Ready or Not, Iraq Ascends to Take Helm of Arab Bloc
Tim Arango, The New York Times, March 23, 2011
BAGHDAD — After Libya was suspended from the Arab League last month, de facto leadership ended up coincidentally in the hands of Iraq, the Arab nation with the most experience — much of it painful — with a foreign-led military campaign against an unpopular dictator.
For all of that still unsettled pain, the foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari — in his new capacity as head of the Arab League — rushed off to Paris last Friday evening to join Western and Arab allies, where he argued passionately in favor of action against Libya, citing the American no-fly zone in northern Iraq that protected the Kurdish population from Saddam Hussein in the years before the American invasion here, according to a senior official who took part in the Paris deliberations.
And soon, Iraqi leaders, who are facing their own protest movement, plan to use their own troublesome democracy, still bloody and inchoate, as a showcase for Middle East countries. Iraq is taking on a larger diplomatic role in regional affairs as host of the group’s annual summit meeting — while assuming the rotating presidency of the league — in May.
“If there’s a political message, it’s that Iraq is back to play a major and positive role in the Arab region,” said Labid Abawi, the deputy foreign minister who has led a committee to prepare Baghdad for the summit meeting.
“We take pride in that Iraq has already exceeded all these other Arab countries in establishing a democratic regime,” he said. “Now, we can say yes, we are on the right track, and other Arab countries can follow suit in establishing a democratic regime.”
Before the democratic uprisings across the Middle East, the summit meeting had already been seen as an occasion of national pride. Now it represents something larger — an opportunity, Iraqi leaders say, to showcase its fragile democracy. Some Iraqi diplomats envision emerging from the meeting with a so-called “Baghdad Declaration,” a statement that would define the principles of modern Middle Eastern democracy.
But, even with all the gains here, any such declaration would be freighted with unintentional irony.
Iraq, with a democracy imposed by American force, is still a volatile tableau from which to draw lessons about how to establish a democracy in the Middle East. Insurgent attacks occur daily. Its prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, has raised alarms recently with moves to consolidate power over the judiciary and the security forces. Transparency International ranked Iraq as the fourth most corrupt country in the world last year, just ahead of Afghanistan, Myanmar and Somalia. Iraq is still more violent for civilians than Afghanistan, and American soldiers still die here, as one did Sunday from a roadside bomb in the south.
“They have some of the institutions of democracy, and habits, but not the mentality,” said one senior diplomat here, who spoke anonymously to maintain relationships with the Iraqi leadership. “Politics in Iraq is zero sum.”
Last year more than 60 percent of Iraqis turned out to vote in parliamentary elections, which were largely deemed free and fair by international monitors. But many critics argue that in a nation where religion is intertwined with politics — outside Parliament last week little green flags flew with the words “Muhammad is our leader” — rights to assemble and express oneself, as well as press freedoms, are under increasing attack.
“Democracy is not just elections, of course,” said Allaa Talabani, a Kurdish lawmaker. “Democracy is belief. It is practice. Elections are just a mechanism.”
Iraq has faced widespread protests aimed not at upending the government, but improving it. Still, as it takes its place on the stage of world affairs it does so at a time when its own version of democracy seems to many to be creeping backward toward authoritarianism.
The gulf between the Green Zone political elite and the Iraqi street remains vast, and the stirrings of Iraq’s own youth-led movement, inspired partly by the events in Egypt and Tunisia, suggest an effort to articulate an indigenous version of democracy, different from the one imposed after the American invasion.
The summit meeting, earlier scheduled for March, has already been delayed by the region’s tumult, and although Mr. Zebari has insisted it will go forward, lawmakers and diplomats privately express skepticism and wonder if Arab leaders will dare leave their countries for fear of being overthrown in their absence.
Meanwhile, on the Baghdad streets a facelift is under way to prepare the city for Arab leaders, should they arrive to accentuate the more hopeful features of Iraq’s transition.
Hotels, many scarred from bombings, are being refurbished. Concrete blast walls that dominate the aesthetic of Baghdad will be dismantled, as will many checkpoints on the road leading from the airport to the city’s center. One five-star hotel planned for the Green Zone remains a foundation and a honeycomb of scaffolding.
And on some of Baghdad’s main thoroughfares shopkeepers have been busy painting and cleaning, per a dictum from the city government. The result on Zaydoon Street, a big shopping boulevard in the center of the city, has been garish bursts of bright colors and shiny buildings amid the urban, war zone blight of razor coils and thatches of electricity wires, the beginnings of a Potemkin city that suggest an economic boom that has yet to take hold.
Still, it suggests an everyday life that continues to emerge here slowly. On one recent afternoon, a television reporter conducted a stand-up spot on the median, while an amputee sold boxes of tissues to passing cars in front of a pharmacy newly painted a bright orange.
Over the last turbulent months in the Middle East, history has pivoted in lighting quick fashion from the egomaniacal perversions of its leaders to the democratic aspirations of its people. With Arab leaders soon to descend on Iraq, its violent and lurching trajectory toward democracy, from foreign invasion to sectarian civil war to the low-grade insurgency that menaces this country to this day, will most likely be as much cautionary tale as road map for reform.
Iraq, still occupied by close to 50,000 American troops and reliant on United States advisers to defend its airspace and protect against foreign threats, is not participating in the military action against Libya, which began last Saturday, the eighth anniversary of the American invasion that imposed a version of democracy still far from finished.