Who’s the Real Sectarian?

By Harold Meyerson (THE WASHINGTON POST, 29/08/07):

Nobody loves Nouri Kamal al-Maliki. In his own country, the Iraqi prime minister heads a government of, by and for fractious Shiites, against which enraged Sunnis, among others, have taken up arms. In our country, which sustains him in power, both liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans call for his ouster. A National Intelligence Estimate finds his administration utterly incapable of settling the differences that are pulling his nation apart.

The bill of particulars against Maliki is long and convincing, but it all boils down to this: The prime minister has done nothing to reconcile Iraq’s warring populations and, to the contrary, seems either content or resigned to heading a government that consolidates the Shiite ascendancy in Iraq. His ministries are controlled by sectarian Shiites. Sunnis fear the government’s police force, dread going to the government’s hospitals and have given up on the government’s ever picking up the garbage in their neighborhoods or providing any of the ordinary amenities that government normally provides.

Over the past few months, not surprisingly, Sunni and nonsectarian parties have withdrawn from Maliki’s cabinet and boycotted the parliament. Rivalries within his own Shiite community have also weakened Maliki, who, unlike such Shiite leaders as Abdul Aziz al-Hakim or Moqtada al-Sadr, lacks sectarian military legions to call his own.

There are pockets of relative peace in Iraq, but they are distinctly not in places where a reconciliation process has occurred. In provinces where Shiites govern Shiites or Sunnis govern Sunnis (and, most especially, where Kurds govern Kurds), and intrasect rivalries aren’t raging or al-Qaeda in Iraq isn’t warring against everyone, life is not punctuated by violent death. Unlike U.S. leaders from both parties, an increasing number of Iraqis equate peace not with reconciliation but with separation and local — that is, sectarian — control. In such provinces, Maliki and the government in Baghdad are an irrelevance, and the very idea of reconciliation seems destabilizing, dangerous or downright deadly.

I hold no brief for Maliki as such, but it’s fair to note that we are asking him to reconcile a nation that by almost every indication does not wish to be reconciled. Our deep and continual misunderstanding of sectarian aspirations in Iraq is at the root of our inability to see Iraq for what it is.

Americans, to take just one instance, celebrated the Iraqi parliamentary elections of December 2005, noting with approval how many Iraqis voted in a region where democracy hadn’t sunk many roots. What they failed to notice was that the voting broke down entirely on sectarian lines — Sunnis for Sunni parties, Shiites for Shiites, Kurds for Kurds. The one nonsectarian slate, led by former prime minister Ayad Allawi, won a meager 8 percent of the vote.

In short, we are asking Maliki to transform Iraq into a nation that few Iraqis actually want. It’s a task that could be accomplished by a ruthless dictator with a monopoly of armed force — by, say, a Saddam Hussein — but not by a political leader constrained by public opinion.

Dumping Maliki would do nothing to change the fundamental reality of the new Iraq, which is that a civil war between sects, unleashed — predictably — by the American invasion and its destruction of Iraqi national institutions, has smashed the nation to pieces.

Get rid of Maliki, that is, and we will end up with someone fundamentally like him. His Shiite sectarianism is what the nation’s long-suppressed Shiite majority wants in a head of government. His is the sectarianism of a faithful servant of his people — or, at minimum, of his political base.

In fact, it’s easier to defend Maliki’s sectarianism than it is that of the leader who blew Maliki’s nation to smithereens: George W. Bush.

Maliki inherited warring factions; that’s why it took five months to piece his government together before he could even take power. Bush, however, with the prompting of Karl Rove, governed with the novel theory that what America needed was political polarization. He did not reach out to Democrats in the wake of 9/11 to build a new national security consensus; indeed, he used the Iraq war, from the summer of 2002 on, to paint the Democrats as national security squishes.

If Maliki had not become prime minister, does anyone really think that Iraq’s fundamental divisions would have appreciably diminished, that the sectarian cleansing would have abated and the civil war brought to an end? It’s Bush, not Maliki, who has been a sectarian by choice. And it’s Bush, not Maliki, whose term must come to an end before we can close out our misadventure in Iraq.