Coming to Terms With Iraqi Democracy

March 05, 2010

If Iraq's elections this Sunday are broadly as free and fair as the other four times Iraqis have gone to the polls since 2005, they will mark a milestone of which Iraqis and Americans should be proud. The arguments for abandoning Iraq to Saddam Hussein—and the contention that democracy has somehow been forced upon a reluctant country—will be consigned forever to the graves they deserve.

The new government will be relatively broad-based, most likely formed by a coalition dominated by the non-sectarian party of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki and the inclusive, but Shiite-dominated, United Iraqi Alliance. Together these two will struggle to achieve more than 45% of the vote, reflecting a significant erosion of sectarianism since the 2005 elections.

However, a misunderstanding about what democracy means for Iraq threatens to diminish this achievement. Washington's recent objections to the anti-Baathist vetting of parliamentary candidates expose an ill-founded and counterproductive fear of a Shiite-dominated Iraq. It is not an open door for Iran, and it is not something to fear simply because it puts pressure on our allies among the region's Sunni autocracies.

Iraqis are Arabs, not Persians. The two groups look different, speak different languages, and carry in their blood centuries of opposition originating long before the four centuries during which Iraq provided the Ottoman frontier provinces with Persia. During Saddam's nine-year war against Iran, Iraq's Shiites—65% of the country's population—provided about 85% of the cannon fodder for his Sunni regime. Iraqi Shiites fought hard and well in that war.

Iraq's ethnic difference with Iran trumps the religious connection. The last thing Iraqis want is domination by any neighbor, including the failing theocracy to the east.

History and ethnicity aside, the visible precariousness of the Iranian regime hardly makes an orientation in that direction a big vote-winner for Iraq's election-minded politicians. Still, American leaders fear that some of Iraq's devious politicians will drag their people into Persian serfdom anyway. The alleged Iranian henchmen? Ahmad Chalabi, certain rumps of the old Sadr movement, and the Islamic Supreme Countil of Iraq (ISCI) party of the Hakim family.

If Mr. Chalabi is indeed the ruthless opportunist of popular imagination, his relationships with the U.S., Iran and other powers are pragmatic, not ideological. And his instincts indisputably lie in the secular, liberal direction.

The Sadrists turned to Iran mostly when the Sunnis, losing Baghdad in a conflict of their own devising, turned the Americans upon Sadr City in 2005 and 2006, having convinced them the Sadrists were Iranian proxies. President Obama's sensible pause on the war against the defenders of the Shiite poor has undermined the reasons for this marriage of convenience.

The great success of the 2005 elections was persuading the Sadrists, with their many supporters, to join the legitimate political process. The 2010 election—especially now that the popular Baathist ban has been upheld—will further consolidate this crucial enfranchisement of Iraq's largest demographic.

As for ISCI, the key religious figure for the Shiites who follow the Hakims is Grand Ayatollah Sistani. Mr. Sistani, the true hero of Iraq's survival and incipient renaissance, is the standard-bearer of the traditional Shiite view of politics called "quietism," which rejects the clerical rule invented by the Ayatollah Khomenei in Iran. ISCI, hoping for 10% of the seats in the new parliament, is not Khomeinism in waiting.

In short, Iran is no reason to deny Iraqi democracy its natural workings. So why does Washington fall for this canard? A principal reason is the dangerous American coziness with the region's Sunni autocracies. With almost no human intelligence resources of their own on the ground, U.S. agencies rely upon countries like Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia for eyes and ears in the region.

For reasons both political and religious, an Iraq that is both Shiite and democratic terrifies these players. The perspective that the American Joint Special Operations Command receives from these sources out of its Doha headquarters is deeply colored by a point of view that King Abdullah of Jordan summarized in 2004 with his alarming reference to a coming "Shiite crescent."

The State Department view of the Middle East, meanwhile, continues to be dominated as it has been since at least 1970 by the Arabist notion that the best way to handle the volatile region is to support the regimes that sit atop the powder keg. In Foggy Bottom as in Langley, this means propping up the Sunni autocracies of the Gulf, Jordan and Egypt.

Thus the principal intended beneficiary of U.S. policy today is former Baathist Ayad Allawi, head of the coalition that put forward the bulk of the candidates recently disqualified under Iraqi law for various degrees of Baathist affiliation. Iraq's ban on Baathism in politics is directly modeled on the German ban on Nazism. Baathism's vicious mix of anti-Shiite apartheid and anti-Kurd quasi-genocide justifies this. The ban is given legal force by the Iraqi Constitution's Article 7 and by the 2008 Accountability and Justice law.

But anti-Baathism is more than a rule-of-law issue in Iraq. It is also a potent electoral force, perhaps the most important popular issue in a country where even at the peak of its coercive power the Baath Party could muster no more than 5% of the population. Clinging to the wrong side of this issue is a bad deal for the U.S.

This is because Iraq matters more than any of its Arab neighbors. It almost certainly possesses the most oil in the world; it's the fault line between the Shiite and Sunni worlds; it occupies a strategic position at the head of the Persian Gulf; and it is surrounded by a uniquely important cast of neighbors—Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Turkey and Iran. With a muscular tradition and a population larger than Saudi Arabia, Iraq is the neighborhood's natural hegemon. It is the only country in the region with the potential to show Iran and the Arab states that freedom provides security, prosperity and international support.

With stakes this high, and so much progress already achieved, the U.S. cannot afford to cap its investment in Iraq to date with anything but a strong commitment to Iraqi democracy during the coming weeks. This means hands off Iraqi politics, respect for Iraq's rule of law, and a surge in economic and moral support from a president who enjoys unusual advantages with ordinary Arabs.

Iraq's Shiites know whom they have to thank for their freedom. Shiism itself, with its reverence of human saints and its roots in Aristotelian reason, has powerful affinities with Western humanism. A Shiite-dominated Iraq means a free Iraq, and it behooves Washington to start acting on the potential in this friendship.

Mr. Bull is a founder of Northern Gulf Partners, an Iraq-focused investment bank. A former journalist, he was embedded with the Sadrists for five weeks in 2005.