The U.S. and Democratization in Iraq

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Mark N. Katz

Senior Fellow

Although the United States intervened in Iraq after it began its intervention in Afghanistan, it is withdrawing from Iraq first. Therefore, what the United States has and has not accomplished in Iraq will be discussed first.

It must be said to begin with that the United States did achieve some important successes in Iraq. It destroyed the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein — something that the Iraqi population had not only been unable to do on its own, but may not have been able to do later either. If Saddam had managed to transfer power to his sons (who were reportedly just as, or even more, vicious than their father), the regime may have survived for years or even decades.

In addition, the U.S.-led intervention helped the Kurds in northern Iraq. They had suffered terribly under Saddam Hussein but were able to solidify the tenuous autonomy they had achieved (also with U.S. help) after the 1990-91 Kuwait conflict and even build some prosperity in their zone.

Although Iraq’s Arab Sunni tribes were initially hostile to the U.S.-led intervention and fought an insurgent war against it, American forces were eventually able to make peace and work with most of them.

Most important, the United States organized and protected the holding of relatively free and fair elections at both the national and local levels. This allowed Iraq’s Arab Shia majority, which had also suffered dreadfully under Saddam Hussein, to play a leading role in Iraqi politics for the first time.

In addition to these successes, however, the United States has had some noteworthy failures in Iraq. First, the failure to halt the massive violence, looting and infrastructure breakdown that took place throughout the country immediately after the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime. This was caused by the Bush administration’s failure to anticipate and plan for the aftermath of Saddam’s downfall as well as to deploy enough troops to maintain order. As a result, the initial gratitude displayed by much of the Iraqi population toward the United States for delivering it from Saddam quickly disappeared.

Further, despite a massive troop presence, the United States was unable to prevent or stop the large-scale ethnic-cleansing campaigns that violent Arab Sunni and Arab Shia groups conducted against each other’s communities. These campaigns were so successful that some observers attributed the decline in violence in Iraq in 2008-09 not to the American troop surge ordered by President Bush, but to the ethnic-cleansing campaigns having largely completed the violent work of segregating the Sunni and the Shia communities from each other.

Finally, while the United States created the conditions that have allowed Iraq to hold two national elections for its parliament, the United States has not been able to persuade or cajole important Iraqi groups to fully — or even less than fully — cooperate with one another. The Shia-Sunni rivalry is especially important. There are also differences within the Arab Shia community. And Arab-Kurdish divisions have not disappeared either. The inability of a government to be formed after the March 7, 2010, parliamentary elections bodes ill, not just for the prospects for democracy, but even for stability in Iraq.

Washington certainly bears responsibility for some of these failures. The Bush administration could have sent more troops to keep order in Iraq after the fall of Saddam, as well as planned more carefully for the transition afterward. The United States also could have done much more to prevent and halt the ethnic-cleansing campaigns that took place. If America had done these things, it might have been easier for Iraqi politicians from different communities (as well as political parties) to work together cooperatively.

The United States, though, is not responsible for the hostility that exists among Iraq’s three main communities. This is something that pre-dated the U.S.-led intervention that began in 2003. As is well known, Saddam Hussein’s regime was based on and privileged the Arab Sunni minority, which dominated the Arab Shia majority, the Kurdish minority and Iraq’s many other smaller communities. What is less well known (at least in the West) is that Arab Sunni minority dominance did not begin with Saddam Hussein, but long pre-dated him. As Hanna Batatu explained in his magisterial book, The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq (1978), the Ottoman Turks, through the end of World War I, and the British as well as the British-installed Iraqi monarchy, until its overthrow in 1958, also relied on Arab Sunnis to maintain their rule over Iraq’s other communities. The Free Officers who overthrew the monarchy in 1958 were also predominantly Arab Sunni.

