"Iraqi democracy will succeed," President George W. Bush declared in November 2003, "and that success will send forth the news from Damascus to Tehran that freedom can be the future of every nation." The audience at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington answered with hearty applause. Bush went on: "The establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a watershed event in the global democratic revolution."
In Iraq, meanwhile, an insurgency was growing, terrorism was spreading, and American forces were in a state of near panic. They had begun rounding up thousands of the Iraqis they had come to "liberate," dragging them from their homes in the middle of the night and throwing them into Abu Ghraib Prison. At the time of Bush's speech, some of those detainees were being tortured and humiliated. Iraq had entered a spiral of gruesome violence that would kill scores of thousands of its people and cost more than 4,000 U.S. military personnel their lives. American taxpayers month after month, year after year—and to this day—would spend more than $1.5 billion per week just to keep hundreds of thousands of beleaguered troops on the ground, fearful that if they withdrew too quickly, or at all, the carnage would grow worse and war, not democracy, would spread throughout the region.
Bush's rhetoric about democracy came to sound as bitterly ironic as his pumped-up appearance on an aircraft carrier a few months earlier, in front of an enormous banner that declared MISSION ACCOMPLISHED. And yet it has to be said and it should be understood—now, almost seven hellish years later—that something that looks mighty like democracy is emerging in Iraq. And while it may not be a beacon of inspiration to the region, it most certainly is a watershed event that could come to represent a whole new era in the history of the massively undemocratic Middle East.
The elections to be held in Iraq on March 7 feature 6,100 parliamentary candidates from all of the country's major sects and many different parties. They have wildly conflicting interests and ambitions. Yet in the past couple of years, these politicians have come to see themselves as part of the same club, where hardball political debate has supplanted civil war and legislation is hammered out, however slowly and painfully, through compromises—not dictatorial decrees or, for that matter, the executive fiats of U.S. occupiers. Although protected, encouraged, and sometimes tutored by Washington, Iraq's political class is now shaping its own system—what Gen. David Petraeus calls "Iraqracy." With luck, the politics will bolster the institutions through which true democracy thrives.
Of course, as U.S. Ambassador to Baghdad Christopher Hill says, "the real test of a democracy is not so much the behavior of the winners; it will be the behavior of the losers." Even if the vote comes off relatively peacefully, the maneuvering to form a government could go on for weeks or months. Elections in December 2005 did not produce a prime minister and cabinet until May 2006. And this time around the wrangling will be set against the background of withdrawing American troops. Their numbers have already dropped from a high of 170,000 to fewer than 100,000, and by August there should be no more than 50,000 U.S. soldiers left in the country. If political infighting turns to street fighting, the Americans may not be there to intervene.
Anxiety is high, not least in Washington, where Vice President Joe Biden now chairs a monthly cabinet-level meeting to monitor developments in Iraq. But a senior White House official says the group is now "cautiously optimistic" about developments there. "The big picture in Iraq is the emergence of politics," he notes. Indeed, what's most striking—and least commented upon—is that while Iraqi politicians have proved noisy, theatrical, inclined to storm off and push confrontations to the brink, in recent years they have always pulled back.
Think about what's happened just in the last month. After a Shiite--dominated government committee banned several candidates accused of ties to the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein, there were fears that sectarian strife could pick up again. Saleh al-Mutlaq, who heads one of the largest Sunni parties, was disqualified. He says he tried complaining to the head of the committee, Ahmad Chalabi, and even met with the Iranian ambassador, thinking Tehran had had a hand in what he called these "dirty tricks"—but to no avail.
Two weeks later Mutlaq nervously paced the garden of the massive Saddam--era Al-Rashid Hotel as he weighed his dwindling options. "I got a call from the American Embassy today," he said, grimly. "They said, 'Most of the doors are closed. There's nothing left for us to work.' " He shook his head. "The American position is very weak."
