A well-placed and savvy political analyst pal of mine just back from Baghdad got carried away in his response to last week's post on "Iraq's Sunnis after the Awakening." As sometimes happens, this evolved into a guest post, which I happily pass on under the unimaginative pseudonym "Back from Baghdad". Standard guest post disclaimer: the poster represents his/her views only and I don't necessarily agree with it, which is as I prefer it!
The Powers That Be
"Back from Baghdad"
The PTB have a lot in common. The PTB are parties that spent much of the 80s and especially the 90s in open opposition to Saddam. Nearly all of these leaders spent that time outside of Iraq, especially if you consider post-1991 Kurdistan outside of Iraq. ISCI/Da'wa and the IIP lack a real social base and enjoy a level of control at the central government level far out of proportion to their level of support. The Kurds, though they do have local support in their region (or deeply rooted authoritarian control over the populace, take your pick), are dramatically over-represented at the national level, as well as in the provinces not part of the KRG--Mosul (where they hold 30 out of 41 seats!), Kirkuk, Salah al-Din, Diyala. The PTB represent a "national unity" government on paper, in that they hit all the bases in the tripartite Sunni-Shi'a-Kurd sense. However, the conception of all these groups of what "national unity" might mean is inherently communitarian and confessional: unity means every faction gets its piece of the pie.
Because of this narrow base and their disproportionate dominance of the political process from early on, the PTB only stand to lose by any movement toward political openness. It's not a surprise that the PTB have all been dragging their feet on provincial elections legislation. ISCI/Maliki are working very hard to consolidate the control of the central government, particularly on the security level. According that that McCarthy WINEP article, Maliki has effectively imposed central government rule in five southern provinces so far, by creating these Joint Operating Centers in which the local security forces, who are supposed to report to the provincial governor, are subordinated to the Iraqi Army. On the bread and butter service level this is true as well--except for the ARDF funds wrenched out of GOI coffers under American pressure, the GOI is reverting back to the top-down model in every area they can. But the most obvious effort along these lines is the massive military mobilization against "JAM" in the south, which undoubtedly includes some local bigwigs who could challenge the PTB. Look at Amara--the Sadris and the other locals are backing off, knowing that the GOI is going to crazy if anybody makes any sort of fuss. I guess they think they're better off waiting for provincial elections--the poor fools!
The PTB are unified and organized as individual parties and don't break ranks when it comes to the central government. As a coalition of groups, they have so much in common and so much to lose that they have a great deal of incentive to work together and shut everyone else out. This is what makes them more than a coalition of factions. That they have captured the apparatus of state and are working hard to strengthen it, especially on the security level--with the US fighting and dying to help them do just that--and that they are swimming in money gives them much to lose. (I don't want to smooth over the differences of these groups, particularly the Kurdish desire for autonomy and the resulting differences on oil legislation, Kirkuk, etc. But I do think this last is getting less pronounced now that the US has its head screwed on right about when it can say no to the Kurds. Also, the Kurds have a heck of a lot to gain by staying in Baghdad. And sure, IIP, "Da'wa" and ISCI disagree about plenty of things--but the key is to get an angle on the most fundamental questions, and when you do, you see that what unites them is far stronger than what divides them.)
The PTA are in many respects the opposite of the PTB. The PTA are fragmented and weak. The PTA are mostly insiders (with the important exception of the Allawi-type secularists.) The PTA all have a superficial commitment to nationalism and unity, but they are so Iraqi in the Ali al-Wardi, "for every two Iraqis you have three factions" sense, that there is very little hope they will actually be unified. You can talk about undoing de-Ba'thification, you can talk about integrating the Sahwa, you can talk about provincial elections--but what the PTA want is IN. They want in. As Abu Rumman makes clear, the resistance/insurgency is so dead and pathetic that even they want in. PTA want a piece of the massive, kick-back laden, contract-dispensing honey pot and extortion ring that is the GOI and, increasingly, the provincial governments. And the PTB don't want to let them in. Why would they?
So where does the US stand in this? They're at least apparently working hard for provincial elections and thus to give the PTA and the popular forces they represent some power. But at the same time, their main priority appears to be buttressing the state security apparatus that belongs to the PTB, the very one that's being used to crack down on the PTA in the south ("JAM") and, if Abu Rumman is right, the PTA in the form of the Awakenings ("thank you very much, we'll take it from here! that will be all!") The more this process goes on and the more they drag their feet on provincial elections, by the time these elections do happen, if they do, the PTA will be so weakened and fragmented, the system likely so rigged in favor of the unified PTB parties, that they'll hardly matter.
What complements this whole process is this. Something about just being in power and, especially, having tons of money, ends up creating a constituency, creating a social base. And the stronger the PTB get, the Iraqi people will look past the dubious makeup of the government and just be happy that the state has returned and there's a modicum of law and order. At least for a while, and at least as long as the government is rich, at least as long as the US is there to back it up, at least as long as the PTB stay united. Hardly a recipe for a stable political order, but one that will work for the time being.
Is supporting this government worth the cost to the US? The interests we sacrifice, the destabilizing role such a government would play in the region, the lives and money, and so on. How much better is it than alternatives that would emerge without our managing of the political scene? I mean that as a serious question, meaning I'm open to the answer to the first question being "yes." If we are going to stick with this general idea, however, we do need to tilt things in the general direction of getting the PTB to let more of the PTA in. That's the best definition there is of what "reconciliation" means in the current political context as far as I'm concerned. We're so intent on getting a large portion of our troops out fast, and so eager to sew Iraq up into this little box, and thus so singlemindedly focused on making the government strong, that we're missing an opportunity to make this government at least a bit more inclusive and a bit more stable and thus a bit less reliant on us.
** End Guest Post ** [note: fixed the formatting, I hope.]