Iraq: The Impasse

Nouri al-Maliki and Iyad Allawi.jpg
Mohammed Ameen/Reuters
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki meeting with Iyad Allawi, the head of the al-Iraqiya alliance, Baghdad, June 29, 2010

It is easy to underestimate how much fear can obstruct a society’s recovery from horrific violence or repression, or both; and fear now dominates Iraq as its leaders try to make a new start after decades of a ruthless tyranny, its violent removal, and the chaotic aftermath. One principal fear among Iraqis is that there could be a resurgence of the Baath Party and a return to dictatorship. Another is that Iran will dominate Iraq through its influence on Shiites.

Although I found these fears common among politicians when I was in Baghdad in late May, I was caught off-guard when my driver, with disarming earnestness and in the expectation of a simple response, asked me: “Are you sure Saddam is dead? They say they buried wax copies of him and his sons, and that they are living in southern France.”

In Iraq today, conspiracy theories based on what “they say” are so prevalent as to defy straightforward refutation, pointing to a deeper pathology that perhaps only time and genuine reconciliation can cure. For now, such fearful fantasies shape and distort both politics and policies, as the leading Iraqi political parties seek to fashion a coalition government out of the contested results of last March’s parliamentary elections. Every bomb attack, every visit by a political leader to a neighboring capital, every killing of a politician provokes a profound dread that the horrors of the pre-2003 past survive in a diminished but still potent form—whether they derive from the mayhem of the murderous Baathist regime or from Iranian attacks during a senseless war fought more than twenty years ago. Will these ghosts return to leave their bloody mark on the country’s future?

Exhibit A for those terrified by the specter of the Baath’s return was the meeting, set up in April by the Damascus-based branch of the Iraqi Baath Party, of groups opposed to the current order in Iraq. It was the first such gathering that the Syrian regime permitted to take place in public, and the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, and his Shiite supporters saw it as an undisguised signal that Syria and the remaining Iraqi Baathists were supporting Maliki’s main rival, the former prime minister Iyad Allawi, in his quest to lead the next Iraqi government. Similarly, Allawi, a secular Shiite whose followers are mostly Sunni, cites the post-election spectacle of leading Shiite and Kurdish politicians flocking to Tehran, ostensibly to celebrate Nowruz, the Persian New Year, in late March as convincing proof that the Iranian regime is steering the course of Iraqi politics at their expense.

More than four months since the elections, a new government has yet to take shape. The leaders of the four lists that emerged with the most…

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