Without National Reconciliation, Iraqi Democracy is a Mirage

Since the Iraqi elections on March 7, a number of columnists have said that the war-ravaged country has been transformed into a beacon of democracy in the Middle East.

Once it was realized that nearly 62 percent of eligible Iraqi voters had flocked to the polls with comparatively less violence threatening their lives, former Bush officials congratulated each other, beaming from ear to ear that the successful elections justified the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq.

The once much-ridiculed image of Bush standing on the deck of a US aircraft carrier with the "Mission Accomplished" banner behind him was republished by major US media as if to imply that photo op was now truly pertinent.

They declared that sectarianism had been replaced by nationalism and unity. If US media should have learned anything about Iraq, it is that looks can be deceiving; it is presumptuous and premature to signal that Iraq is now a democracy or stable.

The Iraqi elections prove only that the country is at a critical crossroads and that sectarianism continues to be a major threat. Most Iraqis want a nation that is nationalistic, not extremist and not modeled after an Islamic republic which we know so well.

Iraqis want their children to go to school minus the worry that they may be kidnapped, or blown up in a suicide attack. They want a strong government that represents its people and works to provide them with services and employment opportunities.

Iraqis' hopes are no different from those of any other Western society. But the political environment which has existed since 2003 is radically flawed and the established system of governance - including the writing of the constitution - has left so many loopholes that Iraq's legislative institutions cannot cope.

The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has distributed control of ministries based on sectarian affiliations. The Iraqi army remains largely sectarian and Sunni militias, which were credited by most security analysts - as well as US commanders - as having played a pivotal role in stabilizing the country, have been discouraged and barred from joining national security forces.

Iraq has become one of the most corrupt nations on earth. Securing university entrance or even applying for a job requires that someone be bribed to the order of several hundred to several thousand dollars.

Although violence has decreased, Iraqis do not yet feel secure nor do they believe that Iraqi forces are competent enough to prevent large-scale terrorist attacks such as the ones which rocked central Baghdad in October and December last year.

Millions of Iraqis in exile dream of returning home but fear the continuing instability there.

Since the 2005 elections, the Iraqi government has also been faulted for failing to provide its citizens with basic services, chiefly electric power; at full capacity, Iraqi households enjoy no more than 12 hours of electricity a day. With little reconstruction and few economic prospects, Iraqis have grown disillusioned with their government.

So, it was with disappointment that one reads columns which appear to indicate that Iraq has crossed a threshold.

A prominent Egyptian-American academic and political reformist recently wrote that the Iraqi political process culminating in the elections was a model for the region. He was pointing to the democratic process in Iraq as a system to be emulated by other countries where dictatorships and family oligarchies still rule undeterred and with iron fist.

Writing in AlMasry AlYoum, an opposition Arabic-language Egyptian daily, Saad Eddin Ibrahim says that no one can deny that Iraq is witnessing increased security, stability and political development.

On closer scrutiny one finds that the academic's position mirrors that of other Western "experts" who have championed the Iraqi election as a momentous turning point in the history of the Middle East.

The pre-and-post-election phases give significant clues to whether Iraqi political institutions have matured or not. The success of the election itself cannot be measured by numbers of voters and percentage points but by the tangible socio-political changes it brings about.

The road to the March 7 elections, like the current post-poll political manoeuvring, is an indication of what type of Iraq emerges in the days and weeks to come.

In November 2009, Tariq al-Hashemi, the Sunni vice-president in the three-member presidency council, vetoed a proposed new electoral law, claiming that it was disenfranchising the Sunni community in and outside the country.

After two amendments to the law, amid threatened boycotts by the Kurds who feared losing appropriated seats and Sunni tribes who charged their seats were given to the Kurds, the law passed.

But the elections were postponed beyond the January 31 deadline set by the constitution. The number of times the constitution has been flouted for political expedience sets a dangerous precedent.

US strategists admitted that was a close call; any derailing of the political process could have meant that US troop withdrawals would be postponed. This may explain why the Obama administration has several times intervened in Iraq's internal disputes.

But another crisis quickly ensued in January 2010 when the Justice and Accountability Committee (JAC), which is charged with preventing former members of the outlawed Baath party from returning to public life, barred hundreds of Sunni politicians from running in the elections.

Among those barred were prominent Sunni leaders in the Iraqiya coalition, chaired by former premier Iyad Allawi. Iraqiya accused JAC of trying to discourage Sunnis from voting if their leaders were no longer running, which ultimately would benefit the ruling Shia-led government.

