A matter of loyalty in Iraq

A matter of loyalty in Iraq
by Padraig O’Malley
14 July 2008

The Helsinki talks on Iraq concluded July 5 in Baghdad with the public disclosure of the agreement — 17 principles defining the framework for conducting future negotiations among parties and 15 mechanisms to monitor compliance with the principles. There are 37 signatories to the agreement; among them some of the most powerful political figures in Iraq representing every shade of political opinion. What they will do with the agreement is in their hands. If they do not develop the structures to give teeth to the monitoring mechanisms, it is likely that the agreement will become a meaningless piece of paper.

Akram Al Hakim, the minister of National Reconciliation, invited us, the co-conveners, as well as the Northern Ireland and South African facilitators to Baghdad to celebrate the agreement. What should have been an event of celebration became one that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki used to violate every principle of democracy we have been given to believe has taken firm hold in Iraq five years after Saddam’s fall.

His office issued an order: The event was not to take place. His officials ordered the ministry of reconciliation to stop all preparatory work, including printing copies of the agreement. Had we not taken the precaution of having it printed and copied and carrying it to Iraq, there would have been no agreement to distribute to the Helsinki participants, the media, or Parliament.

Maliki’s office ordered the Al-Rasheed Hotel, the only hotel in the Green Zone, to cancel the use of a facility and the catering service that the ministry had reserved. When the co-conveners stepped in and said that we would pick up the expenses, Maliki’s office was unequivocally dismissive.

Now, one might have expected the minister of reconciliation to assert his executive prerogative and question the constitutionality of a minion in the prime minister’s office telling his department what it could do. However, he didn’t even seek an explanation: As the prime minister’s office sayeth, so shall it be done. Both vice presidents were co-stewards of the talks. But neither would call Maliki to ask just what was happening and why. And the powerful politicians from his own party and those close to him whose signatures are on the agreement? Not one was willing to lift a finger. No explanations, just the implicit conveyance to us that nobody would cross the prime minister.

Call it off, those who had worked closely with us pleaded. But we stayed put. We drove home the point that media coverage of the Helsinki participants arriving at the Al-Rasheed and being informed that Maliki had killed the event for no other reason than that the process had not emanated from his office would be a bonanza for the media, a story that would find its way into every American home.

Of course, a compromise was reached, but the event itself was contrived. What is most disturbing is that this is not the first time, we learned, that Maliki has acted with such capricious disregard for all institutions of governance with no explanation provided. When his mood hearkens, action follows, rational or irrational, and no one questions his behavior. He is, for all the propaganda about the advances of democratization, a despot in the making with all the appurtenances of power under lock and key.

It seems that the psychological pathology that pervades Iraq five years after Saddam Hussein’s toppling is the same: instantaneous capitulation to the whims of the most powerful, with orders from the top implemented unquestioningly. Bowing to authoritarian diktats is still embedded in the national psyche because the consequences of not doing so are unclear and memories of what has happened in the past are too clear.

Loyalty is to one’s tribe, whether family or some larger social entity. Loyalty to Iraq is merely an abstraction because there is not yet an Iraq to be loyal to and cannot be until what Iraqis describe as the occupation is terminated.

Padraig O’Malley was director of the Helsinki talks, which were jointly convened by the Moakley Chair at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and the Institute of Global Leadership at Tufts University.

Article originally published at The Boston Globe.