Before it came to power, the Baath Party primarily attracted members from Iraq’s dispossessed Arab Shia and other communities. But as the Baath succeeded in recruiting Iraqi army officers, its military wing came to be increasingly dominated by Arab Sunnis. Between the downfall of the first Baath regime (which only held power for a few months in 1963) and the rise to power of the second Baath regime in 1968, a sectarian power struggle (in which Saddam Hussein played a leading role) occurred within the party’s ranks, resulting in the triumph of the predominantly Arab Sunni military wing. Saddam, of course, especially favored Arab Sunnis from the region in which he grew up — Tikrit. In general, though, his regime did not change but, rather, reinforced the existing pattern of Arab Sunni dominance over Arab Shias, Kurds and others.

By allowing the Kurds to solidify their rule over northern Iraq and by organizing national elections in which parties representing the Shia majority gained the most seats, the United States ended the Sunni dominance over these two communities, as well as over Iraq, that had existed since the Ottoman era. Deeply resenting this, it is not surprising that Arab Sunnis, in particular, fiercely resisted the American occupation at first. Fueling their resistance was the firmly held belief of many Sunnis that they were not a minority, but the majority in Iraq. And whether they had benefited from or suffered under Saddam’s rule, Arab Sunnis came to fear — often with good reason — how they would be treated by the resentful Arab Shia, newly empowered by the American intervention. Since Saddam’s regime was dominated by Sunnis, the disbanding of Saddam’s armed forces and the de-Baathification campaign undertaken by the American occupation authorities most strongly affected Arab Sunnis (and most especially elite Arab Sunnis). The Shia-dominated Iraqi government’s continued pursuit of former Baathists is seen by many Arab Sunnis as an effort to exclude them from the political process.

The Arab Shia majority, of course, is pleased that the American-led intervention has resulted in its finally coming to power. This does not mean, however, that the Shia (or factions within this community) approved the continuation of the American occupation. Having been dominated so long by the Sunnis, the Shia very much fear a reversion to this pattern. While the U.S. military congratulated itself on having turned many of the previously hostile Sunni tribes into allies fighting alongside it, many Shia saw this, as well as American efforts to integrate Sunnis into the Iraqi armed forces, as presaging the return of Sunni dominance. During both the Ottoman and British periods, cooperation with external forces was what allowed Sunnis to dominate other communities in Iraq. Shia politicians feared that Sunni cooperation with the Americans could lead to a similar result, and so they resisted American efforts to integrate its Sunni tribal allies into the new Shia-dominated Iraqi security forces.

Kurdish aspirations for independence have been frustrated, not just by the Arab Sunnis of Iraq, but also by Turkey and Iran (where large numbers of Kurds also live in regions bordering northern Iraq) and by internecine conflict among the Kurds themselves that others have exploited. The Kurds were able to take advantage of American hostility toward Saddam Hussein to create their own autonomous zone in northern Iraq after the 1990-91 Kuwait conflict and to solidify their rule over this region after the 2003 American-led intervention. Although nominally still part of Iraq, the Kurdish region is not controlled by authorities in Baghdad. Kurdish politicians, however, do play an important political role in the government, both through controlling a key bloc in parliament and through holding important offices such as vice-president and foreign minister.

Thus, the U.S.-led intervention and efforts to promote democratization completely upended relations among Iraq’s three principal communities. American actions curtailed Arab Sunni domination over both the Arab Shia majority and the Kurdish minority and created a new situation. Now the Shia majority dominates the national government, the Kurdish minority controls its homeland in northern Iraq, and the Arab Sunni minority holds sway in its tribal heartland in western Iraq. As was mentioned earlier, the United States did succeed in holding and protecting relatively free and fair elections in Iraq. Unfortunately, it did not succeed in establishing genuine reconciliation among Iraq’s three main communities. Nor did they, of course, do so on their own. And, if national reconciliation did not occur when America maintained a large military presence in Iraq, it does not appear likely that it will occur as the American military presence declines and perhaps even ends.

The future of Iraq and the balance of power among its three main communities cannot be predicted at present. America’s ending of Arab Sunni dominance over the country, combined with its inability to establish peace among Iraq’s three main communities, though, suggests that stable democracy is not likely to take root in Iraq any time soon.

Mark N. Katz is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Middle East Policy Council and a Professor of Government at George Mason University. Links to many of his publications can be found on his website:

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  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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