Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Same As It Ever Was: Out Brief Candle

For those banking on the elections of December 15 marking some grand turning point in Iraq, whereby there would emerge a secular third way or broad religious coalition that could unite Iraqis across sectarian/ethnic lines thus tamping and fragmenting the insurgencies, the early results are less than encouraging. The short version of the preliminary read is that the religious Shiite ticket, the UIA, will once again dominate the political landscape, while the secular ticket led by Iyad Allawi has performed well under American expectations and predictions, saying nothing of the embarrassing rout of Ahmed Chalabi's ticket - despite the altogether in-character delusions of certain neoconservative thinkers who predicted the moon for Chalabi (ed note: how does someone who manages roughly 1% of the vote ever ascend to the prime minister's office? Even with 5%? Are there historical precedents for such a feat?).

But seriously, echoing praktike, how can anyone point to either the Wall Street Journal or Michael Rubin (or most of his cohorts) as a source for accurate information or insight on Iraq? They have been so consistently wrong about almost everything from day one (make that from before day one) that I applaud every time they manage to spell the name of the country correctly.

While these elections were carried off under the melodic sound of silence as insurgent attacks were nearly non-existent, and there was the attendant rhetorical fury of those vicariously purple fingered pundits, they will ultimately signify nothing if the larger, underlying issues are not addressed. I know this analysis might sound like a broken record to many readers, but that is only because remarkably little has changed with respect to this predicament since I first expressed these concerns back in early January 2005: despite three rounds of national elections, the insurgencies continue to rage on, and unless there is a political solution involving the sharing of power, influence, wealth, resources and prestige with the disgruntled Sunni population, and unless there is an effort to quiet the forces on all sides that want to maximize their share of the pie in a zero-sum cycle of violence (read: militias, insurgencies, separatists, demagogues etc.), Iraq will continue to spiral out of control and, most likely, be torn asunder. As the same poor players strut across the stage of Iraq, posturing for their constituency, the very serious fundamental problems continue to plague the process and light the way to dusty death.

Each round of elections, including the referendum approving the Constitution, have been accompanied by the same breathless predictions of a turning point - but nothing seems to turn. In fact, in some ways, these milestones have served to worsen the condition of the patient in the sense that what does not get better, gets worse. The constitution, as I have explained previously, only confirmed the fears of the Sunni minority of its exclusion from power and influence, and also established the principles whereby a dangerous devolution of power away from the central government and to the near-autonomous provinces would occur. The earlier January 2005 elections provided Sunnis with a glimpse at life under Shiite/Kurdish rule - complete with an uptick in paramilitary and militia activities - as well as the formation of a national army made up of components of each (note: I do acknowledge that the Sunnis have been as violent or more than the Shiite/Kurdish paramilitaries - so far - but that doesn't change the corrosive effect of cyclical violence on a spirit of national unity).

After the Sunnis mostly boycotted last January's elections, they participated in large numbers this December. Unfortunately, many Sunnis thought that this participation would translate into control of the government based on the Baath-era propaganda that the Sunnis are actually the majority, population-wise, in Iraq (this was used by the Sunni-dominated Baath Party to normalize the concept of Sunni control over the majority Shiites/Kurds). The December elections will shock those Sunnis who are operating under this myth, and the resulting cognitive dissonance will lead to louder and louder charges of fraud and manipulation on the part of the Shiites and Kurds (not altogether unwarranted, but not to the extent alleged by the Sunnis).

Keep in mind, according to some, this participation by the Sunnis is supposed to provide the stepping stone to the formation of a national pact - the abdication of violence in favor of the political process and a unity government. Mistrust, accusations and background violence is not a very solid foundation for such a structure to be built. Regardless, the story is a familiar one: if there is any hope of splintering the insurgencies - coopting portions of the Sunni nationalist/Baathist strains and turning them against the jihadists under Zarqawi's banner - there must be a political solution. This election in and of itself offers none. A million elections won't either unless the grievances and motivations that give rise to the insurgencies are addressed.

In fact, this election will once again confirm the UIA's dominance while not, in any significant way, enhancing the Sunni bloc's ability to satisfy its needs and concerns. If there is to be a solution, it will require an agreement on the part of the Shiites and Kurds to accommodate the Sunni population's needs/desires/expectations - either through legislative accord or, more importantly, amendment of the Constitution. Expecting the long-suffering Shiites to willingly cede hard fought gains in such a scenario is asking and expecting a lot. So far, there has been no indications that such a compromise is on the horizon. Instead, all indicators point toward the continuation, and increase in the intensity, of the violence and the low-level civil war as the warring factions grow frustrated with the lack of progress on the political front and increasingly turn to their private armies to affect the situation. Then again, when did an aversion to unbridled optimism and expectations ever stop the Bush administration and its neoconservative coterie? Forgive me if I remain more guarded in my appraisal.

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