But what's most interesting is what did not happen. There was no call for violence, and Mutlaq soon retracted his call for a boycott. The elections remain on track. Only about 150 candidates were ultimately crossed off the electoral lists. No red-faced Sunni politicians appeared on television ranting about a Shiite witch hunt or Kurdish conspiracy. In fact, other prominent Sunni politicians have been conspicuous for their low profile. Ali Hatem al--Suleiman, a tough, flamboyant Sunni sheik who heads the powerful Dulaim tribe in Anbar province, is running for Parliament on a list with Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. He scoffs at effete urban pols like Mutlaq: "They represent nothing. Did they join us in the fight against terrorists? We are tribes and have nothing to do with them."
What outsiders tend to miss as they focus on the old rivalries among Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds is that sectarianism is giving way to other priorities. "The word 'compromise' in Arabic—mosawama—is a dirty word," says Mowaffaq al-Rubaie, who served for many years as Iraq's national--security adviser and is running for Parliament. "You don't compromise on your concept, your ideology, your religion—or if you do," he flicked his hand dismissively, "then you're a traitor." Rubaie leans in close to make his point. "But we learned this trick of compromise. So the Kurds are with the Shia on one piece of legislation. The Shia are with the Sunnis on another piece of legislation, and the Sunnis are with the Kurds on still another."
The turnaround has been dramatic. "The political process is very combative," says a senior U.S. adviser to the Iraqi government who is not authorized to speak on the record. "They fight—but they get sufficient support to pass legislation." Some very important bills have stalled, most notably the one that's meant to decide how the country's oil riches are divvied up. But as shouting replaces shooting, the Parliament managed to pass 50 bills in the last year alone, while vetoing only three. The new legislation included the 2010 budget and an amendment to the investment law, as well as a broad law, one of the most progressive in the region, defining the activities of nongovernmental organizations.
The Iraqis have surprised even themselves with their passion for democratic processes. In 2005, after decades living in Saddam Hussein's totalitarian "republic of fear," they flooded to the polls as soon as they got the chance. Today Baghdad is papered over with campaign posters and the printing shops on Saadoun Street seem to be open 24 hours a day, cranking out more. Political cliques can no longer rely on voters to rubber-stamp lists of sectarian candidates. Those that seem to think they still might, like the Iranian-influenced Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, have seen their support wane dramatically. Provincial elections a year ago were dominated by issues like the need for electricity, jobs, clean water, clinics, and especially security. Maliki has developed a reputation for delivering some of that, and his candidates won majorities in nine of 18 provinces. They lead current polls as well.
The word skeptics like to fall back on is "fragile." No one can say for sure whether the Iraqis' political experiment is sustainable. Many U.S. officials see themselves as the key players who hold everything together, massaging egos and nudging adversaries closer together. Some are already talking about revising the schedule whereby all U.S. troops would leave the country in 2011.
But the greater risk may be having the Americans see themselves as indispensable. The fiercely nationalistic Iraqi public still chafes at U.S. interference and resents any Iraqi politicians who seem to be too much in Washington's pockets. Ali Allawi, who was minister of finance and minister of defense early in the post-Saddam government, describes the current scene in Iraq as a "minimalist" democracy built around a "new class" of 500 to 600 politicians. The Middle East has seen this kind thing before, he says, in Egypt and Iraq under British tutelage in the first half of the last century. Then, the elites learned to play party politics, too, but not to meet the needs of the people. "That ended in tears," says Allawi.
In Iraq today, conditions seem more likely to reinforce than to undermine the gains so far. Iraqis have been hardened by a very tough past and now, coming out the other side of the infernal tunnel that is their recent history, many share a sense of solidarity as survivors. "Identities in Iraq are fluid, but there is more of a sense of an Iraqi national identity," says Middle East historian Phebe Marr, whose first research trip to the country was in 1956.
You notice this, for instance, at the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra, where conductor Karim Wasfi manages to extract harmony from Kurds, Christians, Sunnis, Shiites, and Bahais. Some of the women musicians wear the hijab, or headscarf; others do not. During the height of sectarian violence in 2006, almost half of the orchestra fled the country. Those who stayed behind got death threats, and one was killed. During one concert they had to play against the contrapuntal percussion of a firefight just outside the hall—but play they did. "It was about survival," says Wasfi.
