Today's date:
Spring 2006

Revenge of the Shia

Kanan Makiya, a Shiite and the author of the seminal Republic of Fear, was a key leader of the exiled opposition Iraqi National Congress. He advised then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and Vice President Dick Cheney in the run-up to the war in Iraq. He now heads the Iraq Memory Foundation, which has documented Saddam Hussein’s crimes. His comments are adpated from a talk with NPQ at the time of the constitutional referendum.

Baghdad — The Shiite leadership have acted irresponsibly by not rising above their own sense of victimhood. This failure of imagination means they will lose more than anyone else in Iraq because they will be unable to reap the rewards of their own democratic majority status. Instead of consolidating their position, they risk provoking civil war. Iraq is on the precipice.

Though there are problems with the constitution over which one can quibble, the real issue is not the wording of the document itself or its decentralized, federal vision. It is a set of guidelines that in any case will be further interpreted down the road.

The destabilizing element is that there is no resolution over how powers are delegated or who, clearly, is accountable to whom. The Shiite leaders have not thought about the country as a whole. In the exile opposition, we have been thinking about federalism for 15 years, and even then we did not get very far in defining it. However, it is a new idea to the overwhelming majority of Iraqis who were not part of that exiled opposition; those inside the country barely grasp the concept. The relations of the regions to the center have not been thought through. The obvious implication that people filled with foreboding about the future will draw from such a document is that whoever has the most power—the Shiite majority—will implement the rules as they see fit.

The threat to Iraqi life and well-being now does not come from the Arab nationalism of the Baath, which subordinated Iraq to the mythology of a single supposedly yet-to-be-united Arab nation. It comes from the legacy of that totalizing ideology: the irrational and self-destructive politics of all groups shrinking down their concerns to the mere fact of their own victimhood. Hardly any politician of weight inside Iraq is thinking of the future of the country as a whole.

The terrible lesson of Palestinian politics is that a leadership that elevates victimhood into the be-all and end-all of politics brings untold suffering and misery upon its own people. Given political power, this kind of a leadership will in turn victimize. This is an iron law of social and political psychology confirmed by any number of recent historical experiences, and that is what the Sunni population now fears. The insurgents in Iraq fully understand this dynamic; in fact they are counting on it. That is why their goal is not to win over Iraqi hearts and minds; it is rather to inculcate a state of pervasive physical insecurity, conducive to the eruption of the most irrational forms of behavior.

Theirs is a politics of fear and intimidation borrowed from that of the former regime which produced them, and it is a politics designed to create a backlash among those very Iraqis who had dared to believe in democracy.

In this context, the political process in Iraq is closing down, not opening up. The constitutional vote did not forge consensus but proved division. Eighty percent of the Sunnis in the main Sunni provinces voted against the constitution. Clearly, people are rallying around their own kind rather than stick with the idea of a democratic Iraq.

The process of arriving at the current draft has not been convincing, and the document itself is a reckoning of grievances rather than a blueprint for the future. It would have been better if the debate had dragged on rather than to conform to this artificial deadline. Why not? In time, the Shiite leaders would have understood federalism, how it would work and how it was in their interests. There was always a hope of a way out down the line.

But closure without consensus solves nothing in the particular circumstances of an insurgency-ridden Iraq. It threatens to sharpen divisions. The paradox is that the deadline was pressed because some, including in Washington, believed a constitution would sap the insurgency. I fear just the opposite will turn out to be the case.

The vote could very well turn out to have been a casus belli for civil war, rather than its repudiation.

SADDAM’S TRIAL | The trial is tremendously important, but I fear it will not be given its due. Again, it seems to be driven by a purely sectarian agenda, with lists of crimes against Shiites, then against Kurds. There seems to be no focus on the fact that Saddam’s regime terrorized everybody in Iraq in various ways, that the system was totalitarian.

It would have been much wiser to have focused on the ways in which the former regime victimized everyone, irrespective of sect or national origin. Wise leadership in Iraq today cannot be merely about me and what is in my self-interest; it has to be, and to be perceived to be, about “us,” the people of Iraq, and our Iraqi self-interest. I worry that the trial will either be pushed to the sidelines or, worse, help fan the flames of the insurgency. In other words, I fear that the trial will become but a mirror image of the very same sectarian politics that have brought Iraq to this terrible state.