Views on a new Near East
Saturday April 19th 2014

Can we hope for a stable democracy in Iraq?

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By Myriam Benraad


Myriam Benraad is a researcher and specialist of Iraq at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), and associate fellow at the Centre for International Studies and Research (CERI). She has extensively published on Iraq, in both newspapers and leading Middle East studies journals. She is the author of L’Irak (Paris: Le Cavalier Bleu, 2010).

The question of democratisation in Iraq has been discussed at length in recent years.1 The promotion of democracy was, indeed, one of the core ideological pillars for entering into war by the George W. Bush administration in March 2003. More than seven years after the beginning of the Iraqi conflict, with the backdrop of US combat troops’ withdrawal for the end of August and a recent resurgence of violence, one can rightly wonder today what the durability of this grafting of democracy will be. Indeed, the parliamentary elections of March 7, 2010 have plunged Iraq into the heart of a new political storm, clearly showing the difficult transition of a society, formerly under the yoke of dictatorship, towards democracy. The Iraqi transition has, moreover, been persistently characterised by brutal ruptures, which have been the source of an overall fragmentation of society and of a painful re-appropriation of the political register by its local actors.

It is appropriate, in the first place, to go back to the causes and dynamics explaining the current political crisis and to shed light onto the diversity of cleavages that this has revealed. One of the main hurdles to the advancement of democracy in the country is located more specifically in the tension between the national feeling of a majority of Iraqis and the persistence, and even exacerbation, of separatist logics which bridle any real political accommodation. On the other hand, more structural obstacles should also be referred to, such as the ongoing deficiency of a state, which by leading to a security vacuum and chronic violence, will likely postpone the advent of democracy for the foreseeable future.

Iraq’s slow and uncertain democratisation

The parliamentary elections held earlier this year were seen early on as a historical turning point for Iraq. They were unquestionably emblematic, being the last organised under foreign occupation. Washington expected that the poll would, more particularly, assert the ultimate triumph of political pluralism in the country, after several decades of authoritarianism and repression. With 50,000 voting stations spread out over the country, 19 million potential voters and nearly 6,500 registered candidates,2 the elections were to pave the way for the smooth pull-out of US troops and to allow an immediate take-over by the new Iraqi government.

Undeniably, March 7, 2010 has been a success in terms of participation, very significant when one compares it to that of 2005, during which many electors did not go to the polls either in rejection of the foreign presence, or for fear of reprisals by the armed insurgency, al-Qaeda in particular.3 Another breakthrough was the set up of an “open” electoral system, that is, allowing electors to vote for the candidate of their choice, regardless of the candidate’s political connections. It should be remembered that the previous elections had been held according to a “closed” poll mode that was only allowing one to vote for a specific political coalition. Finally, amendments to the Iraqi electoral law have allowed for an increase in the number of seats in parliament from 275 to 325, supposedly distributed in a more equitable manner and consistent with demographic balances.4

These elections have been equally marked by the cross-ethnic and cross-sectarian character of the main running coalitions, first among them being the ‘State of Law’ coalition led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. State of Law was born out of a split inside the United Iraqi Alliance – a Shi‘ite bloc that was victorious in the 2005 elections – and brought into its ranks the Islamic Call Party (Da‘wa). Sunni formations such as the Al-Anbar Salvation Front, emanating from the tribal “Awakening” movement or Sahwa that had allied in 2007 with the US against al-Qaeda, also joined the State of Law coalition.5 In the elections these groups stood against the Iraqi National Movement, commonly called al-Iraqiyya, led by former opponent to Saddam Hussein, Ayad Allawi, and gathering a majority of Sunni forces, such as the Iraqi National Dialogue Front led by Saleh al-Mutlaq and the al-Hadba party headed by Ninawa governor Athil al-Nujayfi. Through its strong nationalist overtones and its inter-communal composition, al-Iraqiyya seduced numerous Iraqis, many of whom were deeply disappointed with the political results of al-Maliki’s previous government and hostile to his alleged links with Tehran.

Historically bi-cephalous around the two dominant parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of current president Jalal Talabani and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of Mustafa Barzani, the Kurdish political landscape has also experienced important transformations. It has witnessed the emergence of new political actors such as the Movement for Change (Gorran), established in 2006 by dissident members of the PUK and KDP, and directed by Nawshirwan Mustafa. This political force had already achieved noteworthy results during the Kurdish regional elections in July 2009,6 positioning itself as a serious political competitor.

