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No Security, No Democracy
by Fareed Zakaria
May 24, 2004 edition

Power is slowly shifting to Iraqi leaders on the ground with men and arms. Politics abhors a vacuum, and in Iraq, local militias are filling it

May 24 issue - Larry Diamond is not going back to Iraq. One of America's foremost experts on building democracy--a man who has spent years studying and helping countries from Asia to South America make the transition--he had been working with the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad over the last few months. Three weeks ago, when it was time to return to Iraq from his perch at Stanford, he decided not to do it.

Diamond has become increasingly gloomy about the situation in Iraq, and a meeting in April with a women's group there crystallized his feelings. "I'd met these amazing women a couple of times before and had been urging them to organize and get active politically," he explained. "Then one of them stood up and said, 'If we do all these things, who's going to protect us?' She was right. We're asking people in Iraq to do things that will get them killed. Without security, democracy is impossible. If we're trying to win people over in Iraq," he said, "the strategy is obvious: it's about security, stupid."

Iraqis seem to agree. In a poll done in April by the CPA, 70 percent of Iraqis cited security as their single most important priority. And while the addition of about 20,000 American troops will help, security forces in Iraq--whether American, foreign or Iraqi--remain too thinly spread throughout the country. The result is a pervasive sense of insecurity, which has an even deeper political consequence. Power is slowly shifting to Iraqi leaders on the ground with men and arms. Politics abhors a vacuum, and in Iraq, local militias are filling it.

Once such groups have power on the ground, America must either fight them or, if that would be too costly, cede ground to them in some way. In the Kurdish regions, the United States has allowed the two parties and their peshmerga military force free reign, which has included some ethnic cleansing of Arabs in Kirkuk. In Fallujah, the Army has agreed that an ex-Baathist group will run the city. In Najaf, the Coalition has been willing (finally) to confront Moqtada al-Sadr. But it can only do so because it has the tacit support of other, more important Najaf clerics. (Even so, al-Sadr has been able to rally backing for his cause. A poll shows him with 45 percent support in Baghdad and a staggering 67 percent in Basra--the latter figure is even more striking when you consider that Basra is not al-Sadr's geographic base.)

Acting out of weakness and haste, the CPA is simply folding these militias into the new Iraqi Army and police. Such militias owe their primary loyalty to religious groups like the Dawa and the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which have strong fundamentalist leanings. Others have ties to smaller, less well-known groups. But the general phenomenon of armed groups is on the rise--easy in a country in which virtually every male over 14 owns a Kalashnikov. Over time, these political groups will struggle for power--and their militias will help them do battle. When elections are held, they will use force and money to ensure that the results come out their way.

This is not a democratization strategy. It is an exit strategy. But it will not work. Elections held in an uncertain security environment with militias running around the country will produce contested results and a renewed power struggle--in other words, a road neither to peace nor to pluralism.

These trends cannot be negated; it's too late for that. But counterforces can be encouraged. That means the CPA must focus first and foremost on state- building. Iraq needs a neutral, national state, and that state needs a professional army and police force. The Iraqi ministries and administration need more people, money and authority.

The U.N. plan to create an interim government that is composed of technocrats, not politicians, will help give the Iraqi state some independent ballast. But it will need not just power but legitimacy. And legitimacy can come only if it shows Iraqis that it can stand up to the occupying power. Washington should understand and even assist in this dynamic. At least in appearances, we have to lose for Iraqis to win. Washington must also get the Governing Council to stop its dangerous attempts to derail the transition plans. For its part, the United Nations must give its stamp of approval to the new government. It should encourage figures like Ayatollah Sistani to bless it as well. If forces from within and outside Iraq all come together to support it, the interim government has a chance at success. That means Iraq will get some breathing space to build institutions, create a constitution and hold elections. On the other hand, if the interim government comes under fire from radicals and disgruntled power seekers, it might well collapse. The future of Iraq will become a competition among political groups, many of them with armies and antidemocratic leanings that will run their areas of control with brute force. "It's Nigeria in the 1960s," says Larry Diamond. And that ended in a bloody civil war.

Write the author at comments@fareedzakaria.com. 2004 Newsweek, Inc.

Posted: May 17, 2004


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