Iraq: Turning into an Authoritarian State

12 September 2012, 14:27

U. W.Professor Tripp, what are the main problems to Iraq's becoming a democracy?

The main problems facing democracy in Iraq stem from the way power has been constructed in the aftermath of the invasion and occupation of 2003 and the effect that has had on supposedly democratic institutions. Behind the formal public institutions of the state – parliament, judiciary, elections – there stands another kind of power: a ‘shadow state’, based on personal networks, violence and patrimonial power. This was allowed, even encouraged to emerge by the US during the period 2004-2011 despite the Americans’ early enthusiasm for democracy.

Faced by an uncontrollable insurgency and civil war, the US and its allies wanted to ensure order and control above all else. This is what they achieved with the cultivation of tribal militias, the building up of the coercive arm of the state and the promotion of a man like Nouri al-Maliki, the present prime minister. He now exercises power virtually unaccountably, having assumed the roles of minister of defence and of interior, having set up at least two rival intelligence organizations, having ensured that the Commission on Public Integrity is crippled and that not too many questions are asked about how he uses state revenues. Both the US and Iran, paradoxically, are supporting him because they think that he, and the oppressive system of power he is setting up, are the best guarantees of security and stability.

U.W: Shia and Sunnis both think they are the better Muslims. Can they find a common language among themselves?

There is plenty of common ground between Shia and Sunni Muslims and, for much of Iraqi history, they have cooperated perfectly well together. The problem has arisen with the politicisation of these religious identities and this is certainly something that has accelerated since 2003. Iraq is now witnessing two kinds of problems in relation to these religious identities: sectarian entrepreneurs on both sides who find it profitable politically to stress the differences between the Shia and Sunni since doing so serves their political ambitions; and the element of sectarian intolerance visible in the civil war and in the continuing insurgency driven by salafi – Sunni fundamentalist – elements who refuse to see the Shia as Muslims at all and see the Shia parties in Iraq as puppets of Iran.

U.W: When the last national elections were held in Iraq in 2010, many hoped a unity government could be formed that would include the Sunnis. That did not happen. Has there been any effort at reconciliation?

The government that was formed did include Sunnis and, of course, the vice president, al-Hashemi is also an Arab Sunni. However, for the prime minister, the largely Sunni-supported party al-Iraqiya is a danger (it received more seats than his alliance in the 2010 election) and he has done all he can since then to try to make it fall apart, chiefly by trying to drive a wedge between its Sunni and Shia members. He has also issued a warrant for the arrest of al-Hashemi, not because he is Sunni as such but because he too represents a possibly independent force in Iraqi politics that seemed to al-Maliki to be a personal threat.

U.W.: So, the mindset of most of Iraq's political figures is deeply entrenched in the country's old ways of conspiracy politics?

Given the political set-up in Iraq, it is not surprising that people should see and indeed plan conspiracies against their political rivals. Partly this comes from the very personalized politics of the ‘shadow state’ where personal trust and loyalty – and the exclusion of others – are fundamental organizing principles. Where there is no transparency, and very little accountability it is not surprising that conspiracies flourish.

U.W.: Professor Tripp, is this a surprising disappointment for the Americans who have invested so much blood and money in Iraq since 2003, or did they know this was going to happen?

If you measure what has happened in Iraq against what the US initially claimed – or at least some of its officials claimed – they were trying to achieve in Iraq, then it has been a monumental failure. By 2005/6 their initial policies were unraveling and they faced attrition of their forces and obvious defeat since they were unable to control the civil war or suppress the insurgency. So, in 2006 the US changed its strategy, largely jettisoning its earlier efforts and concentrating instead on building up a national security state in Iraq that could suppress dissent, end disorder and pave the way for an orderly US withdrawal. This they achieved from 2007 to 2010, even if the price has been the creation of a patrimonial, violent and repressive regime that is still faced by an insurgency, even at a much lower level.

U.W.: How precarious is Iraq's situation today?

Its politics are troubled and violent but its government is quite well entrenched. The larger troubling questions concern the medium term future and revolve around four factors. The first is the authority, or rather the lack of authority, of the country's state institutions. The second is the growing politicisation of the armed forces in Iraq, because they are being used as an internal police force and also through al-Maliki’s use of promotion and favouritism to try to ensure their personal loyalty to him. The third is the question of the Kurds and the place of the Kurdish region in the future of Iraq, sharpened often by flashpoints around issues such as the demarcation of borders, the export of oil from the Kurdish oil fields and the independence of its armed forces. Finally, there is the question of the number of regional and other states who are meddling in Iraq’s politics, ranging from Saudi Arabia to Iran but also including Turkey and the US. All of them are playing proxy games in Iraq and this is destabilizing.

U.W.: Can terrorism be defeated in Iraq?

It really depends on which groups one is talking about. Some of those who used terrorism in the period 2003-2008 have already won in the sense that they have been incorporated into the structures of power in the emerging state order. Others are still very much on the outside, such as the jihadi/salafi groups who attack Shia pilgrims of place bombs in public buildings. It is very unlikely that they will win in the sense of taking over the state, but they will continue to be a menace and their power lies in their ability to unsettle relations between different sects in Iraq, and to justify the increasingly repressive government in it repressive methods.

U.W.: What do you see in Iraq's future?

Iraq is developing into a recognizable form of an authoritarian, patrimonial state, founded on vast oil revenues and governed by a repressive government unwilling to open itself to systematic popular scrutiny. There are some dangers on the horizon, in the sense of the Kurdish question, the proxy wars fought on Iraqi soil by regional rivals and the continuing unsettling insurgency that even at a low level is able both undermine confidence in government and sharpen sectarian antagonism. Such a system of governance invites conspiracy and it is not completely out of the question that in the mid- to long-term, a conspiracy may involve significant sections of the armed forces of Iraq. It would be depressing if that turned out to be the case, since this is a pattern of government all too familiar to Iraqis today.


Charles Tripp is Professor of Politics with reference to the Middle East, at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London and a Fellow of the British Academy. Hisresearch interests include the nature of autocracy, state and resistance in the Middle East and the politics of Islamic identity.

He is the author of: Islam and the Moral Economy: The Challenge of Capitalism (Cambridge University Press, 2006); A History of Iraq (Cambridge University Press, 2007) and the joint author of Iran and Iraq at War (I.B. Tauris, 1988) and of Iran-Saudi Arabia Relations and Regional Order (IISS, 1996). He has recently completed a book examining the politics of resistance in the Middle East, The Power and the People: Paths of Resistance in the Middle East (to be published by Cambridge University Press in November 2012)

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