Saddam era.
That the March 2010 election in Iraq produced such an inconclusive result should not have come as a surprise to anyone. The foundation upon which this election was constructed was unsound both in form and substance. While Iraq possessed an elected parliament under Saddam Hussein, the lack of any viable opposition to the one-party rule of the Baathists made elections a strictly pro forma exercise whose outcome was preordained by the powers that were. Political power under Saddam was dependent upon tribal relationships with the president’s family, and the political machinations of the president and his inner circle. Baath Party membership was a prerequisite, which had less to do with ideology to a cause than loyalty to the president. The president was the state, and state institutions became, by extension, a commodity carefully doled out by the president as a means of rewarding loyalty and maintaining political balance. While inefficient and undesirable from a democratic perspective, the system of government under Saddam Hussein possessed both a discipline and predictability that provided a foundation of consistency and reliability that is lacking in Iraq today.
The overthrow of Saddam and the Baathist Party in 2003 left Iraq as a nation bereft of not only any basic framework of government, but, more important, any unifying leadership. While logic dictated that the soundest course of action would have been to preserve the existing governmental institutions that had existed under Saddam, especially those dealing with security, and install a new leadership dedicated to reforming these institutions from within, the U.S. occupation authority, known as the Coalition Provisional Authority (or CPA, headed by Paul Bremer), chose instead to eradicate any institution or agency formally associated with Saddam or the Baathist Party. The CPA then simultaneously inserted a new governmental authority required to not only confront the formidable task of governing a nation torn by decades of conflict, but to do so while building new institutions from the ground up. The end result was a virtual collapse of centralized government in Iraq and the outbreak of chaos and anarchy, which manifested as a growing resistance to the U.S.-led occupation, in turn thrusting the American military into a nation-building role it neither wanted nor was prepared to execute. This process, involving the formation of an interim government and constitution that oversaw the preparations and conduct of national elections in January 2005, failed to produce either viable Iraqi governmental institutions or the requisite supporting social and legal frameworks necessary for any government to succeed. As such, successive Iraqi governments and elections, including the recently concluded March 2010 elections, have been deeply flawed.
One of the primary criticisms of the January 2005 election, and that which followed in December 2005, is that it made use of a “closed list” system of voting that saw the people of Iraq able to vote only for political parties that had been positively vetted by the CPA. These parties, in turn, designated a slate of candidates. The election was not about the individuals, but rather the parties, and it was up to the parties to designate which candidates would fill the allocated seats. This system of closed lists was insisted upon by the Shiite-dominated parties, and agreed to by the Iraqi Kurdish parties, as the best mechanism available to assure themselves of attaining political control of post-Saddam Iraq following decades of domination at the hands of the Iraqi Sunni minority. Through this system, the Shiites won a majority of seats in the provisional parliament that emerged following the January 2005 election, and took control of the process of crafting a new Iraqi constitution and election law, which again made use of the closed list system of voting in the December 2005 election that produced Iraq’s first constitutionally elected prime minister of the post-Saddam era.
The closed system of voting, while successful in securing political power for the Shiites and the Kurds, failed in its effort to elect an individual capable of running the nation of Iraq. In 2005, the Shiites of Iraq were split into three major competing political constituencies—the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI (an Iranian-backed anti-Saddam movement), the Islamic Dawa Party (a Shiite fundamentalist movement formed in the late 1950s that violently opposed Saddam Hussein), and the Sadrist movement (composed of Shiite backers of Moqtada al-Sadr, an Iraqi cleric from a distinguished Shiite religious family, who resisted Saddam Hussein’s rule from within the country). All three were encouraged by the premier Shiite religious leader in Iraq, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, to cooperate with one another to achieve the goal of Shiite political dominance. It was Sistani who had insisted on holding the elections in January 2005, and for these elections to be conducted using the closed list system. The Shiite coalition prevailed in the elections, and it was widely assumed that the political head of SCIRI, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, would become prime minister. But Hakim refused the post, believing he could exercise more power from outside government than within, and the job instead went to the leader of the Islamic Dawa Party, Ibrahim Jaafari. Thus, from its infancy, the post-Saddam Iraqi government was undermined by weak central leadership susceptible to outside influence.
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