Despite being a key step, this year’s elections soon resulted in a crisis that very few had anticipated.7 Made public three weeks after the poll, the electoral results, by consecrating the victory of Ayad Allawi with a slight majority (91 seats against 89 for State of Law) – have thrown Iraq into complete political stalemate. Refusing to recognise defeat, Nouri al-Maliki immediately cried fraud, demanded a recount of the votes, and initiated judicial proceedings intended to disqualify several members of his rival’s coalition, mostly Sunni Arab candidates accused of links with the former Ba‘ath party.8 In January 2010, de-ba‘athification had already been re-activated to banish more than 400 running candidates, whom the outgoing prime minister was finger-pointing for their supposed connections with the Saddam Hussein regime.9

Since then, the “king makers” have been engaged in intense negotiations with the aim of constituting the future government. First amongst these is the Shi‘ite Iraqi National Alliance10 which came third in the polls with 70 seats and has opposed the reinstatement of al-Maliki, despite Iranian pressure to form a large Shi‘ite alliance. It should be borne in mind that the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq – previously known as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) – the main pillar of this Alliance, has historically been an opponent of the Da‘wa party which al-Maliki himself represents. As for the Sadrists, they nourish a powerful resentment against al-Maliki since their Mahdi Army’s Basra confrontation with Iraqi government forces in 2008. The Kurds, still very influential in parliament, should bring their support to the candidate that will best serve their interests, notably with regards to the status of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, over which they dream of asserting political and economic supremacy.

Results of the Parliamentary Elections of March 2010

Coalitions and parties Number of seats
al-Iraqiyya 91
State of Law 89
Iraqi National Alliance 70
Kurdistan Alliance 43
Movement for Change 8
Iraqi Accord12 6
Kurdistan Islamic Union13 4
Iraqi Unity Alliance11 3
Kurdistan Islamic Group14 3
Other minorities 8
Total 325


Cleavages as obstacles to the democratic process

While the provincial elections of 2009 seemed to have anchored a partial return to nationalism in Iraq, through inter-communal lists and political programs calling for unity, the crisis of these last months has reminded us how much Iraqi society remains split today. The opposition between the State of Law coalition and the al-Iraqiyya has mirrored an antagonism that seems to have become structural between a Shi‘ite “majority,” which was led into power by the US coalition in 2003, and a Sunni Arab “minority” excluded from the political process.15 Behind a nationalist discourse, both rival candidates have, though pretending to overcome it, never actually ceased to play the sectarian card. While al-Maliki was obsessed with a return to power of the Ba‘athists, Allawi has bet on the reintegration of Sunni Arabs into the political game, guaranteeing his popularity amongst them.

On the eve of the elections, al-Maliki had, however, announced that he wanted his coalition to be “national,” and that he would include Sunni Arab candidates in the same way as with his more traditional Shi‘ite partners. His efforts have largely failed given his controversial connections with Iran and even more so because of the crushing defeat of his campaign of “national reconciliation” which he had launched in the spring of 2006. Sunni Arabs also reproached him for a series of governmental reshuffles, which, since 2007, had targeted their leaders and obstructed their rehabilitation within state institutions. Their resentment against him from then on has been growing continuously, explaining their important mobilisation in favour of Ayad Allawi and their participation, this time highly significant in the elections.16

Finally, the aftermath of March 7 has thrown light onto the internal cleavages of each of Iraq’s ethno-confessional constituencies. Kurdish political forces, although united around the protection of their provinces and political gains, disassociated themselves somewhat from one another and have won fewer seats in parliament than in 2005. The Shi‘ite community has also split around intense power struggles between the followers of al-Maliki and his adversaries. Besides, beyond their massive support for Allawi, Sunni Arabs, could in turn see their ambition for political reintegration compromised not only by the unpredictable results of the current negotiations on the composition of the next government, but also because of the important ideological divisions putting them into conflict. The two political platforms of the Iraqi Accord, the successor of the Iraqi Accord Front formed in 2005 by the Iraqi Islamic Party (heir of the Muslim Brotherhood), and of the Iraqi National Dialogue Front have in recent years undergone major restructuring that has weakened them considerably.17

State deficit and Iraq’s enduring “culture of violence”

