Monday, August 12, 2013

Ethnosectarian Politics In Iraq, Its Future And Repercussions, An Interview With Univ of Miami Prof. Adeed Dawisha

Sectarian politics has ruled Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Although the Americans are widely blamed for institutionalizing this style of government, the Iraqi opposition was already organizing themselves by sect and ethnicity in the 1990s. Since the U.S. invasion, every Iraqi government has been a national unity one where all the winning lists have been given a seat, and top positions are divided up using ethnosectarian quotas. Washington and others have argued that this system was necessary to include all of Iraq’s diverse population, so that they could work together to form a new democracy. In practice however, it has only led to dysfunctional governments and corruption. To discuss the impact and future of this form of rule is University of Miami Political Science Professor Adeed Dawisha who specializes in democracy and politics in the Middle East.

1. The United States started organizing the Iraqi government along ethnosectarian lines with the Iraqi Governing Council that it formed in 2003. The number of seats was handed out to each group based upon their perceived population size, while also trying to include secular and religious groups. What was the original argument the Americans made for dividing up the council in that fashion?

After the massive conversion to Shiism among Iraq’s tribes from the late 18th century onward, the ethnographic composition of the country has been roughly 60% Shiites, 20% Sunnis, 18% Kurds, and 2% other minority religions and beliefs. Yet throughout the same period Sunnis dominated the political process. This imbalance was aggravated further, taking on violent forms, during the Saddam era. So after the forcible removal of Saddam, the general sentiment was for a more equitable distribution of political power, something which Iraqis had not had for over two centuries—hence the allocation of seats in the first Governing Council in accordance with the ethnographic composition of Iraqi society.

2. In 2004 Iyad Allawi was named the interim prime minister. He was a secular politician, yet he followed the same quota system, and so did all the subsequent governments. Why did the Iraqis buy into this system when they were in control?

Once a precedent is set, particularly one that is advertised as based on fairness, it is difficult to break it. When you have a majority group (Shiites), as well as a minority group (Kurds), who between them constituted almost 80% of the population, believing that they’d had two centuries of exclusion and persecution, and that they now have finally attained a fair representation in government, no contrary argument, regardless of how pertinent or justifiable it is, could have won the day.

3. Some believe that sect and ethnicity are primordial divisions within Iraq that have always existed, while others have argued that ethnosectarian politics only came to the fore when the state lost legitimacy leading people to look towards other groups and identities for protection. What is your opinion of why ethnosectarian politics became so prominent in present day Iraq?

If the question is suggesting that the state lost legitimacy after the invasion of Iraq, then I have major problem with such an interpretation. The state under Saddam had little, if any, legitimacy among a commanding majority of the country’s population. It was under Saddam’s rule, particularly the last decade and a half, that ethno-sectarianism, tribalism and sub-state identities came to the fore, overshadowing the more inclusive Iraqi identity. What the Americans did was to institutionalize these identities. The American move, as I said earlier, was undertaken with probably the best of intentions, but unfortunately it proved to be an absolutely terrible decision in terms of Iraq’s post-invasion political development.

4. You’ve argued that the quota system is the reason why Iraq’s politicians run the ministries like personal fiefs. Can you explain the connection between the two?

The apportionment of cabinet portfolios stems from the original American decision to create ethno sectarian balance within the first Governing Council. The practice was taken a step further when after the January 2005 elections, Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari apportioned cabinet seats not only to the various ethnic and sectarian groups but also to different grouping within the winning coalition. The result was that Jaafari’s authority over his ministers became marginal at best. This continued through Maliki’s first term (2006-2010) and right into his second term. The result was that ministries became separate cantons in which the loyalty of the minister was directed more to the leader of his party or his ethnosectarian group than to the prime minister. From around the fall of 2011, Maliki has used the inevitable paralysis in the cabinet to sideline the ministers and take unilateral decisions. 

5. Federalism has been another problem for Iraq. Originally, the U.S. wanted to devolve power away from Baghdad to the provinces to try to prevent another dictatorship being formed. What the country ended up getting was the recognition of the Kurds’ control of Irbil, Dohuk, and Sulaymaniya. Provinces were also given the right to form their own federal regions, and some tried recently, but were stopped by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. How could decentralization help with the governance of the country, and why have the premier and other parties opposed it?

After years of centralized authoritarian politics, which attained an absolutist form under Saddam, it was obvious to many analysts that creating a federalist political structure, where power devolves away from the center to the regions, was the best way to ensure that dictatorship does not return. Post-Hitler Germany is the best illustration of this argument. But what transpired in Iraq, mainly through purposeful Kurdish advocacy, was not the kind of territorial federalism that had been suggested, but one that was based on ethnosectarianism. This kind of federalism goes beyond creating a power balance between center and regions; it encourages cultural separatism and political division. The Kurdish region today is independent in everything but name! On this issue, I sympathize with Maliki, because if southern Shiite provinces and Sunni provinces in the middle of Iraq are allowed to follow in the footsteps of the Kurds, then this probably would be the first steps to the disintegration and demise of the state of Iraq.   

