A new kind of dictatorship

The editor-in-chief of the opposition <em>al-Mada</em> newspaper recalls the years of exile and how disillusionment set in after the 2003 invasion, and expresses his fears for freedom of the press.

After 30 years or so of roaming in exile, moving from Lebanon to Cyprus, then Damascus, Syria, and landing at last in London, I returned to Iraq just two years ago. A decade earlier, it had seemed as if it would never be possible for a dissident like myself to make such a return to Baghdad. I just wanted to resettle in Baghdad, the city where I had the best years of my young life, four at the university and eight working in the non-state media for Tariq al-Shaab, a leftist daily newspaper that was shut down by the Saddam Hussein regime in 1979.

I still recall the day in July 1980 when I had to flee Baghdad in a coach travelling to Syria. From that moment, Baghdad became merely an image and memory. My second encounter with the city occurred a few weeks after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Seeing my home again should have been a source of joy. In reality, it was a shock.

Baghdad was in ruins after three wars and 25 years of a brutal dictatorship. When I got back to London after that saddening visit, friends asked how I had found Baghdad. I answered: “The Baghdad I left was a glamorous woman in the heyday of her youth; now she is an aged creature on her deathbed.”

I imagined that Baghdad would rejuvenate itself within a few years. Like many fellow exiles, I thought the presence of international forces led by the US would help restore normal conditions in Iraq. Now, ten years on, it seems that Iraq will require another ten years to recover, given the carnage it has witnessed over the past decade.

The sectarian civil war that erupted in 2006 stretched well into 2008 and continues today by other means, in the form of a sharp struggle between the various political factions. Demonstrations against the government in the western, mostly Sunni Arab parts of the country are ongoing. After the invasion, the United States and its allies, notably the UK, initiated a flawed political process that was never going to suit Iraq.

In the post-Saddam restructuring, power was to be distributed along communal lines, reducing Iraq to three blocs – Shias, Sunnis and Kurds – with each bloc represented according to its relative demographic weight. The Sunnis did not accept this and boycotted the US- and UK-led political process.

For years, the occupying forces could not find anyone with any weight to represent the Sunnis and the Sunni boycott led to marginalisation. Some opted for insurgency, at a very high price. As the Sunni politicians who agreed to take part in the political process had little influence among their constituents, the Shias and Kurds, backed by the US/UK alliance, sought to tighten their grip on the reins of power.

A precarious situation ensued. Leaders of the Shia Islamic parties, who were now in command of a large parliamentary bloc, began to monopolise power and marginalised the rest, including the Kurds. Shia leaders and communities continue to view Sunni representatives in the political process with suspicion, depicting them as Ba’athists, on the grounds that either they were members of the deposed ruling Ba’ath Party or they did business/had interests in common with it. The ruling Shia political leaders act as if Iraq is their private property and deal with the Sunnis and Kurds as minorities to be subsumed under majority rule. It is the same old ethos of Saddam Hussein and his Ba’ath Party. The incumbent Shia leaders do not seem to realise that Iraq is not a unitary state, but rather a federal and decentralised polity. Nor do they seem to realise that not only does democracy ensure majority rule, it also guarantees the rights of minorities.

After the United States occupied Iraq, it started to dismantle state institutions under the pretext of de-Ba’athification. The resulting vacuum led to chaos and rendered the reconstruction of state institutions even more difficult. The Iraqis needed a chance to establish a new and stable state but the US played a damaging role. For instance, it was American diplomats who oversaw the writing of the country’s new constitution, a process that should have been handed over to constitutional jurists. The Sunni representatives refused to participate in the drafting of the legislation or in the referendum to approve it. The Americans applied pressure to speed up the process.

To silence the criticism, the US included a clause in the text of the basic law allowing amendments within six months. A parliamentary committee prepared the required changes but these have never been submitted to the Iraqi parliament.

The loopholes in the constitution were described as a “minefield” by the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, just 15 months ago. The civil war of 2006-2008 was sparked by the explosion of some of these mines, and so were the current demonstrations in the western Sunni provinces. Yet al-Maliki took advantage of the loopholes, shortcomings and vague articles to enhance his personal, extra-constitutional power and to weaken the power of the parliament, the judiciary and independent or civil society bodies.

Ultimately, al-Maliki and his Dawa Party have managed to create a new kind of dictatorship. This is a curse not only to the Sunnis, or the Kurds, or the swaths of Shias, but to the country as a whole.

As an editor and columnist of al-Mada, a critical, oppositional newspaper in Iraq, I am given considerable editorial freedom, and there is certainly no shortage of subjects to cover. I am, however, concerned about the freedom of the press.

Fortunately, a draft anti-media law has now been reversed, much to the relief of my colleagues and peers. Journalism is a dangerous business, and yet the level of hazards is hardly higher than the tension about the car bombs and assassinations that continue to plague the people of Iraq.

Adnan Hussein is the editor-in-chief and deputy director of al-Mada newspaper

US Marines chain the head of a statue of Saddam Hussein before pulling it down. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: ten years on

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.