Iraq's New, Dysfunctional Democracy

The U.S. is gone, and a parliament plagued by infighting and corruption has taken over.
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Iraq's parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, Iraq's Vice President Tareq al-Hashimi and Head of the Sunni Endowment Ahmed Abdul-Ghafoor al-Samarraie (4th R-R) attend a ceremony to mark the birth anniversary of Prophet Mohammed at Um al-Qura mosque in Baghdad on February 15, 2011. (Mohammed Ameen/Reuters)

ERBIL, IRAQ - Almost a decade after the U.S. liberated Iraq, the country is a U.S. friend and ally. But it is still beset by ethnic and sectarian infighting. Iraq's nascent democracy has seesawed back and forth between gridlock and conflict over the past nine years. Every time it repeats this pattern, it starts over at a higher-- and more combustible -- level of tension.

Last week, I visited the Kurdish Region of Iraq to meet with business and political leaders. One thing is clear from my discussions: the country is at risk of combusting again. 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.

At the heart of Iraq's political crisis lies a parliament crippled by bickering and corruption. Political blocs and their cabinet ministers routinely boycott parliamentary sessions, opting to publically excorticate one another instead of govern. Parliament has been unable to pass crucial laws, such as the proposed Oil and Gas Law, to govern development of the key to Iraq's economy: the hydrocarbons sector.

Iraq is at risk of combusting again if tensions are not immediately dampened and all major political blocs are not given a voice in the country's future.

Iraq's increasingly powerful Shi'ite Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, started accumulating power following the 2010 parliamentary elections. He secured a second term -- after a drawn out eight-month power struggle - by promising to share power with other political blocs, including Iraqiyya (a more secular party that has attracted Sunni support) and the Kurds. That promise quickly disintegrated. Instead, Al-Maliki preferred to assert personal control over the security forces, target senior Sunni officials with arrest, and otherwise eviscerate many of the safeguards enshrined in the Iraqi Constitution. His actions ignited widespread protests in Sunni majority provinces in December 2012 that continue as of writing. Today, many in Iraq's Parliament fear that he is a dictator-in-the-making.

The Democracy Report

Al-Maliki, in turn, suspects his opponents of wanting to unseat him in favor of a more pliant prime minister who will bend to their self-interested wishes and would be too weak to lead the country. The Iraqiyya party, Al-Maliki's political competitor, has proven to be politically inept. It has allowed its internal rivalries to weaken the party, and now many of its senior leaders are discredited in the eyes of the Sunni street.

And the Sadrists bowed to Iranian pressure and supported al-Maliki's second term before they, too, were outmaneuvered and marginalized. Now, their leader - the violent militia leader and firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr - is actively rebranding himself to be a voice of sectarian harmony and moderation in Iraq in an attempt to build a larger political base. Sadr joined with Iraqiyya and the Kurds to denounce al-Maliki's decision earlier this week to delay provincial elections in Nineveh and Anbar by six months because of security concerns.

Relations between the Kurdistan Regional Government ("KRG") - the largely autonomous part of Northern Iraq -- and the central government have rapidly deteriorated, too. Not only are the Kurds convinced that al-Maliki seeks to oppress them just as previous governments did, but also fear he intends to cripple their economy.

The KRG is dependent on its 17 percent share of the federal budget and is constructing an oil and gas pipeline to Turkey to allow it to export hydrocarbons (without Baghdad's approval). Baghdad and Erbil strongly disagree over who controls hydrocarbons exploration, development, and export under the Iraqi Constitution, as well some of actual territory where the oil and gas is located. The Kurds have angered Baghdad by granting oil concessions to the likes of Exxon Mobil and Chevron without Baghdad's authorization. Today, the KRG continues to assert physical control over parts of the disputed territories.

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Eli Sugarman is a fellow at the Truman National Security Project and a former foreign-affairs officer with the U.S. State Department's bureau of international security and non-proliferation.

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