Christopher Hill: Iraq's Politics, Iraq's Problem

DENVER - The narrative of contemporary Iraq is becoming etched in stone: United States troops are leaving, and the country is falling apart. Iraq, we are told, is once again on the brink of dictatorship, this time under the Shia politician Nuri al-Maliki, who has been prime minister since 2006.

The notion that Iraq's ongoing political problems were caused by America's departure, or that they could be improved by its return, is something that only a solipsistic American could believe. In fact, not everything that happens in Iraq reflects the presence - or absence - of US troops.

Iraq's political problems are of Iraq's making, and need to be resolved by Iraqis. Outside mediation can help. But no one should be under the illusion that foreign troops, engaged for eight years as a post-invasion occupying force, are ideal for this task.

'Urban bias' is a term often used to explain the phenomenon by which city dwellers receive a disproportionate share of a society's resources and benefits. But it can refer to something else: an outsider's understanding of a country that is based on disproportionate interaction with the urban population at the expense of those who live in harder-to-reach rural areas.

In Iraq, spending time in Baghdad reveals that Sunni and Shia Iraqis have learned to live together, that intermarriage is common, and that the issues that concern people are more secular than sectarian. But not all Iraqis live in Baghdad. Trips outside of the capital to Sunni-dominated Anbar or Shia-controlled southern Iraq often reveal a country much more focused on, and animated by, the Sunni-Shia divide. And this phenomenon did not begin with the US-led invasion. It had a thousand-year head start.

How people group themselves in a society - by tribe, sectarian identity, ethnicity, region, the urban-rural distinction, or attitudes concerning the role of government - is the essence of politics. Obviously, political identities change as modernisation increases the salience of socio-economic factors. Iraq will not be immune to such shifts in political identities.

But, for now, the reality of Iraq is that most people, especially outside of cosmopolitan Baghdad, see themselves as Sunni or Shia. And that reality is further shaped by the following fact: for decades, Iraq was brutally and not very effectively ruled by the minority Sunnis, whose last leader was Saddam Hussein. The Shia, understandably, don't want them back.

In preparation for the 2010 elections, the Sunnis set aside their internal differences and united under a single political party called Iraqiyya (the Iraqi National Movement). Of course, its organisers are loath to describe it as a Sunni party. Rather, it is described as a national party that invites people of all orientations to participate. That vision has great appeal among those who want to see a less sectarian-based form of politics in Iraq. But, within Iraq, there are very few people - Sunni or Shia - who do not see Iraqiyya as a party dedicated to restoring Sunni leadership.

The results of the March 2010 general election gave Iraqiyya 91 parliamentary seats, two more than the second-place finisher, Maliki's State of Law coalition. But Iraqiyya was unable to forge a government coalition; indeed, it failed to attract a single additional MP, let alone the 72 that would be necessary to control a 163-seat majority in the 325-seat legislature. Meanwhile, Maliki, with 89 seats, was able to reach out to other Shia parties and the Kurds, eventually assembling a 'national unity' government to gain a second term as prime minister.

Iraq's economy is stumbling in the right direction, as are its security conditions, notwithstanding the recent attacks on Shia pilgrims (mostly likely carried out by al-Qaeda of Mesopotamia and other Sunni extremists). But Iraq's politics remain problematic, and its leaders will have to rise to the occasion.

For starters, Maliki should do something that hasn't been done in the Middle East for a long time: now and again, he should turn the other cheek and resist the temptation to come after his adversaries.

The Sunnis, for their part, need to get used to being mere members of a coalition, rather than its leaders. Shia majority rule is an immovable fact of life, at least for as long as Iraq's citizens tie their political identities to sectarian affiliations. Iraqiyya's leaders would be well advised to demonstrate more competence in governance rather than inflaming tensions, as Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, a Sunni hardliner, has been fond of doing by pronouncing Maliki another Saddam. (Shias, even those who dislike Maliki, do not appreciate hearing that from a Sunni.)

Other Arab states, where Sunnis tend to dominate, can help by coming to terms with Shia majority rule in Iraq. They worked to reconcile differences within the Iraqi Sunni community. Perhaps they can facilitate Sunni-Shia reconciliation as well, and stop insinuating that Iraqi Shia are Iranian proxies. Embracing Iraq, rather than undermining it, would be a good way to start.

Christopher R. Hill, former US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, was US Ambassador to Iraq, South Korea, Macedonia, and Poland, US special envoy for Kosovo, a negotiator of the Dayton Peace Accords, and chief US negotiator with North Korea from 2005-2009. He is now Dean of the Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver.