Iraq’s Latest Growing Pains


by Ralph Peters [author, novelist]

For all of Iraq’s remaining problems, there’s been re markable progress since Saddam’s old playground hit bottom in 2006.

US troops have left Iraqi cities. Some may be able to come home even more swiftly than was anticipated six months ago. The country holds its third national election in January. The Kurds — out front in nearly every respect — choose their next regional government tomorrow.

The advances have been uneven, though. Volatile issues remain, ranging from Baghdad’s reluctance to recognize Kurdish claims to the historically Kurdish city of Kirkuk (and its oil reserves), to well-funded Iranian, Saudi, Turkish and Syrian efforts to deform Iraq to their liking.

But security has improved dramatically; al Qaeda has been reduced to a fringe player (if a still-deadly one); Muqtada al-Sadr’s star has fallen; the economy’s moving again, and the people demand more democracy, not less.

For our military, the situation can be deeply frustrating. Officers complain — correctly — that the strict new Iraqi insistence on sovereignty could endanger our forces, while making it harder to bust terrorists we’ve located.

We need to be the patient grown-ups in this situation. Iraqis are struggling to reconstruct an identity they can live with — after nearly half a century of dictatorship, wars, failure and humiliation. Think of them as young adults asserting their independence from mom and pop.

Iraqi security forces fall short in many respects. They’ll never be as good as ours. But they’re willing to step up and take responsibility for their own country — and that’s been our goal. Perhaps we shouldn’t complain too much.

The Iraqi army is the country’s most dependable institution, but the wonder of wonders has been the Interior Ministry (responsible for day-to-day, street-level security).

When Iraq was deep in the valley of the shadows, the police were thoroughly corrupt and utterly worthless, while their ministry was diseased with political cronyism. So when Jawad al-Bolani took over as the ministry’s boss in 2006, he was expected to fail. He didn’t: Courageously, he rebuilt the Interior Ministry. It now performs with reasonable dependability. In the Iraqi context, Bolani’s a miracle worker.

The real problems lie in the “civilian” ministries. Of necessity, our military focused on supporting the security departments. Now those ministries are years ahead of their counterparts — where corruption remains a dreadful plague that inhibits progress and justice.

And deep problems are emerging in the political order. There’s been plenty of coverage of Sunni-Shia rivalries, as well as rifts within Iraq’s Shia majority itself. But a top Iraqi insider made the point to me that the real political struggle on the horizon — one that will come to the fore in the January elections — has different roots.

After the removal of Saddam, we empowered our favorite Iraqi expatriates, the English speakers in the expensive suits. (In backing the parties that knew how to push our buttons, we slighted the need to build new government institutions.)

All manner of Iraqis who hadn’t left — who’d stayed behind and suffered — resented the carpetbaggers.

Some Iraqi exiles are patriots — but others are front men for Iran and various regional players. Increasingly, Iraqis see them as a power-grabbing, undeserving ruling class.

Yet that anger is just one factor in elections which, in the view of that senior Iraqi, will decide the country’s fate. Whichever constellation of parties takes power in the January vote will have four years to shape the new Iraq — at a time when the government’s still in its childhood. This election’s the big one.

Meanwhile, there’s a glowing success story up north, under the Kurdistan Regional Government. This weekend’s balloting pits a brand-new reform coalition against the old patriotic parties, the PUK and KDP, that waged the long freedom struggle.

Led by former PUK official Nawshirwan Mustafa, the challengers seek an end to the nepotism that haunts the entire Middle East — even Kurdistan. In response, the PUK and KDP proposed Barham Salih, a selfless and incorruptible man, as their candidate for the Kurdish regional prime minister’s chair.

It’s a horse-race toward accountability and transparency. Folks, that ain’t the Middle East we used to know.

And the real shocker? There’ve been fewer dirty tricks among the Kurds than we’ve had in our own recent elections. They’re going at democracy with gusto.

Iraq’s Kurds appear to have broken the Middle Eastern curse that always shattered democratic hopes. Come January, we’ll see if the rest of Iraq can do it.

Meanwhile, for all of Iraq’s remaining problems — and they’re vast — it looks more and more as if “Bush’s Folly” may work out. A refreshing complaint I heard from that high-level Iraqi was that American businesses aren’t coming to invest, leaving the field to the Chinese, French and others.

Instead of “Yankee go home!” it was “Yankee, let’s talk business!”

We’ve all come a long way since the dark days of 2006. ExileStreet

NY Post / copyright 2009 NY Post

Ralph Peters is Fox News’ strategic analyst. His latest book is “Looking For Trouble: Adventures in a Broken World.”

Peters is a retired Army officer and the author of 19 books, as well as of hundreds of essays and articles, written both under his own name and as Owen Parry. He is a frequent columnist for the New York Post and other publications.

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