6. For the last several years Prime Minister Maliki has talked about forming a majority government. What would have to change in Iraqi politics for the elite to give up on national unity coalitions, and instead agree to ruling and opposition parties?

Many are waiting for the 2014 general elections as the possible beginning of a new political era. The thesis is that the present political elite will have recognized, after more than a decade of fruitless governance, the bankruptcy of the idea of national unity government, and that they’d be compelled to move to a majoritarian form of government, where a strong and decisive government will be balanced by an equally strong opposition. The problem here is twofold. One, Iraq’s proportional representation electoral system (PR) is not conducive to majoritarian rule. PR is geared toward producing coalition governments. So a drastic change of the electoral law to a kind of constituency based, first past the post system would be needed, and I very much doubt this would happen. Two, the party system (if one can call it that) is fragmented, and has been in a state of constant flux, with alliances continuously shifting. This is the worst environment for creating a majoritarian system.       

7. Another part of creating a democratic society is rule of law and strong institutions. Iraq so far has neither, and instead the elite like to rule through personal connections and patronage, something that previous leaders have used such as Premier Nuri al-Sa’id from the monarchy period. Why haven’t the political parties put more emphasis upon building institutions?

If you examine the various parties, you would see that they are not the kind of parties we associate with democratic systems. They are not stable organizations that draw support from segments of society because of clearly defined and articulated ideologies and/or political and economic programs. In Iraq, parties are groupings that coalesce around personalities. Parties are no more than labels created by individual leaders, and therefore, in stark contrast to Western democracies, their status and coherence are completely dependent on the leaders’ legitimacy, and his continued desire to keep the party going. The State of Law has no credibility independent of Maliki. People who vote for al-Ahrar are in fact voting for Sadr. If Maliki and/or Sadr were to decide to move on to another label, their “parties” would instantly disappear from Iraq’s political theater. And this is true of all parties. Once politics is dominated by individuals, not rule-based organizations, then personal interest is apt to supersede the national interest, and the energies of various, and often bickering, individuals are expended not on building national institutions, but on maneuvering and conspiring to achieve personal power.                 

8. Finally, Iraqi politics are always hard to predict, but what direction do you think things are heading?

I still believe strongly that Iraq today with all the near chaos and uncertainty is a far better place than the supposedly “stable” country under the malevolent rule of Saddam Hussein. That being said, it is sad to say that when one looks into the future, one is hard put to find any real indication of a palpable and meaningful political transformation over the horizon. My main concern is that the same personalities, who so far have failed miserably to reform the country, would be dominating Iraq’s politics over the next one or two decades. There is a troubling dearth of new leaders within these parties and grouping, or outside of them, who are emerging with new and substantive ideas. Even if there is a pool waiting in the wings, its upward trajectory would go through routes predetermined and controlled by the existing system of patronage, and religious allegiances.

Given the resulting stagnation of the political process, state institutions will continue to be ineffective. The party that has profited most from the persistent weakness of central authority, and will thus continue to benefit from such a circumstance, are the Kurds. For the rest of Iraq, it might be a case of plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.  


Dawisha, Adeed, “Iraq: A Vote Against Sectarianism,” Journal of Democracy, July 2010
- “The Unraveling of Iraq: Ethnosectarian Preferences and State Performance in Historical Perspective,” Middle East Journal, Spring 2008

Dawisha, Adeed and Dawisha, Karen, “How to Build a Democratic Iraq,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2003

Ghanim, David, Iraq’s Dysfunctional Democracy, Santa Barbara, Denver, Oxford: Praeger, 2011

Al-Qarawee, Harith, Imagining The Nation, Nationalism, Sectarianism and Socio-Political Conflict in Iraq, Lancashire, Rossendale Books, 2012


Steve Donnelly, AICP said...


Excellent interview by someone who deeply understands the topic.

There is far more to the issues in Iraq's internal, national and sub-national structure and cohesiveness than the US 2003 invasion, although our actions appear to have coalesced and/or reinforced structural problems that now stand in the way of progress for Iraq's people.

I was particularly struck by the reference to the cults of personality in lieu of institutions. This carries on the prior Ottoman traditions for far-outposts, which Iraq has been unable to transcend. As long as the leadership focused on personality versus services & performance, the goose remains cooked.

On that front, however, I believe the US (woulda, shoulda, coulda) focused more on delivery of services through functioning institutions---then and even now---in Iraq and other common circumstances, and that doing so is the key to a viable future. Yet, I really am amazed that Iraqis, as yet, have not seriously begun to focus on that which they do not have (services,institutions), and begun to seriously hold leaders to account.

Toynbee. Leaders stuck in the past issues and disputes, who do not take on the current problems, are always at risk---punctuated evolution suggests things do not go in straight lines.

Joel Wing said...


You're always good with the historical analogies.

I think the U.S. did try to build up Iraq's institutions, but got caught up in national and local personalities that wanted to divert everything to their own personal gain.