On top of a governmental crisis, Iraq remains today deprived of a viable state apparatus. Since 2003, the strategy undertaken by the US-led coalition has translated into a brutal destruction of the country’s institutions, the dismantling of the army and of the security forces, and a vast de-ba‘athification campaign which all resulted in an ousting of the country’s main elites. Confusing the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime with the destruction of the Iraqi state, the US and its allies paved the way for long term violence, the disastrous effects of which can be fully witnessed at present. Violence in Iraq also has roots in the embargo period of 1990 to 2003 during which time social ties were systematically destroyed as a consequence of widespread economic deprivation.18 Besides, as with the first elections in 2005, that had painfully given birth to a “post-transition government,” the crisis of March 7 has illustrated how much the divisions within Iraq’s new political class remain one of the main brakes on the process of reconstructing a sustainable state capable of resisting political swings.

Admittedly, considerable progress was achieved with the US military “surge” in 2007 that led to a significant decrease in violence on the ground. The setting-up and training of new Iraqi security forces, combined with the mobilisation of Sunni tribes and Iraqi citizens against the organisation of al-Qaeda, have allowed a notable fall in terrorist operations and crimes. Nevertheless, Iraq’s armed forces, until now supported by the US army, still suffer from restricted financial and material resources, reducing their capacity to master the situation, without taking into account the current political climate that largely limits their room for manoeuvre. Moreover, when they have not defected as a result of their paltry salaries or the intimidation to which they are subjected, Iraqi soldiers and policemen are suspected of maintaining links with guerrilla elements. The Iraqi Interior Ministry has recently drawn up a list of several cases of members of the security forces and tribal chiefs returning to armed struggle.19

Al-Qaeda, which the US thought it had liquidated, has clearly benefited from the security vacuum created by the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq’s main cities in 2009 and since then has claimed responsibility for a series of spectacular suicide attacks. Having decided to put an end to the “impious” political legacy left by the Americans in Iraq, its followers have multiplied armed operations against the Iraqi government and Shi‘ite populations, in an evident desire to reignite sectarian war. Official sources indicate that former prisoners liberated after the transfer of prisons to the Iraqi authorities have formed ties with the radical organisation during their incarceration and then joined its ranks upon release.20 Furthermore, the elimination of al-Qaeda’s two top leaders, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al-Masri, last April, does not seem to have discouraged the jihadist organisation from appointing new leaders and continuing to pursue the struggle. In a recent communiqué, it promised Iraq “dark and bloody days.”21

External influences remain, ultimately, considerable. Sunni insurgents are thought to be continuing to benefit from logistic and financial support of Iraqi exiles based in Syria, namely loyalist Ba‘athists, while likewise Tehran is considered to be supporting Shi‘ite militias still active in the south of Iraq. As for Turkey, although having improved its relations with the Kurdish Regional Government, it remains highly preoccupied by the presence at its borders of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and by the influence likely to be exerted by its members on the separatist claims of its own Kurdish population. This explains the multiplication of armed incursions by Ankara over the last several months. As for Saudi Arabia, it has not ceased to castigate the interference of Iran and fears for the overall stability of the Middle East once the US has withdrawn from Iraq.22

While American troops begin their military pull-out – President Barack Obama having reiterated a definitive departure of all of his forces by the end of 2011 – Iraq remains confronted with crucial challenges. The political deadlock born out this year’s parliamentary elections, and the resulting difficulties in forming a new government, testify to the still very fragile political process and a democracy that struggles to take root. The gap, thus, is constantly increasing between a population, weary of violence and suffering from precarious living conditions, and a political class struggling to restore security and fulfil the elementary needs of its citizens. The upsurge in attacks led by al-Qaeda over the last number of months highlight the numerous uncertainties that are still weighing on the future of the country, despite the unquestionable progress that has been realised up to now.

Whatever the developments to come, it is evident that the American withdrawal will affect the socio-political equilibria sketched since 2003, potentially exacerbating some of the existing cleavages. In that respect, will the Iraqi security forces, though now far better trained and armed than previously, be able to take up the baton? Nothing is less sure. The weakening of the insurgency does not mean, indeed, that Iraq is stabilised. The recent rise in violence could even announce new threats, such as the emergence of additional insurgent groups. Beyond the imperative of an accommodation between the different forces that are battling for the political field, another pressing question is that of the re-establishment of a sustainable state, the unique holder of the monopoly over legitimate violence, without which any democratic future in Iraq will remain compromised.

