JUDGING by the way much of the Western media is dealing with the
Iraq War's fifth anniversary, we're still fighting the acrimonious
debates of 2002 and early 2003. Focusing on the past, however, may
prevent us from understanding what's happening in Iraq today and its
effect on the broader region.
The war had three objectives:
* To dismantle the regime of terror created by Saddam Hussein and his Tikriti clan.
* To restore to the Iraqi people the power that the Tikritis had usurped.
* To help Iraqis build a new system that might, in time, become a model for other Muslim countries.
The first two objectives have been achieved. The Tikritis are gone.
Iraqis have regained their usurped power and exercised it in two
general elections and one referendum. The only useful debate,
therefore, is whether or not the third objective has been achieved.
At first glance, it hasn't. Anyone watching on TV the frequent suicide
attacks and car bombs, not to mention vigilante groups on the rampage,
would not want this Iraq for a model.
Other facts also make
new Iraq look unattractive. While over 1.5 million Iraqis returned home
after Saddam Hussein fell, as many fled to neighboring countries after
2004. A further 2 million have become "displaced persons" inside Iraq.
Nevertheless, it's possible to argue that Iraq has achieved a measure
of success in dealing with some basic problems that Muslim states, most
of them post-colonial creations, have failed to solve for decades.
The first of these concerns legitimacy, an issue linked with that of the origin of power.
In traditional Muslim states, legitimacy is based on dynastic claims with a veneer of religious authority.
In the so-called republics, it's based on foundation myths, military coups d'etat
marketed as revolutions. The myths are then exploited to justify
arbitrary rule by small, clan-based, military elites backed by brutal
In post-Saddam Iraq, however, the source of legitimacy is the people's will as expressed in free elections.
None of the political parties and certainly none of the scores of
political figures that have emerged on the national scene since 2003
would claim legitimacy on the basis of divine mandate, mythical event
or blood ties.
To people in more mature democracies, all this
may sound trite. In a nation trying to come to terms with the modern
world, it's a vital concern. The popular legitimacy of power in new
Iraq is illustrated by the fact that it's the only Muslim state that
didn't have its constitution written and imposed by a narrow ruling
Iraq's constitution was made through a process that
involved thousands of people in two years of consultation and debate,
followed by closer scrutiny at an elected Constituent Assembly and,
ultimately, a popular referendum. In that sense, all 11 million or so
Iraqis who voted could be regarded as founding fathers and mothers of
Iraq's second achievement is the consensus it has
developed over the exercise of power. New Iraq is the only Muslim
country with a system of separation of powers and checks and balances.
In Iran, which like Iraq has a Shiite majority, a single individual,
the "Supreme Guide," has unlimited powers over state institutions in
the name of the "Hidden Imam."
In Turkey, an unelected
National Security Council, dominated by the military, can transcend
civilian authority and impose its choices.
In Syria, a "star
chamber" dominated by the president, himself chosen in a one-candidate
election, can annul decisions by the legislature and judiciary.
The third major problem that Iraq has started to tackle concerns the
overconcentration of power as observed in almost all Muslim states. In
Iran, even opening a private school in any of the 30 provinces requires
approval from Tehran, ultimately from the "Supreme Guide" himself. In
Syria, a permit to operate a taxi in Aleppo must be approved in
Damascus. The term decentralization doesn't have a proper equivalent in
Arabic, Persian or Turkish.
New Iraq, however, is designed with decentralization in mind. Over
the next few years, with elected regional assemblies in place, Iraq
will develop into a federal state, something unknown in the Muslim
The fourth issue that new Iraq is trying to tackle
concerns ethnic and/or religious diversity. Almost all Muslim countries
are home to a variety of ethnic and/or religious communities, often
with long histories of mutual suspicion if not enmity.
The usual method is to ignore diversity.
In Egypt, the Coptic minority, some 10 percent of the population, has no representation in the national parliament.
In Turkey, the state has long pretended that 15 million Kurds don't even exist. (They are called "Mountain Turks.")
In Iran, few Arabs, Kurds, Baluchis and Turkmen are found either in the
parliament or in the higher echelons of power even though they account
for 15 percent of the population. Iranian Sunni Muslims, some 12
percent of the population, are not allowed to have a single mosque in
New Iraq offers a different model in which diversity is allowed full expression through power-sharing in a federal system.
Finally, Iraq is also trying to tackle the problem of sharing the country's wealth, especially oil.
In most oil-producing Muslim countries, the state has exclusive control
over the industry and the sharing of the revenues. Often, this results
in corruption and regional disparities.
In new Iraq, the
regions are allocated shares proportionate to their demographic
strength, while parliament has the final word on the national budget.
Iraq is tackling problems that most Muslim nations have ignored or failed to solve and already shows some signs of success.
To be sure, history isn't written in advance. New Iraq may still fail
in its courageous attempt at developing an alternative to various forms
of despotism that have dominated the region for centuries. Its friends
may abandon it before its successes have been consolidated. Its
enemies, working round-the-clock to make sure it does not develop into
a rival model, may end up having the last laugh.
Now, however, as we mark the war's fifth anniversary, new Iraq, despite its many travails, appears to be on the right path.