As the world marks the third anniversary of the Iraq war, the debate about whether or not it was justified is far from over.
Those who opposed the toppling of Saddam Hussein for a range of reasons continue to argue that it was wrong for foreign powers to impose regime change in a sovereign state.
And those who supported the war, mostly on the grounds that Iraqis needed help to liberate themselves from a murderous regime, do not appear to have changed position as a result of the blood-letting that continues on an almost daily basis.
The debate will probably not end anytime soon. As British Prime Minister Tony Blair suggested recently, it may ultimately be up to God to decide whether or not it was right to topple Saddam.
What matters now is the future of Iraq which, as both supporters and opponents of the war admit, would also affect the shape of things to come throughout the Middle East .
Supporters of the war, including this writer, have been untied in advancing one claim: Iraq can be transformed into a modern state, and thus a model for the entire Middle East .
Three years later, how credible is that claim?
The war, which was not designed to impose democracy by force, has succeeded in removing most of the structural obstacles to democratisation. The one-party state has been dismantled along with its octopus like security services. A system built around the cult of the leader has been discredited in favour of advancing the rights of the individual citizen. For the first time, Iraqis have a genuine opportunity to build a pluralist system based on the rule of law.
The question is whether or not they have made good use of that opportunity?
The answer is a mixture of yes and no.
On the positive side the Iraqis have started to learn the rules of pluralist politics by accepting, if not actually welcoming, diversity of a kind unknown in most other Muslim countries. They have also held a series of municipal and general elections, and one constitutional referendum, that were certified as free and fair by most observers.
But, although there can be no democracy without elections, one can have elections without democracy.
In that sense Iraq ’s democratisation process suffers from three fundamental weaknesses which, if not addressed, could undermine its success.
The first is the failure of the new leadership to develop political bases that transcend ethnic and sectarian boundaries.
For example, Jalal Talabani, the interim President of the Republic, would not win any votes in, say, Basra because he is an ethnic Kurd. In exchange Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the interim prime minister and an Arab Shi’ite, would not find many supporters in Suleymaniah, a Kurdish city in the northeast.
No democracy could be built on ethnic and sectarian bases alone.
Democracy works because a minority always has the hope of one day becoming a majority by persuading a larger number of voters with stronger political arguments and more attractive policy proposals. But if people vote on the basis of ethnic and/or sectarian considerations only, the largest community will always form the majority. That, in turn, would mean that the smaller communities will have no interest in prolonging the democratic experience.
What Iraq needs is the creation of political parties or alliances of parties across ethnic and sectarian divides.
There was some movement in that direction in the last general election when at least three non-sectarian lists were on offer. In the end , however, only a quarter of the electorate voted across the ethnic and sectarian divides. Thus much more work remains to be done on that score.
The second weakness of the Iraqi experience so far is the failure of the state to impose its monopoly of coercive forces.
By most estimates there are at least 11 militia armies in Iraq with a total of 150,000 men, almost as large as the newly created national army. In a few areas these militia have carved out fiefdoms where the central government has little effective presence. No one knows quite how much of the violence that Iraq is experiencing is imputable to militia activities. But anecdotal evidence suggests that some militia units are involved in racketeering, contraband, and even Mafia-style killing of rivals and opponents.
The third, and perhaps the most worrying, weakness of the Iraqi experience is the attempt by some prominent politicians to derail the democratic process by involving the clergy in decision-making.
There is no doubt that, on balance, the Iraqi clergy, both Shiite and Sunni, have played a positive role in the post-war period by reining in extremists in their respective camps and preventing sectarian clashes from developing into civil war. Even those with no religious belief take their hats off to Grand Ayatollah Ali-Muhammad Sistani, the primus inter pares of the Shiite clergy, who has emerged as a strong supporter of the democratisation project.
And yet some Shiite politicians seem determined to turn Sistani into a more benign version of the late Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini, the mullah who imposed theocratic despotism on Iran in 1979.
One may like or dislike Khomeini but it would be unfair to claim that he alone was responsible for imposing “ walayat al-faqih ” (rule of the clergy) which has led Iran into an historic impasse .
After the revolution in 1979, Khomeini settled in the “holy city” of Qom and tried to resume work as a theology teacher. The new political elite, starting with Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan, however, kept flying to Qom to consult the ayatollah on every detail of government work. Recent revelations show that Bazargan insisted that the new constitution, which initially was an almost verbatim translation of the Constitution of the French Fifth Republic , should be amended to give Khomeini the final say in key matters of state.
Bazargan’s calculation at the time was that he could use Khomeini’s clout as the father of the revolution against other mullahs and political rivals who wanted to topple the interim government. To make a tactical gain, Bazargan committed a strategic error.
Some Shiite politicians, including al-Jaafari, Jawad al-Maleki, and Ahmad Chalabi, are committing a similar mistake. By constantly going to Najaf to meet Sistani and claiming that he has endorsed whatever their plan of the day happens to be, they are promoting a system of “ walayat al-faqih ” in all but name.
My contacts with Sistani tell me that the grand ayatollah is adamant not to intervene in governmental politics and that he does not support any faction against any other.
Sistani knows of Iran ’s tragic experience and does not wish to see Iraq take a similar route. And, yet, politicians who seem unable to solve their problems insist on presenting him as a player in the political arena.
That is bad for Iraq and dangerous for Shi’ism as a religious faith.
But, when all is said and done, Iraq today is a better place than it ever was under Saddam Hussein. Had the despot not been chased away we would not have a discussion about the strengths and weaknesses of the Iraqi democratic experience so far. There would have been no such experience to start with.