Wasfi now says there are audiences asking for the symphony to perform even in conservative religious towns like Karbala, in southern Iraq. And bigger cities like Baghdad and Basra are regaining their old cosmopolitan airs. Abu Nawas Street along the Tigris River is once again lit up with lively restaurants serving broiled fish and beer. Liquor stores that had closed up shop during the height of the civil war now stack cases of Heineken and boxes of Johnny Walker Black in front of their doors. University students, once cowed by militias like the Mahdi Army, are feeling freer. Sawsan Abdul Rahman, an English major at Mustansiriyah University, says in the past she felt obliged to cover her head. "I wear a miniskirt now," she says.
The changes are more than superficial. As economist Douglass North pointed out last year in his influential book Violence and Social Orders, the key to building stable societies is to create a web of institutions that people can fall back on when governments, or mere politics, fail. Iraq is beginning to do just that. The country not only has the freest press in the region, but the gutsiest. More than 800 newspapers and TV and radio stations have aggressively gone after politicians and sleazy businessmen. The country now has more than 1,200 trained judges, and courts have convicted senior officials on corruption charges, with more cases pending. Women's groups, too, have asserted themselves, pushing for 25 percent of provincial councils to be female and forcing the Education Ministry to roll back a proposal to separate boys and girls in school.
Perhaps the most encouraging sign is that Iraq's military has become one of the most respected institutions in the country. The remnants of Al Qaeda in Iraq continue to carry out horrendous suicide operations, and some analysts expect the terrorists to step up their activities if sectarian tensions increase, and as American troops withdraw. But they no longer seem to pose an existential threat to the central government, and have inspired near--universal revulsion among Iraqis. Nor do most close observers fear the opposite—that the Army might become too strong and mount a coup. "I think people mention this because it's been such a recurrent theme in Iraq's past," says Ambassador Hill. "But we're certainly not seeing signs that the military is interested in engaging in politics."
Retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. James Dubik, who was in charge of training the Iraqi military in 2007 and 2008, says the more relevant question is whether Iraq's political leaders might try to use the military for sectarian purposes. Prime Minister Maliki, who directly controls some counterterrorism forces, has been accused of targeting Sunni rivals using those troops. But, says Dubik, Iraqi commanders are "very much attuned" to the danger, and generally do not launch such missions without broader approval. "They are really trying to develop a mature process."
Neighboring Iran remains a concern. Tehran continues to compete for influence in Iraq using every means at its disposal, including trade, religious ties, diplomacy, and covert links to militias that target U.S. troops. But since Iran's own contested presidential elections last June, its influence has diminished. Seyyed Sadeq, the police chief in the Iraqi city of Al Amarah, is a Shiite who trained with the Iranian-supported Badr Brigades, and was based in Iran throughout the 1990s. Several of his Iraqi friends from those days remained on the Iranian payroll after 2003. Members of the Quds Force, the branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards that runs its foreign operations, "used to come here every month or so," says Sadeq. "But recently it's been every six, seven months. I am hearing that Quds Force commanders are busy with the internal operations in Iran so they don't have much time to pay attention to Iraq."
Most important in the long term is the fact that whoever rules in Iraq should be able to take advantage of the country's enormous and largely untapped wealth of oil and natural gas. The Kurds in the north, the Shiites in the south, and now the Sunnis in the west of the country can all lay claim to enormous fields—and even without a hydrocarbon law on the books, the government is finding ways to work with foreign oil companies to exploit these resources. Industry analysts believe Iraq could raise its output from almost 2.5 million barrels a day to 10 million by the end of the decade. Even at current production rates, Iraq's revenues last year were $39 billion.
This is what truly scares Iraq's neighbors. Yes, even the country's fledgling democracy is more vibrant than anywhere else in the region, except perhaps Lebanon (and Iraqis love to point out that America's own system isn't exactly working in textbook fashion right now). But more important, the foundations of a regional power are emerging, one that is equally threatening to Saudi Arabia and to Iran. (Some analysts believe Tehran's nuclear program is meant to intimidate and deter a resurgent Baghdad, not just Washington and Tel Aviv.) Iraq, for better or worse, democratic or not, will be a power to be reckoned with. Such is America's dark victory there.