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Last Updated: 06/06/2014
The State of Iraqi Democracy
Ebenezer Agbeko

Ebenezer Agbeko argues that violent sectarian divisions, internal political deadlock, regional insecurity, and the legacy of foreign occupation all work against the emergence of a robust democratic culture in Iraq.


It has been eleven years since Operation Shock and Awe was launched by the United States to, among other things, secure Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction (though it has been widely established now that Iraq had no W.M.D. at the time of invasion), dislodge dictator Saddam Hussein, and to usher in a new era of democratic tradition in Iraq. More than a decade of military intervention and state-building efforts have elapsed in Iraq and progress towards the emergence of a democratic culture in Iraq has been miniscule, and in some cases stymied by non-abating sectarian violence. Today, the country is still marred in and bedeviled by ethno-sectarian conflict, identity politics, political obstructionism, ethnocentrism, corruption, ethnic fractionalization and legislative gridlock, as well as external or foreign influences that only add to or exacerbate the internal combustible tensions in the country. Any progress made, however small, remains severe threat of falling apart, or has been eclipsed by sectarian violence. Such sectarian conflict has stymied democratic and economic progress in Iraq, as well as hindered the country from emerging successfully from the fog of war. Sugarman (2013, 1) notes that “Iraq’s nascent democracy has seesawed back and forth between gridlock and conflict over the past nine years”.

Democracy in Iraq as envisaged by the Bush Administration is gradually appearing as a mirage, as the concept has become the tool or the conduit for pursuing myopic ethno-sectarian politics and policies in Baghdad. What is more, the institutions of state (for example, the police, army, judiciary, and legislature) constructed to be responsive to the needs and aspirations of the Iraqi population are weak, ineffective and under a much higher degree of pressure than the intervention proponents and initiators had imagined. Thus, such institutions lack the capacity to unify and solidify the diverse elements of Iraqi society. As hard as they try to take charge of the situation in Iraq, the Iraqi national Security forces (I.N.S.F.) have not been up to the brisk task of taking complete charge of the security situation in the country particularly after the disengagement of U.S. and the coalition forces from the country in December 2011. Militant groups and ethnocentric militias have been largely responsible for the violence in Iraq today. For example, when militant groups spearheaded by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) seized the Anbar city of Fallujah, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki deployed troops to surround the city and also appealed for international support arguing “If we keep silent it means the creation of evil statelets that would wreak havoc with security in the region and the world” (Foreign Policy, 2014).

Instead of building closer ties or deepening existing relationships (military, economic, social, cultural and technological) with the United States, Iraqis have a government that is arguably closer to Tehran than to Washington and which struggles to exert full control over the country itself (Yacoub 2013). Given the current high level of insecurity, instability and other forms of obstacles, it is incontrovertible that democracy building in Iraq will be a long winding and painstaking process.

Preceding the U.S. withdrawal in 2011, and in the light of the fragile security environment in Iraq at the time, a number of prominent analysts argued for a longer U.S. presence in Iraq to help achieve enduring or sustainable freedom and security as an early pull out of U.S. and NATO/coalition forces would reignite wide-scale violence in Iraq and potentially spur a regional conflagration given the long historical friction between the Sunni and Shiite religious sects in the Middle East (Rubin 2009; Ricks 2009; Cordesman 2009; Byman and Pollack 2007). Obviously, this caveat was not heeded by Washington. Another school of foreign policy analysts and practitioners proffered a contrasting perspective that U.S. disengagement from Iraq would not trigger ethno-sectarian violence but rather engender or spur Iraqi cooperation, and that the United States’ security interest in Iraq is miniscule compared to the sacrifices that come with prolong U.S. presence in the country (Simon 2007; Lynch 2008; Ramberg 2009; Katulis 2009). Contemporary developments in Iraq seem to point to the accurateness of the prediction of the former school of thought.

The Sectarian Divide in Iraqi Society

For a state to be labeled "democratic" or described as such, requires a mixture of cardinal principles, practices and norms that underpin the democratic culture. Conducting elections alone or high voter participation by citizens, or any singular feature standing aloof or in vacuum suffices not. It is a combination of ideals and practices that drive the liberal democratic mantra: Holding free, fair, and transparent elections, respect for fundamental human rights, freedom of the media, freedom of religion or worship, electoral process, constitution, equality before the law, respect for women rights, respect for civil rights, penal system, impartiality of the justice system or the courts, political structures, open space and leveled playing field for economic development, tax systems, less stringent economic regulations or policies that do not stifle progress of business, equal opportunity for every citizen to thrive, zero tolerance of corruption, and adherence to international norms and obligations are just some of the characteristics of market-democratic traditions or states. For the current Iraqi political leadership, particularly those in charge of controlling the levers of government in Baghdad, creating a viable, fair and democratic society for all elements of Iraqi society is of less concern and a back burner issue. Rather, redistributing political power along ethno-sectarian lines is front and center, and part and parcel of their political stratagem.