1. Hamid al-Bayati, “Iraq’s Elections Show Democracy’s Growing,” World Politics Review, March 9, 2010,; David Beetham, “The contradictions of democratization by force: the case of Iraq,” Democratization 16 3 (2009): 443-454,

2. Kenneth Katzman, “Iraq: Politics, Elections, and Benchmarks,” CRS Report for Congress, April 28, 2010,

3. Myriam Benraad, “De la tentation hégémonique au déclin de l’Organisation d’Al-Qaida en Irak, miroir des métamorphoses d’une insurrection (2004-2008),” Maghreb- Machrek 197 (2008): 87-101,

4. Myriam Benraad, “Du phénomène arabe sunnite irakien: recompositions sociales, paradoxes identitaires et bouleversements géopolitiques sous occupation (2003-2008),” Hérodote 130 (2008): 59-75,

5. Myriam Benraad, “Une lecture critique de la Sahwa ou les mille et un visages du tribalisme irakien,” La tribu à l’heure de la globalisation, Etudes rurales 184 (2010): 95-106,

6. Kurds did not participate in the provincial elections of January 2009 but organised separate regional elections in the same summer.

7. Some commentators did fear a post-election crisis. “Iraq’s Uncertain Future: Elections and Beyond,” International Crisis Group Middle East Report No. 94, 25 February 2010,

8. Ian Black, “Iraq election chaos as 52 candidates are disqualified,” The Guardian, April 26, 2010,; Hannah Allam, “Iraq election: Winning Sunni candidates targeted by Maliki forces,” The Christian Science Monitor, March 29, 2010,

9. Marina Ottaway and Danial Kaysi, “De-Ba’athification As A Political Tool: Commission Ruling Bans Political Parties and Leaders,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, January 26, 2010,

10. The Iraqi National Alliance is a heterogeneous Shi‘ite bloc, formed in 2009 by the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and gathering conservative religious parties such as Muqtada al-Sadr’s  Sadrist movement and the Islamic Virtue Party (Hizb al-Fadhila al-Islami) founded by Ayatollah Muhammad al-Ya‘qubi.

11. The Iraqi Unity Alliance is an inter-communal formation that gathers, namely, Jawad al-Bolani, Shi‘ite Minister of the Interior, and Ahmad Abu Risha, Sunni tribal leader of al-Anbar. Like al-Iraqiyya, it was affected by the disqualification of several of its candidates judged ineligible because of their supposed links with the Ba‘ath Party.

12. The Iraqi Accord is the successor of the Iraqi Accord Front (Jabhat al-Tawafuq al-Iraqiyya), the first Sunni Arab coalition that participated in the elections of December 2005. It encompasses the Iraqi Islamic Party and several lists led by Sunni Arab tribal leaders.

13. The Kurdistan Islamic Union founded in 1994 by Salahaddin Muhammad Bahaddi, represents another political competitor of the PUK and of the KDP. Of Islamist ideology and close to the Muslim Brotherhood, it calls itself ‘reformist’ and its electorate mainly draws from university campuses.

14. The Kurdistan Islamic Group is an Islamist movement which emerged in 2001 under the direction of its self-proclaimed ‘emir’, Ali Bapir.

15. “Iraq’s divisions: Sectarian animosity still prevails,” The Economist, June 17, 2010,

16. “Sunnis and Iraq’s Election,” New York Times (editorial), January 21, 2010,

17. Myriam Benraad, “Retrait militaire, impasse politique et regain de violences: un état des lieux de la scène arabe sunnite irakienne à l’aune du nouveau scrutin,” Affaires stratégiques, Irak 2010: entre constantes et paradoxes, Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques (IRIS), March 3, 2010,

18. On the legacy of the embargo period and its effects on the post-2003 conflict, see for example Christopher Parker and Pete W. Moore, “The War Economy of Iraq”, Middle East Report 243, Summer 2007,

19. Hamza Hendawi, “Al-Qaida in Iraq offers cash to lure former allies,” Associated Press, August 6, 2010,

20. Myriam Benraad, “Prisons in Iraq: A New Generation of Jihadists?,” CTC Sentinel, 2 12 (2009): 16-18,; “Iraq’s Troubled Criminal Justice System,” Council on Foreign Relations, December 29, 2008,

21. Myriam Benraad, “Assessing AQI’s Resilience After April’s Leadership Decapitations,” CTC Sentinel 3 6
(2010): 4-8,

22. Liz Sly, “Neighboring countries compete for influence in Iraq,” Los Angeles Times, August 4, 2010,

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