I’m currently in Baghdad catching up with old friends. I am not here with U.S. sponsorship and so am not trapped behind embassy walls or surrounded by a phalanx of security. Over the next few days, I’ll offer some observations both good and bad. Baghdad is definitely a mixed bag. But first, a positive sign:
Many American writers, including some friends and colleagues, describe Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki as a burgeoning dictator. They accuse him of making a power play upon the departure of U.S. troops, and some also suggest his administration to be somehow illegitimate because he did not win as many votes as Ayad Allawi. Such criticisms are unfair: It is a simple fact that it was Maliki and not Allawi who managed to cobble together a coalition. Broad coalition governments never work. If Governor Romney defeats President Obama, I would not expect him to keep Joe Biden on or appoint Sen. John Kerry to be his Secretary of State. Nor, for that matter, would I expect a second term Obama administration to put Paul Ryan in change of the budget. The test of Maliki’s commitment to democracy will be in both rule-of-law and allowing free-and-fair elections.
Frankly, whatever Americans may think, Maliki’s popularity is growing. Iraqis are tired of senseless political violence and, generally, applaud the death sentence—issued in absentia—against former vice president Tariq al-Hashemi. They note that the judges hearing the case came from a variety of political trends, and most Iraqis—including some supportive of Ayad Allawi—acknowledge al-Hashemi’s guilt. True, Hashemi is far from alone in supporting death squads and sponsoring terror, but the proper response to this is not to argue for suspending the sentence or amnesty, but rather to seek justice against Muqtada al-Sadr, Mansour Barzani, and others whom many Iraqis accuse of similar offenses. Muqtada al-Sadr made a fateful error in the Al-Hashemi dispute by backing the Kurds and Allawi against Maliki. Muqtada showed himself more interested in personal power than justice, and many Iraqis now laugh at his claim to be the protector of oppressed Shi’ites. His influence is declining.
Another positive sign is the lack of signs: I’ve lived in or traveled through many dictatorships: Syria, Iran, Hezbollah-controlled areas in southern Lebanon, for example. Pictures of dictators plaster walls, streets, and schools. Not so in Iraq. The pictures of Saddam are gone. For all the talk about Maliki being a dictator, he has not plastered his photo about town. There are no statues of Maliki. He shows no sign of developing a personality cult. While various Iraqi television channels will cover Iraqi politics, they do not always prioritize Maliki and they certainly do not all sing his praises. The same cannot be said for Masud Barzani, whom some U.S. officials consider more democratic. As soon as Saddam’s pictures came down in Iraqi Kurdistan, Barzani’s went up. Those who criticize him and his dictatorial ways often end up dead or in prison.
(While Maliki’s picture is absent across Baghdad, the same is not true for some Shi’ite religious leaders and I’ve spotted one sizable portrait of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, though he’s not the most popular figure here either).
Iraq is a complicated place. The government is staking out positions, some positive and some negative. I certainly worry as much as others about Iranian influence, but not every Shi’ite backs Iran. Maliki must walk a tightrope, both domestically and internationally. Two things are certain: To label Maliki a dictator would be unfair, and to openly push for his removal—as the Turks and Saudis do for largely sectarian reasons—will backfire.