It is important to point out here that JAC is an administrative and not a judicial committee. However, Maliki immediately threw his support behind the committee's findings and said the ban should be carried out "without exception".

It appeared as if the electoral process was about to come unhinged and again the US intervened by dispatching US Vice-President Joe Biden to negotiate a settlement. The White House said the visit had been scheduled months ahead.

JAC is headed by Ahmed Chalabi and Ali al-Lami, both of home ran as candidates for the Iraqi National Alliance, a group formerly allied with Maliki's political bloc, in the March 7 elections.

Iraqi political observers immediately charged that the presence of two candidates empowered with the authority to prohibit politicians from rival parties to run in the elections constituted a clash of interests.

Nevertheless, the Iraqiya coalition merely substituted the banned candidates with their deputies.

When the final results announced on March 26 showed that Allawi's Iraqiya had won the most seats - two ahead of Maliki's State of Law bloc - the incumbent prime minister immediately held a press conference in which he blasted the independent electoral commission and called for a manual recount.

When the UN endorsed the results as fair and free, Maliki criticized their role in the election process.

He then went to the Supreme Court, or what passes for one in Iraq, and asked them to redefine the difference between bloc and coalition.

The current Iraqi constitution holds that the kutla (bloc) which wins the largest seats in the elections should be the one tasked with getting a first shot at forming a government. If the bloc fails to do so within 30 days, the responsibility falls to the next bloc which won the second highest number of seats.

Many in Iraq believed that having won the highest number of seats - 91 - the Iraqiya coalition and its leader would be called on to form a government.

But this has not happened. Within two days of the final results, the Court threw the constitution itself in disarray when it ruled in Maliki's favor saying that a bloc could be one formed even after the elections.

Theoretically, Maliki could form a bloc with the INA - which came in third - and together have the largest number of seats; they would then get first shot at forming a government.

Allawi would then be sidelined and have no role to play. If this were to happen, Sunnis would say they were justified in boycotting the vote in 2005; national reconciliation would then become a pipe dream.

But the twists and churns do not end there.

On March 29, JAC said it had discovered that up to 52 candidates should have never been allowed to run in the elections due to their alleged ties to the outlawed Baath party. Six of those candidates actually won seats; four are in Allawi's Iraqiya coalition.

Al-Lami criticized the independent electoral commission for ever allowing the candidates to run.

A court will now have to decide whether to simply have their seats filled by someone else in their respective coalitions or toss out the votes they won. JAC is also said to be considering the eligibility of some 150 other candidates, many of whom won seats as members of Iraqiya.

In a further blow to the election process and its results, the Sadrists who won 40 seats, held a two-day referendum beginning on April 2 to "choose" a prime minister. Moqtada Sadr, the junior Shia cleric who heads the bloc, said that the leading coalitions' efforts had proved fruitless and that a popular referendum would decide once and for all who the next premier should be.

The danger of such circumvention cannot be dismissed lightly. Sadr is effectively signalling that he rejects the election results and refuses to abide by constitutional decree.

Does this sound like a stable post-election phase? It appears Iraqi blocs are moving away from any hopes of national reconciliation, taking matters into their hands, and eroding the little gains in security since 2006.

On the eve of the elections, I wrote a piece saying that the resolve and faith of the Iraqi people in democracy will amount to nothing if those in power do not shoulder the responsibilities of the democratic process itself.

Without the will to relinquish control and commit to the peaceful transition of power, political instability and lack of national reconciliation will breed devastating violence.

On April 4, as I sat to write this, Al Jazeera reported a massive series of explosions in the once-affluent Mansour district in the heart of Baghdad, apparently targeting diplomatic missions in the area. At least 37 people were killed and dozens injured.

A few hours later, a bomb targeting police killed two and injured 36 in the northern city of Mosul.

On April 3, 20 men and five women were butchered in a predominantly Sunni town south of Baghdad by men wearing Iraqi army uniforms. Last week, 57 were killed in Diyala province, just north of Baghdad.

On March 26, one of the winning Iraqiya candidates was killed in his home.

Baghdad has been divided; security walls and fences which carved up the capital into cantons will likely now be reinforced.

The issue of Kirkuk, a city claimed by Arabs, Kurds and Turkomen, has not been resolved. There remains talk, muted right now, of northern and southern secession.

Iraq's democratic process will be little more than a mirage if political, economic and security turmoil is allowed to continue.