By Toby Dodge*Le Monde diplomatique
A violent civil war now dominates Iraq. If the country is to be stabilized, a central government with a monopoly on coercion must be rebuilt with administrative capacity to give it legitimacy.
The publication of the Iraq Study Group report in December and President George Bush's major policy speech on 10 January marked a decisive change in attitudes towards Iraq. This acceptance in policy circles of a realistic and necessarily pessimistic assessment is to be welcomed, although it has taken nearly four years to become conventional wisdom. But acknowledgement that the situation is dire, and getting worse, conceals disagreement and confusion about the underlying causes of the violent civil war that now dominates Iraq, and hence about possible solutions.
In explaining the evolution of violent instability in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the collapse of the Iraqi state is of far greater significance than the upsurge of communal antipathies or indeed the ineptitude of Iraq's new ruling elite. The entrance of US troops into Baghdad in April 2003 resulted in the death of the Iraqi state. Faced with the widespread lawlessness that is common after violent regime change, the US did not have the numbers of troops needed to control the situation. After three weeks of violence and looting, the state's administrative capacity was destroyed; 17 of Baghdad's 23 ministry buildings were completely gutted. Looters first took portable items of value such as computers, then furniture and fittings.
By the time I reached Baghdad a month after the US forces, looters were systematically stripping electric wiring from the walls of former government buildings to sell for scrap. Following the destruction of government infrastructure across the country, the de- Ba'athification process then purged the civil service of its top layer of management, leaving 20,000-120,000 people without work. The administrative capacity of the state had been shattered by over a decade of sanctions, three wars in 20 years and three weeks of uncontrolled looting. De-Ba'athification removed what was left: its institutional memory and a large section of its skilled personnel.
A situation of state failure
Iraq today is a state in a situation of failure. Against this background, instability is driven by two interlinked problems, which have caused the profound insecurity and violence that now dominates the country. The complete collapse of state capacity and the US disbanding of the Iraqi army led to an acute security vacuum, which was seized upon by many groups using violence for their own gain. Organised crime became a dominant source of insecurity for ordinary Iraqis. Diffuse groups fighting the insurgency in the name of Iraqi nationalism, increasingly fused with a militant Islamism, have caused the highest loss of life among coalition and Iraqi security forces. In early 2006 a new crisis arose with even greater potential for destabilisation: civil war. The explosion that destroyed the al- Askariyya mosque in the Iraqi city of Samarra on 22 February 2006 marked a watershed, exacerbating already mounting sectarian violence and the resulting population transfers.
The collapse of the state, and the ensuing security vacuum that has driven Iraq into civil war, has created, or at least empowered, distinct sets of groups using violence for their own ends. The first are the industrial-strength criminal gangs who terrorise what is left of Iraq's middle class. Persistent reports that crime is as big a problem for the citizens of Basra as Baghdad indicate that the state's inability to impose and guarantee order is a general problem across much of southern and central Iraq. Going well beyond the government's inability to increase electrical output or stimulate the job market, the continued ability of criminal gangs to operate signals a failed state. The second set of organisations capitalising on the collapse of the state are the many groups that make up the Iraqi insurgency, thought to have 20,000-50,000 fighters in their ranks. The violence that erupted after the destruction of the al-Askariyya mosque meant that Iraq's militias, estimated to have 60,000-102,000 fighters, became the main motor driving Iraq towards civil war.
Three broad groups of militia
The militias can be subdivided into three broad groupings, depending on organisational coherence and relationship to national politics. The first and most disciplined consists of the two Kurdish militias belonging to the Kurdistan Democratic party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. The second grouping covers outfits that were created in exile and brought back to Iraq after Saddam Hussein's fall. The most powerful is the Badr Brigade, the military arm of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), estimated to have 15,000 fighters. The Badr Brigade's colonisation of much of the security forces (notably the police and paramilitary units associated with the interior ministry) has done much to delegitimise the already limited power of the state-controlled forces of law and order. Badr's dominance of the interior ministry reached its peak when a former commander, Bayan Jabr, served as a minister under the Jaafari government. The ministry's Wolf Brigade commandos were repeatedly accused of acting as a death squad that resorted to extra-judicial execution and torture.
Complaints were at their worst in November 2005 when US forces raided an interior ministry detention facility and found 170 detainees "who had been held in appalling conditions." However SCIRI's dominance of government was such that Jabr was not removed until May 2006. Jawad al-Bolani, who replaced him, has struggled to reform the ministry. He has reportedly sacked more than 3,000 employees, but the ministry is still dogged by allegations that its forces and prisons use murder and torture with impunity.
The third group of militias are those that have been created in Iraq since regime change. The largest and most coherent is the 50,000- strong Jeish al-Mahdi, set up by Muqtada al-Sadr, the firebrand Shia cleric. The speed with which the militia was built after the fall of Saddam and the two prolonged conflicts with the US military have taken a toll on its organisational coherence. Mahdi militia commanders have become more financially independent of Sadr through hostage-taking, ransom, and the smuggling of antiquities and petroleum. In spite of Sadr's repeated calls for calm, the Mahdi army was blamed for most of the violence in and around Baghdad after the destruction of the al-Askariyya shrine.
The Badr Brigade and Mahdi army are in competition to control Iraq's Shias. This has led to a low-level war between them, which erupted in Basra in April and May 2006 and again in Amarah in October. The fighting in April was not caused by religious or ideological differences but by money. Basra is the centre of Iraq's oil exports and the conflict was primarily concerned with the division of the spoils. The fighting in Amarah was about dominance of the town once British forces had left. In each case, no group involved was strong enough to win outright. So the conflict simmers on, erupting periodically, triggered by competition and by Iranian interference.
