Despite chaos, the regions get on with it
The lack of a central government has not slowed Iraq's rate of progress, writes Nicolas Rothwell
April 02, 2005
THE post-election script for democratic Iraq looked very different. Two months after polling day, a new government was expected to be firmly in charge of Baghdad's key institutions, launching bold initiatives and charting a fresh national course.
The interregnum since January's vote has seen the two victorious party coalitions, the Shia House and the Kurdish Alliance, locked in internal disputes over the precise composition of their ministry.
And efforts to invite the Sunni Muslims, Iraq's third main group, into the new administration are proceeding at glacial pace, even as the continued struggle against insurgency commands the attention of the US occupying forces.
Why, then, is the country not falling apart? Who actually runs Iraq, and does it, with its new federal model, even need a strong central government?
All too clearly, the present power vacuum has had no adverse effects. Oil continues to flow from the country's fields, reconstruction proceeds apace, and the slow task of establishing a viable civil society is under way from Basra, near the shoreline of the Persian Gulf to the Kurdish enclave in the far north.
Although the "good news" blogs that compile instances of Iraq's progress tend to present an over-rosy picture, the consistent progress being achieved on the ground, away from the headlines, highlights one of the stranger truths about post-Saddam Iraq: the country has devolved into a set of local fiefs, each effectively administering itself.
The lack of a central government with democratic legitimacy since the election result was announced has been an inconvenience rather than a disaster.
Several key networks and power centres combine across the country to maintain a degree of order. Almost every village or suburban district is presided over by a dominant land-owning family or regional political chieftain.
Religious leaders in local mosques have great influence, while local mayors and even police commanders have also taken on critical authority.
All these structures have grown or have strengthened immeasurably in the two years since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime and the shattering of the Baath Party's surveillance and patronage system.
Arab societies, long used to authoritarian controls and police states, have tended to evolve authentic and responsive local channels of power. This has been the case in the new Iraq.
It is common, in the Shia southern part of the country and even in the poorer districts of Baghdad, to find the preacher at a small mosque regarded as a political and moral authority, decider of disputes and dispenser of advice.
A similar role is played in Sunni regions by the heads of large, interconnected tribal groups that run businesses, dispense charity and provide a political lead for the entire community.
In the Kurdish north, a different system has developed over the past 12 years since full autonomy from Iraqi central control was achieved by a successful rebellion.
Local governmental structures, based on tribal lines of authority, have become the key to the success of the Kurdish region. Meanwhile, the heavy influx of Kurdish intellectuals and professionals returning from exile has spurred a cultural and social renaissance, marked by the rapid development of a law-based society.
Corruption is rare, regional pride and Kurdish national consciousness is high.
Similar conclusions would almost certainly be reported increasingly across the country, if Western journalists were able to move more freely there. The relative weakness of the central Government implanted last year in the run-up to the formal "hand-back" of sovereignity in June itself underlines two critical points about the new Iraq.
First, the interim administration presided over by Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, for all its determination to restore Iraqi unity, lacked the sole persuasive argument Saddam Hussein relied upon: fear.
Second, the US occupying forces, despite their obtrusive presence, have had relatively little impact on the structures of Iraqi society, and the local politicians linked with them have not benefited from the association.
This is because Iraq has evolved over the past 30 years since the Baathist dictatorship took hold as a society of resistance, determined to fight against supreme authority.
Like all Arab societies, it functions best at the level of the individual street or neighbourhood, where Islamic injunctions to help fellow Muslims have real force.
Despite the destructive effects of the Baathist system, and the overwhelming chaos caused by the US invasion and the political transformations attempted in the 24 months since US troops rolled into Baghdad, Iraq remains a network of small, "high social capital" communities, well able to run itself without central leadership.
Once this is grasped, much that seems incomprehensible about Iraq today falls into place. The action of the Iraqi police recruits, who voluntarily put themselves at risk from insurgents, becomes logical: they want to serve in the national security forces because they wish to protect their communities.
The resolve of the 8 million Iraqi voters who took part in the elections last January did not stem from some abstract love for democracy: it marked a strong commitment to the rights of their fellow citizens.
A new national governing coalition in Iraq is only days away, and the country's difficult transition to a distinctive form of parliamentary democracy is about to begin, but the lesson of the past two months is clear: in simple and definite fashion, it shows how deep and how efficient the country's established social patterns already are.