Instead of viewing the demise of Saddam Hussein as an opportunity to build a unified democratic Iraq, with one people and a common destiny, many Iraqis, particularly those at the helm of political leadership, view the post-Saddam era as an opportunity to settle old scores, as well as to redress the injustices in the distribution of political and economic power among the country’s major communities. This has culminated into heightened frictions and ethno-sectarian violence in Iraq today. In his book The Shia Revival, Nasr points out that the violence has also rekindled ancient religious disagreements between Shiites and Sunnis, not only in Iraq but also between regional states along ethno-sectarian lines (Nasr 2006).

Today, Sunni and Shiite attacks and counter-attacks have become the norm in Iraq, creating tenuous conditions and enormous security challenges for the Iraqi National Security Forces (I.N.S.F.). For example, a bombing in the village of Buhriz at a funeral for a Sunni Muslim militiaman killed 18 people and wounded 16 others while in Baghdad, about six car bombings struck two predominantly Shiite districts and two mixed neighborhoods, killing estimated 34 people and injuring 71 people (Foreign Policy Magazine, January 15, 2014). The “Green Zone” which harbors Iraq’s parliament, the Prime Minister’s Office, and Western embassies is a constant target for militants. Multiple bombings, for instance, hit the Iraqi capital of Baghdad mainly near the heavily-fortified “Green Zone” killing at least 22 people and wounding an estimated 30 others (Foreign Policy, February 5, 2014). In the light of the increasing sectarian violence in Iraq, Nasr points out in his article “When Shiites Rise” that “The pervasive sectarian violence and ethnic cleansing plaguing Iraq today are ominous reminders of what happened in India some 60 years ago […] if the situation in Iraq deteriorates further, the whole Middle East would be at a risk of a sectarian conflict between Shiites and Sunnis” (Nasr 2006).

The Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, employs authoritarian strategies in governing the state. He cracks down on his opponents and dissenting views. The media, which is supposed to be the fourth estate of the realm as is the case in democratic traditions, is largely under the ambit of the central government and there is little political and press freedom for Iraqi media practitioners. Many journalists, particularly those with divergent perspectives are subjected to harassment in different forms including but not limited to intimidation, confiscation of equipment and threats. On the media landscape in Iraq, Caryl writes “The media are largely under government control, and the government is happy to swoop down and make its opponents disappear on the pretext of a vaguely defined 'war on terror'” (Caryl 2013, 2).

There are elevated tensions between the various political blocs in Iraq. Such heightened tensions emanate from long historical distrust particularly between the two major political blocs in the country –Shiite and Sunni political parties. Political power having transferred hands from the Sunni camp (Saddam Hussein, the ex-dictator ruled Iraq for at least three decades) to the Shiite camp (Nouri al-Maliki, the current Prime minister) has caused an immense anxiety, fear and tension within Sunni circles in Iraq and beyond. The ethno-sectarian tension, fear, unease, friction and anxiety coupled with their concomitant violence could, arguably, derail the country’s socio-economic and political progress. These factors could culminate in Iraq’s disintegration and thwart the country’s emergence as a democratic success story in the heart of the Middle East. A case in point, the Sunni political party, the Iraqiyya has been vociferous about the mistreatment of the Sunni minority by the Shiite-led government. Such mistreatments include but not limited to discrimination, intimidation, blocking Sunni access to national or public resources, marginalization, and false accusations. The Vice President of Iraq, Tareq al-Hashemi, who is a Sunni and also a leader of the Iraqiyya party, fled Iraq for exile. He was accused and charged with treason on the basis of running death squads in the country by the Al- Maliki-led government. These developments have poisoned Iraqi politics and society, as well as contributed to the heightened political temperature in the country.

On the political front, Iraqi legislators, ministers, cabinet ministers and public officials routinely use boycotts and parliamentary walk-outs as a tool to register their displeasure over public policy. Corruption which entails the abuse of public interest for personal or private gain by public officials has unquestionably become a hallmark of the Baghdad government and feeble measures are put in place to arrest this canker. It is prevalent in a number of governmental institutions and departments, and anti-corruption structures or measures that are instituted to supposedly combat the spread of the cancerous corruption are either not robust enough or ineffective. Iraqi legislature and the executive are entangled in bickering, stalemate and corruption, rather than prioritizing responsive governance that delivers basic necessities to the people. According to a Transparency International report in 2007, Iraq is ranked among the top 10% most corrupt countries in the world alongside Afghanistan, Somalia, Haiti, Sudan, and D.R. Congo. Needless to say, this does not augur well for a viable economy that can inure to the benefit of the Iraqi citizens. Corruption weakens the political and economic empowerment of local populations and undermines their speedy economic recovery particularly when corrupt practices of public officials become endemic and institutionalized, as well as undermines the integrity, legitimacy, effectiveness of public institutions and the discharge or delivery of their functions and services to the public (Le Billon 2008). It also stains the integrity and the legitimacy of the central government in Baghdad.

