All Writings
April 27, 2003

Democratizing Iraq

Only a creative federalist political system tailored to the Iraqi people's needs will succeed.

Democratizing Iraq may prove to be a nightmare unless we build on the nation's inherent factionalism by developing a democratic political system that fully reflects Iraqi's communal, social, and "religious" diversity. Only through some form of federalism, whereby Iraq's three main factions–the Kurds, the Shiites, and the Sunnis– enjoy equal constitutional protection while exercising self-rule, will the country become a stable democracy.

The difficulties in governing Iraq stem from a number of factors–historical, psychological, religious, and communal. The disposition of its natural resources, including oil, also will come into play. These factors will doom any American plans to democratize Iraq based purely on our political philosophy of majority rule. The Iraqi people have gone through so many trials and tribulations. Only a political system that can respond to the needs bred out these circumstances can endure. The country has never experienced anything resembling western democracy. For 400 years from 1515 to 1915, Iraq was part of the Ottoman Empire, then between 1920-1932, Britain controlled it. In 1958 the military overthrew the monarchy, and a few years later, in 1963, the Ba'ath socialist party took power. The decades of the 1960s and the 1970s were marked by one military coup after another. For one brief period, between 1922 and 1958, under the monarchy, the Iraqi people were given some semblance of freedom. A parliament was elected, and some legislators were allowed to debate and even to argue (with reverence) against the government without retribution. The press had limited freedom, as did the judiciary, although the powers they possessed not arbitrarily, favoritism was common. If the forms of government changed throughout much of the last 500 years, what did remain constant in Iraqi society was factionalism, tribalism, authoritarianism, and ethnic and sectarian violence. Loyalty was owed first to the head of the family, then to the head of the clan, and only then to the head of the tribe. Fidelity to the central authority always came last.

Most recently, the twenty-five years of ruthless rule by Saddam Hussein have left most Iraqis embittered, disillusioned, cynical, suspicious, and impatient. In the north are the Kurds, who having enjoyed under our protection autonomous rule for the past 12 years, are vehement about holding onto their gains and freedom, whatever party or sect becomes the central authority. In the center of the country, the dominant group, the Sunnis, have held the reins of power throughout Iraq's independence. They are not about to relinquish it to a democratically elected government unless they can ensure keeping some control. Mostly in the south are the Shiites, who have been deprived of power, even though they constitute about 60 percent of the population. They are hungry to assume the governance of their country. Given the choice, the Shiites, who are already actively jockeying for power, are the only group that would welcome direct elections, as these would certainly ensure their absolute dominance in any future government. But the United States wants to prevent the rise of Shiites, especially since all their leaders, including Ayatollah Ali al-Sestani, the country's most senior Shiite cleric, have made no secret of their determination to establish an Islamic republic in Iraq. Adding fuel to the fire of sectarian and political rivalries is the disposition of Iraq's natural resources, chiefly oil. These resources are only a source of wealth but of contention and intense dispute. How the revenue generated from the riches of the land is shared and who will control them are serious problems that have created deep animosity in the past between the central government and the provinces.

If the objective of the Bush administration is to establish lasting democracy in Iraq, it must understand that the only viable option is to create a federal system. Such a system would have to ensure the representation of all Iraqis, guarantee human rights, liberty, political freedom, stability, and the equitable distribution of national wealth. We must develop such a system in four stages:

First, as we try to assemble a transitional Iraqi government, we must restore internal security, provide basic services, and begin to educate the leadership drawn from all backgrounds and communal persuasions– to think in terms of federalism. We have to understand that such a political system will not readily resonate with the Shiites or the Sunnis for different reasons. The Shiites will have problems understanding the concept of shared powers because they believe their sheer numbers guarantee them control. For their part the Sunnis would like to assume that because they've always had the power, there is no reason for this not to continue. Despite these difficulties, as an all-Iraqi transitional government is established and begins to function under the direction and advice of the American civilian authority, the principles of federalism must guide all of our plans and actions. Such a government might need two years to establish.

Second, since no democratic form of government can be created in a vacuum, the transitional government must initially build the democratic institutions necessary to sustain social freedom and personal security. To that end, the first task of the government should be to write a constitution with a federal system as its core. The rights of the Iraqi people must be institutionally enshrined and supercede the power of any elected official. Concurrently, the government must begin in earnest to lay the foundations for a fair and impartial judiciary, free press, market economy, religious tolerance, freedom of expression and assembly, freedom of education, and the formation of political parties.

Third, the country should be divided to three major federal states: a northern state, with a majority of Kurds; a central state, with a majority of Sunni Muslims; and a southern state, with a majority of Shiites. Each state should have a number of provinces that are governed on the same basis as the state. The states will be empowered to run their own internal affairs as they see fit and to assume full control of their territories, except in matters involving natural resources. The states must also abide by federal laws. Each state should be equally represented in the Higher House (Senate) and proportionately in the Lower House (House of Representatives). A president serving a term of four years, and with only ceremonial responsibilities, should be chosen by the Lower House, and a prime minister, also serving a four-year-term, but exercising full executive responsibilities, should be chosen by the Higher House. This type of arrangement will (1) provide equitable representation for all three major groups (2) prevent the president from assuming powers beyond the limits imposed by the constitution, and (3) give each of the three factions an equal opportunity to chose a prime minister based on merit, including his or her executive and administrative abilities.

Fourth, the federal authority must equally represent all three segments of the population, as well as minorities such as the Turkmen. The central authority will have several critical functions: (1) it will be in charge of external security and foreign affairs; (2) it will arbitrate disputes among the three federated states via a strong and impartial federal judiciary; (3) it will be in charge of a central Iraqi bank, which should regulate currency, maintain financial stability (including establishing a federal reserve), and redistribute funds from the sale of Iraqi oil proportionately and equitably to the regions; and (4) it will develop, and maintain Iraq's strategic assets, such as oil, to ensure that all Iraqis benefit from their national wealth.

This type of political system borrows from a variety of systems including our own, Israel's, and England's, Japan's and others. To work, this system must satisfy the conflicting demands of the various rival groups. Therefore, self-rule for the states, a strong central/federal government, and a system of checks and balances are fundamental to dealing with the sensibilities of the Iraqis. Such governing principles will lead to the eventual success of a full-fledged democratic Iraqi government.