No shortcut to hand
The dominance of the militias was not an inevitable result of regime change but a direct response to the collapse of the state: if Iraq is to be stabilised a central government with a monopoly on coercion must be rebuilt with the administrative capacity to give it legitimacy. Sadly there is no shortcut to this. If it were even possible, it could take many years and huge resources to achieve. Since 2003, when Paul Bremer signed the 15 November agreement, the US government has subcontracted the complex job of rebuilding "a population dominated by a hobbesian nightmare" to a small group of inexperienced, formerly exiled Iraqis long absent from the country. The two elections and referendum in 2005 were meant to give Iraq's political elite democratic legitimacy. But the nature of the electoral system chosen, the way the parties decided to fight the elections, and the constitutional position of the prime minister in the aftermath have all combined to break the political coherence and administrational efficiency of the government.
Iraq's new electoral system, based on large multi-party coalitions, is a major problem dominating the politics of government. While the president fulfils a mainly ceremonial role, the office of prime minister has become the main vehicle for governmental coherence. But the prime minister is in a weak position both constitutionally and electorally. Real political power is vested in the parties who fight the elections. For them, electoral success within larger coalitions is rewarded by dividing up the spoils of government, cabinet portfolios and the jobs and resources they bring.
The prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, does not dominate the cabinet as first among equals. Instead, he has to act as a broker, facilitating negotiations within his own coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance, and between it, the US ambassador, and other coalitions. His decisions are based on the comparative power of the parties and coalitions he negotiates with, not his own political vision or agenda for rebuilding the state. If government ministers are answerable to anyone, it is their party bosses, not the prime minister or the electorate.
The limitations on the prime minister's powers of appointment were proved by his relations with Bayan Jabr, a key member of SCIRI and a former commander in its militia, the Badr Brigade. As interior minister in the Jaafari government, he drew sustained criticism for politicising the ministry, sacking long-standing members of staff to replace them with loyal lieutenants from his own militia and party. Maliki eventually succeeded in moving Jabr from the interior ministry, replacing him with the non-aligned Jawad al-Bolani. However, the weakness of Maliki's position meant that Jabr could not simply be sacked from the cabinet; he was moved sideways to be minister of finance. In his new job, he has been accused of obstructing reconstruction initiatives, designed to rebuild support for the government in the Sunni neighbourhoods of Baghdad after the 2006 counter-insurgency operation Together Forward II.
Personal and party fiefdoms
The ministries these politicians run have become personal and party fiefdoms. At best, scarce government resources are diverted to build party constituencies, with each minister dismissing the payrolls of their ministries and appointing friends, followers and faction members. At worst, with little or no cabinet responsibility or administrational oversight, this system encourages personal and political corruption to flourish. Against a background of state collapse and civil war, both the Iraq Study Group and Bush argue: "Only Iraqis can end the sectarian violence and secure their people." However once state capacity has collapsed, civil society's ability to influence events positively disappears quickly. The Iraq Study Group's main suggestion is a dramatic empowerment of Iraq's current governing elite. They would be forced to take on the role of state builders by the application of both carrots and sticks; greater and speedier devolution of power, increased funding and also the threat of reduced aid or complete US withdrawal. The current Iraqi government is not coherent enough to fulfil this role. It does not act with anything approaching unity and Maliki's position is not strong enough to impose his will on this disparate group of squabbling politicians.
Bush favours a dramatic increase in US troops to impose some order on Baghdad and the northwest of Iraq, adding 21,000 more troops to the 132,000 in the country. But even 153,500 US troops would be far short of the numbers needed to impose order. Bush's approach would station 32,000 US troops in Baghdad, a city of 6 million people, which would give US commanders one soldier for every 184 Baghdadis. The increased number of troops would still be well below the 50 per 1,000 recommended by the new Army and Marines field manual on counter- insurgency.
Just flooding one area of Iraq -- parts of Baghdad -- with troops would neglect the subtler aspects of counter-insurgency doctrine. To sustain a surge in troops to Baghdad, there would have to be a second stage of the process. After areas have been cleared of insurgents, the government would need to reconstitute security, build up its administrative capacity and establish the rule of law. The Iraqi government is neither willing nor able to follow up the clearance phase of counter-insurgency with the building stage. In the aftermath of a successful US counter-insurgency operation to gain control of the northern city of Tel Afar, the Iraqi government proved remarkably reluctant to secure the victory by deploying enhanced government resources. In a country dominated by a collapsed state, the ability of the government to build up its capacity across a sustained geographical area is limited.
There is a distinct danger that neither Bush nor the Iraqi Study Group proposals for extracting the US from the debacle recognised the root causes of the violence and instability that have plagued Iraq since April 2003. The origins of the civil war lie in the complete collapse of the administrative and coercive capacity of the state. The Iraqi state, its ministries, civil servants, police force and army, ceased to exist in any meaningful way in the aftermath of regime change. It is the inability of the United States to reconstruct them that lies at the heart of the problem. Until the state's capacity is substantially rebuilt, then Iraq will continue to be a wellspring of violent instability, with its population dominated by a Hobbesian nightmare: Their lives will be nasty, brutish and short.
About the Author: Toby Dodge is a Reader in international politics at Queen Mary, University of London, and a consulting senior fellow for the Middle East at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, London. He wrote Iraq's Future (Routledge, London, 2005) and Inventing Iraq (Columbia University Press, New York, 2005).
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