Sunday June 19, 2022

US has imposed divide-and-rule system on Iraq

US has imposed divide-and-rule system on Iraq

Members of security forces inspect the scene of an explosion in Baghdad. Reuters

It is ironic that both the US, which claims to be the world’s first democracy, and Iraq face political deadlock nearly two decades after the George W. Bush administration invaded, occupied and imposed a deeply flawed “democratic” system of governance on that ancient country.

The US two-party system has developed over this period into a competition between warring cultures. Democrats have taken the high road as the party of ideals and positive policies on education, health, and welfare which are designed to benefit the whole society. Republicans have taken the low road as the party of white, largely male grievance with the aim of obstructing efforts to improve the lives of underprivileged white, brown and black citizens. This “culture war,” which peaked during the Trump administration, has made the US ungovernable.

The current phase of deadlock in the US stems from the refusal of ex-President Donald Trump, his faction in the Republican party and his supporters to concede that he lost the 2020 election to incumbent Joe Biden. Biden, who received 81 million popular votes, clinched victory by winning 306 electoral college votes against 232 for Trump, who garnered 74 million popular votes. The result could not be more conclusive than that. Nevertheless, Trump not only challenged the result with 63 court cases in key states but also urged his backers to mount a violent coup against Congress on January 6th, 2021, ahead of the meeting to formally validate Biden’s victory.

Although both these efforts failed, Trump continues to insist the election was “stolen” and is backed up by lawmakers in the Republican party, which he dominates, and millions of loyalists. Consequently, the Republicans who form a minority in the House of Representatives and hold 50 of the 100 seats in the Senate, have tried to block key Biden legislative initiatives in order to ensure Democrats lose seats in the mid-term elections in November as well as seats and the presidency in 2024.

The Republicans’ blocking strategy is harming the deeply divided “American people” as well as Biden who is faced with multiple crises: COVID, mask mandates, climate change, gun rights, high rents, the Ukraine war (for which he is partially responsible) and consequent inflation leading to rising fuel and food prices.

This disruptive strategy has succeeded. Biden entered office with an approval rating of 57 per cent but this has fallen to 39 per cent in latest opinion polls. Trump’s rating stands at 43 per cent with an unfavourable rating of 52 per cent. However, his approval rating is 10 points higher than at the time he left office. Analysts say Trump is likely to stand again in 2024.

Last October, Iraq went to the polls to elect a new parliament. Independent-minded Shia cleric Muqtada Al Sadr’s party won 73 seats out of 329 while his allies, the Progress Party of former and current assembly speaker, Muhammad Al Halbousi, and the Kurdish Democratic Party led by Masoud Barzani came in second and fourth, with 37 and 31 seats, respectively. While Sadr managed to recruit other parties with 14 seats, a total of 155, in support of a “majority” rather than a consensus government, he did not gain the 165 needed.

Since Sadr’s “majority” government would exclude the pro-Iranian politicians and militia leaders who lost seats it is hardly surprising that they would do their best to obstruct his plan.

The third largest party, ex-Premier Nouri Al Maliki’s State of Law, was fourth with 33 seats (a gain of 8 since 2018) but his chief partner, the Fatah coalition of pro-Iranian Shia parties headed by Hadi Al Amiri shrunk from 48 to 31 seats. While claiming it could secure a majority, the opposition also failed to collar deputies for a cabinet minus Sadr and his allies.

They have blocked Sadr by boycotting sessions of parliament, denying him the two-thirds quorum needed to appoint a president. He would name a prime minister who would form a government. This has gone on since parliament met in January and chose Halbousi as speaker. Consequently, Iraq has had for more than a year a caretaker government which serves as a stop-gap cabinet but cannot adopt and implement essential reforms Iraq dearly needs.

Last week, Sadr’s deputies resigned their seats and he proclaimed that he and his party were withdrawing from politics due to the corrupt political system.

So far, the opposition has not tried to form a quorum and proceed with choosing a president and prime minister but, according to the constitution, vacant seats are to be filled with the next highest candidates. While the opposition could gain an additional 50 seats, this will not provide a majority.

Populist Sadr who has a large following and a well-armed militia cannot be ignored. He could change his mind about fielding candidates in an early election. He had vowed to stay out of the 2021 contest but ordered his party to campaign and won the most seats.

Having itself had a broken political system for decades, the US imposed a sectarian colonial divide-and-rule system on Iraq although a similar model has led to two civil wars and total dysfunction in Lebanon.

Under the Iraqi system, the president must always be a Kurd, the prime minister a Shia, and assembly speaker a Sunni. Senior cabinet portfolios are distributed among sectarian factions.

This has produced paternalism, patronage, and massive corruption in governance, the administration, security services and armed forces.

To make matters worse, the Bush administration empowered Iraqi Shia exiles who were, and remain, loyal to Iran which has heavily influenced Iraqi politics since 2003-2004. Iraq’s first post-war prime minister, Nuri Al Maliki, marginalised the Sunni Arab community, prompting disaffected Sunnis to join Al Qaeda and Daesh.

By calling for a secular government, Sadr had hoped to break the grip of sectarianism, end the influence of both Iran and US in Iraq’s domestic affairs, and tackle corruption. He has adhered to the line of young Iraqis who, in October 2019, began protesting mismanagement, graft, sectarianism and foreign interference. It remains to be seen how his latest move impacts the system and whether young Shias will return to the streets demanding regime change.

If the weak Biden administration refuses to re-enter the 2015 agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for lifting sanctions, Iran will tighten its grip on Iraq and other allies in the Eastern Arab World, maintaining long-term rivalries and instability in this fragile region.

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