Further, there is friction between the Baghdad government and the Kurdistan regional government (KRG) originating from the latter’s hydrocarbon contracts with Exxon Mobil and Chevron. What is more, the KRG is building pipelines between the region and Turkey so as to export hydrocarbons to Turkey. These developments have raised questions about who exercises authority over oil exploration and oil contracts in Iraq. There is also a disagreement between Baghdad and Erbil (KRG’s capital) over disputed oil-rich territory of Kirkut. In the light of these developments, Sugarman writes “If tensions are not immediately dampened and all major political blocs given a voice in the country’s future, Iraq’s increasingly divided and dysfunctional political system risks a relapse to violence”(Sugarman 2013, 1).

It is important to note that the Bush Administration’s policy of promoting democracy in Iraq overlooked an important variable that could have been part of the equation. The policy over focused on building liberal state institutions, running elections, and building the Iraqi economy at the central or governmental level and excluded or paid little attention to the process of reconciliation at the local and community levels that prioritize building trust, understanding, and unity among citizens and various political, religious, ethnic, and sectarian blocs. This is crucial to the peace process because the people in the communities have to live together, and if they are to live in peace and harmony then reconciliation at the communal and local levels are equally paramount. That is, community-centered approach to peacebuilding that emphasizes building peace from the bottom up. There is no substitute for brokering or achieving substantive and enduring peace by forgoing the bottom up approach. Hoogenboom and Vieille writing about the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina argued “…the traditional state-building tool-kit, including negotiations, building state institutions, running elections, and reconstructing the economy is necessary, but not sufficient for securing peace at the local community level”(Hoogenboom and Vieille 2010, 184-185).

It should be pointed out that the situation in Iraq today provides a golden opportunity to the United States and Iraq’s regional neighbors to mend their tenuous relations and also to cooperate in managing or controlling the combustible tensions between Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq and the region generally before they reach their boiling point. Iran, for example, can help in a number of ways: Iran can facilitate the process of ensuring that the ever-increasing tensions between the diverse Shiite factions and the Sunni militias are contained and that the rivalry does not get out of control and destabilize southern Iraq and perhaps the region. It can also help in disbanding the Shiite militias, and to convince the Shiite political parties to compromise for the sake of peace. Nasr argued Iran’s cooperation would help in not only addressing Iraq’s security challenges but also in the country’s reconstruction needs, as well as buttress the central government in Baghdad (Nasr, When Shiites Rise, 2006).

Turkey, Saudi Arabia and perhaps Pakistan can be of tremendous assistance in the areas of building a strong Iraqi national police force and army to take charge of or contain security situations in the country, as well as construct an effective judicial system. There could be security cooperation among these states and intelligence shared especially about Al-Qaeda and the Taliban who pose security threat to the region’s stability.

Considering the long historical relations between Iran and Iraq including religious ties with Najaf, Karbala, and Qom being important religious centers to both countries’ Shiites communities, it is noteworthy to surmise that Iran’s long term interests in Iraq are not at logger-heads with those of the United States to ensure peace and stability in Iraq. In view of this Nasr writes that “a key challenge for Washington in Iraq is to recalibrate its overall stance toward Iran and to engage Tehran in helping to address Iraq’s most pressing problems” (Nasr 2006).


It is apparent that tentative democratic culture has not yet been established in Iraqi society as the Bush policy in the country and the larger Middle East region had hoped. Internal wrangling, jostling for power, bickering, political gridlock, ethnic and sectarian divide marked by intractable violence continue to plague and characterize the Iraqi political system eleven years after Operation Shock and Awe. Iraqi media is literally under the ambit of Al-Maliki and freedom of speech is hugely under attack as dissent is forcefully chastised.

In the short term, Washington and the international community cannot tout flamboyant democratic culture in Iraq. This is more so in the face of the current political, religious, ethnic, and sectarian fault-lines deeply ingrained in Iraqi society. Sure, Iraqis had already being handed the opportunity to build a stable democracy at the back of American military. But they need to work hard to bridge their ever increasing divides, transcend ethnocentric antagonism, include all voices in the political process, and begin to build a national identity under which all ethnic identities fall as a unified Iraq.

It is also paramount for the United States to engage Iran and other regional neighbors who continue to retain client networks in Iraq over security issues, stability and reconstruction in Iraq. If regional powers are properly engaged, and the internal ethno-sectarian challenges in Iraqi society are properly addressed by the Iraqi political leadership, democracy in Iraq may turn out to be just fine in the long term, and the unease in Sunni circles (for example, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates) may calm down and their fears greatly allayed. But this depends profoundly upon cultivating a new mindset by the Iraqi political leadership – a mindset that prioritizes building a national identity over ethno-sectarian identity. That is, a new way of thinking about the future of their country, a shared future in which every Iraqi, Shiite, Sunni or Kurd is embraced, and has a place and a voice in rebuilding their nation. Inclusion! Inclusion! Inclusion! Only the Iraqis can do that.


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Ebenezer Agbeko is an Independent Researcher and a post-graduate student at the American Public University. He is a Senior International Political Risk Assessment Analyst at Salma Consult. He holds a B.A. (Honors) degree in History and Geography from the University of Science and Technology (U.S.T.), Ghana.