x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

An opportunity for Iraqis to rewrite their history

There is one thing that everyone can agree on: these elections are crucial to the future of the country and to the plans to withdraw US troops after seven years of occupation.

Before his death in 1933, King Feisal of Iraq wrote "with a heart full of sorrow" that there was no such thing as an Iraqi people. The country was made up of "unimaginable masses of human beings, devoid of any patriotic idea, imbued with religious traditions and absurdities, connected by no common tie, giving ear to evil, prone to anarchy, and perpetually ready to rise against any government whatsoever."

If the old king was right, Iraq can only be ruled by a strongman, a new Saddam capable of binding these supposedly anarchic people into a nation. But the British-installed monarch was probably wrong. Maybe he went to his grave misjudging the Iraqis: they just hated having a foreigner imposed on them by a waning colonial power. Almost 80 years on, the Iraqis have a chance to give their response to King Feisal when they vote in parliamentary elections on Sunday. The result is unpredictable, but there is one thing that everyone can agree on: these elections are crucial to the future of the country and to the US president Barack Obama's plans to withdraw troops after seven years of occupation.

If a strong government emerges - without months of horse-trading between squabbling parties - then it is a fair bet that Mr Obama's plans to remove combat troops by the end of August can proceed. That would leave some 50,000 soldiers behind, in an advisory and training capacity, until 2011. Mr Obama could claim to be fulfilling at least one of his campaign promises. But almost no one believes in a fairy-tale outcome. For the US military, the president's withdrawal timetable at a time of political uncertainty is a straitjacket. The US military apparently would like an extra brigade to police the contested oil city of Kirkuk, a flashpoint between Kurds and Arabs.

So far the only predictions which have come true are those forecasting a rise in sectarian tensions in the run-up to the poll. Tuesday's triple bombing in Baquba, a particularly devious and shocking attack where the wounded of the first two blasts were blown up in hospital by a third bomber, is testament to this. Undoubtedly for the Americans, life would be easier if the current prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, remained in power.

When Mr al Maliki was named prime minister in 2006, he appeared to foreign observers as weak and tainted by dependence on the Shia religious parties and his long association with Iran. But he ordered the army to crack down on Shia militias. He has benefited from the so-called Awakening of the Anbar province tribes, who decided that the Americans were a lesser evil than the al Qa'eda-linked jihadist bands they had been allied with. All this has transformed Mr al Maliki into an Iraqi nationalist. Under his rule, the near civil war which raged for two years has abated.

To consolidate his political personality, Mr al Maliki broke away from his former allies, the main Shia religious parties, to found the State of Law Coalition. This coalition triumphed in provincial elections last year. But on a national level, he now faces strong opposition from his old allies, now grouped in the Iraqi National Alliance. Up until a few weeks ago, the story of the election seemed to be one of the decline of sectarianism, the driving force of the 2005 election when people generally voted - or boycotted - on religious lines. Now, with rising tensions, the theme seems to be scare campaigns - that the Baath party is coming back or the state is to be handed over to Iran. These scares will tend to reinforce the sectarian vote.

For some Iraqis a simple narrative explains these twists and turns: in 2003 the Americans wanted to weaken Iraq, so they fanned sectarianism, dividing its people by sect and ethnic affiliation. Once the Americans had decided to leave, they wanted Iraq to stand on its own feet, and so turned Mr al Maliki into a nationalist strongman. Now, according to this narrative, it is the Iranians who want to weaken Iraq, to make it a puppet state, so they prop up the religious vote with scare stories about the Baathists.

This narrative fails to take into account the ludicrously naive faith that Washington had in the concepts of "freedom" and "democracy" which were to cure all Iraq's ills overnight. But the narrative is correct in emphasising the struggle for supremacy between Washington and Tehran. By dint of geography, Iran will always claim an interest in Iraqi affairs, while America is far away. It is often forgotten that the territory of modern Iraq was, for nine centuries until the Islamic conquest, a province of the Persian empire. In the 1550s it was rescued from falling irrevocably under Iranian influence again by the Ottoman Sultan Suleyman II. Much as the Arab world likes to think of Iraq as a citadel of Arabism, it is destined to be a frontier zone.

One conclusion from this analysis is that democracy ill suits such a fractured and contested country as Iraq. The election seems to be "fixing" something that is not broken. But that is too simplistic. After rivers of blood, two million refugees and 2.7 million internally displaced, Iraqis have had to confront the questions of who they are and where they stand in the world. No one could claim that this experiment in Iraqi democracy has been worth the suffering caused by the US invasion. Nevertheless, Iraqi politicians have governed by reaching painful consensus on many issues, and this is worth preserving. The alternative would be a new tide of violence. This election may be Iraq's last chance to prove the embittered old king wrong.