Iraq can become a beacon of democracy for a region roiled by the tumult of the Arab Spring, President Barack Obama believes.
But some observers highlight disturbing authoritarian tendencies on the part of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, while others express concern over growing sectarianism, the jailing of political rivals – from former Baathists to rights activists – in secret prisons, and curbs on independent media and religious freedom.
“You can’t live in a democratic system in this way,” said former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a former Baathist and Maliki nemesis. “It is painful to see what is happening to this country.”
On the other hand, Iraqi enjoy more political space than in many neighboring states and civil society does have the benefit of the Arab world’s most progressive NGO law which –at least formally – guarantees rights of association and expression.
“We think that a successful, democratic Iraq can be a model for the entire region,” Obama said. The US is “partnering to strengthen the institutions upon which Iraq’s democracy depends – free elections, a vibrant press, a strong civil society, professional police and law enforcement that uphold the rule of law, an independent judiciary that delivers justice fairly, and transparent institutions that serve all Iraqis,” he said.
If Iraq does emerge as a paradigm of democratic governance, it will be due in no small part to the efforts of activists like Dr. Sami Shati (right), a leading proponent of political reform and head of the Dar Al- Salam Iraqi Center, a prominent civil society group.
He has been a leading activist in Iraq’s own Arab Spring protests earlier this year in Baghdad’s Liberation Square in which pro-democracy advocates called for jobs and better services, an end to corruption, and greater accountability. Shati criticized restrictions on media reporting the protests and the excessive use of force by security services against peaceful protesters.
A forceful advocate for a legal framework of constitutional principles and the formation of a higher commission for human rights, Shati was this week awarded Iraq’s prestigious Human Rights Medal for Creativity and Distinction.
Civil society groups fought hard for the new NGO law and benefit from its provisions, although observers note that the act’s provisions are not always respected in practice and some state agencies retain a historic suspicion of independent voices.
“There is some mistrust towards civil society as this is a new topic,” a leading Baghdad judge and prosecutor concedes. Government-civil society relations “are like a sheet of white paper – they are waiting to be written.”
The United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) and the International Center for Not for Profit Law (ICNL) are this week running training sessions for NGO representatives and police officers to build mutual understanding.
But freedom of association is far from guaranteed, and rights groups are “deeply troubled” that Iraqi labor unions – a “vital antidote to authoritarianism” – are being targeted by the government, which has used Saddam Hussein-era legislation to interfere in unions’ internal management and to curb workers’ right to strike and to organize unions in the public and private sectors.
Iraqis seek democracy, “a state of citizens and not sects,” premier Maliki said this week. But some observers and rights groups have documented growing sectarianism and harassment of religious minorities.
In an open letter to President Obama, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) urged him to raise religious freedom issues in his meeting with Maliki. The commission recommends that the State Department should designate Iraq as a “country of particular concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act for systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious liberty.
While some analysts have suggested the Maliki’s illiberal streak can be attributed to the growing influence of neighboring Iran, others believe the issue is more nuanced.
“There are two dominant narratives in Washington about Maliki,” says Ramzy Mardini, an analyst at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, who recently published a report on the mass arrests of Sunni politicians. “Some say he is a nationalist; others say he is a puppet of Iran.”
Both are oversimplifications, he tells The New York Times: “Maliki is a Maliki-ist. His religion is the church of survivability.”
The US is again confronting the challenge of balancing its strategic interests – countering the influence of Iran – with its ideals, analysts suggest.
“Maliki continues to seek political cover from Washington to protect him from a no-confidence vote or coup,” writes Michael Knights, an Iraq specialist with The Washington Institute for Near East Policy:
In Iraq, both the public and some politicians will view the White House visit as an endorsement of his leadership, notwithstanding his use of questionable practices to undermine judiciary independence, sideline the parliament, exercise extra-constitutional control of military appointments, and arrest or harass political opponents using a hodgepodge of shaky legal mechanisms.
The US can take specific steps to help ensure that Iraq becomes neither “a place where Iranian-backed militants can threaten U.S. interests, nor where an authoritarian regime can violate the rights of its citizens with impunity,” he contends:
The United States must establish red lines regarding human rights, holding Iraq to the international commitments it has signed and ending the exceptionally lenient U.S. treatment of Baghdad in this regard since 2003. Monitoring Camp Ashraf — the controversial holding area for members of Iranian opposition group Mujahedin-e Khalq — should be one aspect of this policy. Washington should also express its commitment to the rules of the game in Iraqi politics (i.e., respect for constitutional principles) rather than any particular political outcome (i.e., who is in charge).
The recent mass round-up of former Baathists by Iraqi security forces was an attempt to pre-empt a coup by former regime elements, Maliki’s government claimed. But rights groups noted that alongside former Baathist politicians, and military and intelligence officials, the detainees also include academics, ordinary workers, government critics,— even the dead.
“Baathism here is a symbol that Maliki uses as a bogyman,” said a Western official. “It gives them the leeway to go around arresting people. It’s about a climate of fear.”
On the other hand, the Times notes, there are countervailing indicators to the strong man stereotype:
But in a country where political leaders regularly fly off to second homes in Jordan or London, Mr. Maliki often works through the night in his Baghdad offices and has a steel-trap memory for dates, names and conversations. His family — wife, four daughters and a son — all live in Iraq, while many leading politicians have moved their families abroad.
If he eschews a cult of personality like that built by Mr. Hussein, his close control over Iraq’s police and army and his influence over the country’s judicial system have drawn calls that Mr. Maliki is becoming too powerful.
Despite strains of Sunni disenfranchisement, Sunni Arab politicians hold powerful posts in government, including speaker of Parliament, deputy prime minister and vice president. (A Kurd serves as president.)
The health and robustness of Iraq’s democracy will depend in large part on the country’s pro-democracy, civil society and rights activists – like Dr. Shati.
‘Another Iraq is Possible’ was the rubric under which the Iraqi Civil Society Solidarity Initiative met recently in order to develop strategies for enhancing the political leverage and reach of the country’s democratic forces.
“NGOs should develop stronger coordination in order to be part of the decision-making process at a national and international level,” they concluded. “They need to develop innovative strategies in capacity building, fund-raising and partnership structures” in order to confront emerging challenges.
As elsewhere in the region, the activists are encouraged by the new social movements that have emerged since February 25, 2011, and expressed the confidence in “the uprising of youth and the energy and passion that will transform Iraq where politicians have failed.”