Democracy’s last stand

By Mark Lattimer, the director of Minority Rights Group International (THE GUARDIAN, 01/05/07):

As 20,000 extra US troops arrived in Baghdad in February as part of George Bush’s “Baghdad security plan”, I asked a university professor there if she thought the Americans staying would improve security. “No,” she said, “it will get worse.” And if they leave? “It will still get worse. There is no win-win option any more. Whatever happens now, the people of Iraq will be the losers.”With a succession of massive explosions hitting Baghdad over the past two weeks, people in Iraq talk less about the American troop surge than a Sunni bombing surge. But what will probably be seen as a military failure in fact derives from the US’s most deadly political mistake: expending its credibility in support of a “democratic” Iraqi government now close to collapse and from the beginning rotten to the core.

When I was in Baghdad last June just after the formation of the government, I noticed the optimism inside the green zone contrasted starkly with the fatalism expressed by Iraqis outside it. One reason soon became clear. Statistics for violent civilian deaths released by the UN, based on body counts in hospitals and morgues, showed that the inauguration of the government had coincided with a huge increase in killings, which over the summer reached 3,000 a month, or 100 a day.

While insurgent bombings dominated the headlines, it was clear that most of the bodies, often found with skulls punctured by drills, were the work of Shia death squads. US statements about the Iraqi government’s capacity to provide security obscured the fact that the militias mainly responsible, the Badr brigade and Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army, were linked to the two most powerful parties in the governing coalition. The government, supposedly representing Iraq’s democratic hopes, was the biggest part of the problem.

This meant that the so-called hearts-and-minds campaign was always doomed. I had an opportunity to see the campaign in action when I came across a US armoured convoy outside Mosul. The commanding officer later explained to me that he was visiting local chiefs to discuss security and build trust. But the security of his troops prevented any appointments being made in advance. In practice, then, as I learned when my tea with a senior Mosul official was dramatically interrupted, the push for hearts and minds meant descending on important people’s homes in full battle order to ask them if they felt safe.

Now, while Iraqi and US soldiers’ lives are being risked at checkpoints around Baghdad’s Sadr City, the greatest threat to Iraq’s unity and to its remaining hopes of democracy lies 150 miles north in the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Under Saddam Hussein’s policy of Arabisation, tens of thousands of Kurds and Turkmen were expelled from Kirkuk or forced to register as Arabs, and Arabs, mainly poor Shia from the south, were settled there. All the Kurdish politicians I met last week expressed their determination to implement the provisions of the new Iraqi constitution that call for a “normalisation” process enabling Kurds to reclaim their lands, and a referendum on the future of the Kirkuk area by December. With the government in Baghdad falling apart and America’s days in Iraq numbered, the Kurds realise that unless they act soon, their chances of bringing Kirkuk into Iraqi Kurdistan will soon slip away.

In April the Iraqi cabinet agreed a voluntary package giving Arabs who were moved to Kirkuk 20m dinars (£7,500) and a plot of land in their area of origin if they agreed to leave. Non-Kurdish political parties reacted angrily to the plan, and inter-communal violence has increased. In fact, Kirkuk has become so dangerous that persuading Kurds to return may prove a lot harder than persuading others to go. Without a political solution soon, it seems inevitable that the situation will become as bad as in Baghdad or Mosul, and could threaten the security of Kurdistan itself.

That would be a grave loss. Kurdistan is unique in Iraq in enjoying relative security. The Kurdish units of the Iraqi army you see at checkpoints are disciplined, and there has been little of the sectarian bloodletting that has stained the rest of the country.

A sentiment heard repeatedly outside Kurdistan is that it is worse now than under Saddam. The failure to bring even minimal security to Iraq has rendered the attempts to install democracy next to worthless. Only in Kurdistan has the rule of law enabled democratic institutions to develop. “What we have here is the only success story in Iraq,” I was told last week by Dr Mohammed Ihsan, the Kurdish minister responsible for negotiating on Kirkuk. “If the Americans don’t sort out the Kirkuk issue, they will lose what they built here.”