Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Patience of Iraq's Shii: Can It Last?

There's a fine report by Rod Nordland in today's NYT about the restraint that Iraq's Shii Arabs are showing in the face of repeated bombings of their mosques and gatherings ever since US troops pulled out of urban areas and handed over security chores there to Iraqi forces. The current restraint is in marked contrast to the repercussions after the 2006 bombings of the al-Askari mosque in Samarra, which entailed the formation of Shii death squads that inflicted a horrible revenge on Sunni, especially in Baghdad.

Now though, as Nordland notes, Shii politicians dominate the central government, the leading cleric - the Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani - is calling upon Shii to remain peaceful in the wake of the bombings, and even the Shii cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose men comprised many of the death squads of 2006-2007, has turned to non-violence and is reemphasizing social activism. And - as Nordland again notes - the Shii have a tradition of long-suffering in the face of adversity, in which those who die for the cause attain the status of martyr.

The burden is now therefore on the Maliki government, it would seem. One has to wonder how long the Shii will remain patient if the government's security forces can't demonstrate progress in reducing the number and impact of these attacks. Moreover, many Iraqis are complaining about the corruption rampant throughout the government ministries, where nothing can get done without bribes being paid. A report from the BBC highlights the problem:

While the prime minister blames the Sunni insurgency for the attacks, opponents of his predominantly Shia government say it is time to focus on the enemy within.

They accuse Mr Maliki of alienating Iraq's Sunni population and allowing corruption to infect all parts of the government, especially the security services.

According to Iraq's own government anti-corruption agency, the ministries of defence and the interior are among the most corrupt in the country.

Alia Nusaif Jasim, an MP and member of parliamentary anti-corruption committee, alleges that millions of dollars of US defence aid never make it to the state coffers.

"Right now, corruption is a bigger threat for us than insurgency, because it is preventing all of our government institutions - and especially our security services - from doing their job," Ms Jasim said.

The ministry of defence denies all corruption accusations, but in Baghdad stories of bribery in the army abound.

"I have to give a bribe to join the army, I have to bribe at checkpoints, I have to bribe the commander if I am in the army - everywhere I turn I have to bribe," said Ali, a resident of Baghdad.

This perception strips the army of its moral authority, and makes it more difficult for people to believe it is capable of protecting them - especially now that US troops no longer patrol urban areas of Iraq.

The Shii have traditionally made up a large proportion of Iraq's impoverished, disenfranchised underclass, especially in slums like Sadr City in Baghdad. Now, at least, they can vote, and their votes have great political weight. But how long will they remain patient, even with a Shii-dominated government, if basic living conditions and the country's overall economy don't improve soon?

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