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democracy in iraq



LIKE many other countries which have suffered decades of war and conflict as well as totalitarian rule, Iraq is as sorely in need of some form of participatory democracy and recognition of human rights as it is of peace. Whether the vaunted war aim of ‘regime change’ by the US/UK coalition is any more likely to bring about meaningful democracy than the war is likely bring effective peace is another matter.


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The state of Iraq was a product of the First World War, being three provinces of the Turkish empire conquered by British troops as ‘liberators’ and formally ceded, under the 1924 Treaty of Lausanne, as a mandate of the League of Nations under the protection of Britain. As so often with such newly created states, the population was ethnically divided between Kurds of the north and Arabs of the centre and south, as well as religiously divided between Sunni Muslims, comprising the Kurds and a minority of the Arabs, and Shi’a Muslims comprising the Arab majority. Typically, also, there are many other minorities, including Turkomans and Assyrian Christians, and despite their minority the Sunni Arabs have tended to be the dominant grouping in terms of power.

One grievance dating back to the formation of the state is that of the Kurds, who petitioned the Allied Powers in the post-WW1 settlement for their own state of Kurdistan, and initially received hints that such would be established, including not only the Kurds of Iraq, but also those of Turkey, Iran and Syria. This was vetoed, however, not only by the emergent Turkish republic under Kemal Ataturk, but also by the designated King Faisal I of the new Iraqi monarchy, who refused to accept the throne unless the Iraqi Kurdistan was included, in order to dilute the numerical dominance of the Shi’a Muslims.

Thus was the scene set for decades of repression on both sides of the Turkey/Iran border, of which the chemical massacre of 5000 Iraqi Kurds at Halabja on 16 March 1988 has become emblematic. Although one effect of the ‘no fly zone’ imposed in northern Iraq after the first Gulf War has been to allow virtual autonomy in Iraqi Kurdistan, the recent entry by Turkish troops is an indication of the concern felt by the Turkish government lest autonomy should take root on its side of the border.

It is not only the Kurds who have no particular reason to be grateful to the Allied Powers of WW1. Arab tribespeople in the 1920s expressing displeasure at their new overlords in Iraq found themselves the subject of early experiments in bombing – bombs strapped to the undercarriage of biplanes and then released, or simply thrown over the sides of open cockpits. At least in those days the RAF did not claim that their bombing was ‘smart’.

Even when independence was ceded to Iraq in 1932, Britain manipulated continuing military involvement by retaining an airbase at Habbaniyah (latterly used for Cold War Signals Intelligence) until 1958. After the coup of that year, in which the Ba’ath Party seized power, and its culmination in the personal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein from 1979, Britain and its allies continued military support by the supply of weapons. Through the export credit guarantee system, Britain even ensured that the British taxpayer, rather than the Iraqi government paid for some of these.

After the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the ensuing Gulf War of 1991, it was the people of Iraq, rather than Saddam Hussein, who were punished by the sanctions regime because of Iraq’s reputed possession of weapons of mass destruction, whilst the US and UK continue to flaunt their own nuclear weapons.

With such a history, it is hardly surprising that the people of Iraq – those who have not been killed by the latest ‘smart’ bombs and missiles – have not exactly welcomed their latest ‘liberators’ with open arms. A regime change in Iraq may be highly desirable, but neither a military occupation nor a constitution imposed by military victors is likely to bring enduring peace or freedom.

A new Minority Rights Group report Building Democracy in Iraq surveys the many potential players in post-war constitution-making for Iraq, and several schemes already put forward for balancing competing aspirations between the ethnic and religious groups. It importantly draws attention to the dangers of a federal structure based exclusively on ethnic or religious communities, in which both the smaller minorities, and individuals at odds with their presumed community, could too easily be ignored. Whilst it may be difficult to find new leaders and administrators within Iraq with ability to move beyond the political straitjacket of the past thirty years, the report also warns against potential dangers of appointing long-term exiles who may have their own too-westernised agenda.

There are some surprising omissions in the report. In discussing the future role of the army, a leading tool of the present oppressive regime, no comment is made about the future of conscription, first imposed in 1936. One might have thought that a first step towards demilitarisation of society would be its abolition. If, for whatever reason, conscription were to be retained, then recognition of conscientious objection – not mentioned in discussion of specific human rights – must be an issue. There is also no mention of the use of under-18 soldiers, regularly employed by Saddam in the past.

Bill Hetherington

Building Democracy in Iraq. Yash Ghai, Mark Lattimer, Yahia Said. Minority Rights Group. 2003




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