Patrick Cockburn: A stable Iraq is still a very long way off

The communal divisions and political paralysis lead some to fear that the country is turning into another Lebanon.

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Seven years after the US and Britain invaded Iraq, the country remains highly unstable and fragmented. So divided are parties and communities that no government has emerged from the general election three months ago, which was intended to be a crucial staging post in Iraq's return to normality. Political leaders have not even started serious negotiations on sharing power.

"I have never been so depressed about the future of Iraq," said one former minister. "The émigré ruling class which came to power after 2003 is terrible. They have no policy other than to see how far they can rob the state."

None of this is very apparent to the outside world, because US policy since 2008 has been to declare a famous victory and withdraw its troops.

This week the US troop level drops to 92,000, lower for the first time than the number of American soldiers in Afghanistan. The US military wants to maintain the myth that it somehow turned round the war in Iraq by means of "the surge" and emerged successfully from the conflict.

This claim was always exaggerated. The insurgency against the US occupation was rooted in the Sunni Arab community, and when this was defeated by Shia government and militia forces in 2006-7, the Sunni had little choice but to look for an accommodation with the Americans. The most important change in Iraq was more to do with the outcome of the Shia-Sunni struggle than US military tactical innovations. This is why American generals are finding that the "surge" in Afghanistan this year, supposedly emulating success in Iraq, is showing such disappointing results.

The foreign-policy dominance of the military over civilian arm of the US government was reinforced by the Iraq war. Only this week the US Senate voted an extra $33bn for the military "surge" in Afghanistan, while the State Department gets only an extra $4bn. This is on top of $130bn for Iraq and Afghanistan this year already voted by Congress.

In Iraq, violence is far less than three years ago, and in this sense the country is "better" than it was when 3,000 bodies of people killed in the sectarian slaughter were being buried every month. But periodic al-Qa'ida attacks are still enough to create a sense of unease. To prevent them, the streets of Baghdad are so clogged with checkpoints and concrete blast walls that it is difficult to move through the city.

It is not so much the continuing, though much diminished, level of violence which worries Iraqis. The failure to replace the lame-duck government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki highlights the depth of sectarian and ethnic divisions between Shia, Sunni and Kurd. It was easy enough to forecast the outcome of the election by assuming that most voters would vote according to their communal loyalties.

These divisions, exacerbated by recent massacres, are not going to go away. But what makes them so destructive is the poor quality of leadership of the political parties, with the partial exception of the Kurds.

The former minister quoted above said that his fear was that Iraq had acquired a kleptomaniac ruling elite that runs the government as a racket.

Some Iraqis cynically take refuge in the belief that the state is so dysfunctional at the best of times that the failure to put in place a new government makes little difference. There is something in this argument, but there are signs in Baghdad that the failure to agree a new government is beginning to paralyse Iraq's rickety administrative machine.

For instance, 111,000 new state jobs cannot be filled without a decision by parliament, and even minor decisions are not taken. One political leader complained that he could not even get somebody to renew the permits for his bodyguards' weapons.

The communal divisions and political paralysis lead some Iraqis to fear that Iraq is turning into another Lebanon. Power will be so fragmented that no decision can be taken, job allocated or long-term policy pursued.

The Iraqi commentator and political scientist Ghassan Attiyah believes "a de facto partition will happen". As in Lebanon, internal divisions open the way to foreign intervention.

The Iraqi foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, points to the increasing role of Iraq's neighbours, led by Iran and Turkey, whom Iraqi politicians have invited in. "As a result it was not just an Iraqi election but a regional election," says Mr Zebari. As in Lebanon, the involvement of foreign powers, with their own interests at heart, may stabilise the situation temporarily but it also complicate and institutionalises Iraq's problems.

The analogy with Lebanon can be overdrawn. Unlike Lebanon or Afghanistan, Iraq has oil and the revenues to create a strong state and army. "Iraqis are so volatile and so violent that only the oil will keep them together," says Mr Attiyah. The under-exploited super-giant oil fields which international oil companies are now developing means that oil revenues should start increasing rapidly in about two years' time.

Iraq does not have to solve all or even the majority of its problems to make life better for its people who have endured 30 years of foreign and civil wars, occupation and sanctions. Iraqi Kurdistan, so autonomous that it is almost independent, has many of the failings of the rest of Iraq, such as corruption and a vast government payroll that leaves little money for investment. But the Kurdish political leadership is strong enough and secure good enough for the region to begin to boom. Cranes dominate the skyline of Arbil, the Kurdish capital, while there are still very few visible in Baghdad.

The reign of the present ruling elite in Iraq may be temporary. Many of the returning émigrés seem to want to plunder as much as they can as soon as they can before relocating to Europe, the US or some sympathetic Arab capital. They may have abler successors. But the failure to form a new government, and the growing perception that the present one is illegitimate, is making Iraq so unstable that it cannot reconstruct itself.

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