If Iraq fails to hold credible elections in January, a leading American expert on Iraqi politics estimates the odds of the country encountering severe civil unrest at "50-50."
Juan R.I. Cole, a professor at the University of Michigan, says a large portion of the blame for existing difficulties in Iraq belongs to the US-dominated Coalition Provisional Authority, which bungled several important issues during Iraq's political transition process. Cole discussed his concerns about Iraq's future during an Open Forum of the Open Society Institute in New York.
The CPA failed to comprehend Iraq's political landscape, believing Saddam Hussein's totalitarian political system which centered on his Baath Party to be more extensive than was actually the case, Cole maintained. Beneath of facade of total control, Saddam faced persistent challenges, especially from the country's Shiite community that comprises roughly 60 percent of the Iraqi population. Given the belief in the Baath Party's unchallenged supremacy, CPA leaders never managed to properly evaluate the nuances involved in Shiite politics in Iraq.
Cole said US officials' lack of understanding for Shiite politics has increased the risk of disorder in the wake of the June 28 transfer of authority to an Iraqi interim government. He added that current conditions also leave the United States and its allies without "good choices" for safeguarding Iraq's continuing transition. Cole voiced the possibility that Iraq's most outspoken Shiite radical activist, Moqtada al-Sadr, could become a "power broker" in Iraqi politics, while the country's leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, demands democratic reforms.
"The United States seems to have conceived of Iraq as a totalitarian state where not much went on besides the Baath Party," said Cole, referring to former dictator Saddam Hussein's repressive political party. "It turns out Iraq was a pressure cooker that the Baath could barely keep a lid on." Now, he warns that competing claims among Shiites and Sunnis, urban and rural politicians, and Kurds and Arabs could lead to prolonged instability. A change in attitude from American officials at this point would be unable to smooth the situation, he added.
Given that the "United States is stuck in Iraq," Cole said, the question is now "whether we will muddle through, or will it explode in our faces."
Cole has offered a running critique of the American-led occupation in his weblog since Baghdad fell in spring 2003. He faults former CPA chief Paul Bremer for failing to properly read Iraq's political map. In his July 7 talk at OSI, Cole said occupation leaders "left a time bomb in Iraq" by sidestepping questions concerning ethnic Kurds' sovereignty aspirations.
"For reasons beyond my comprehension, the United States decided to get Moqtada, apparently in ignorance of who he was," Cole said of the standoff between al-Sadr and occupation forces in spring 2004. "Moqtada is deeply respected by most people in the eastern slums, and that's ten percent of the population."
The occupation authority also erred in its treatment of Sistani. Bremer treated Sistani's insistence on an Iraqi-approved constitution and prompt elections as a nuisance, Cole asserted. Instead of following Sistani's preferred approach, Bremer pushed through an interim governmental framework without public input.
Keeping Sistani on the fringe of the process leaves Iraq in a precarious position, Cole argued. If the interim government delays elections in January, Sistani, lacking any deep investment in the political process, might feel compelled to call for, or at least sanction demonstrations. A Sistani call for protests could bring hundreds of thousands of Shiites into the streets of Baghdad. In theory, the size of the protests could dwarf the fledgling Iraqi government's ability to maintain order.