Analysts See Lebanon-ization of Iraq in Crystal Ball

Times Staff Writers

Gunmen hold sway over streets lined with concrete bomb-blast barriers and razor wire. Entire neighborhoods are too dangerous for police to enter.

The government, holed up in a fortress behind layers of checkpoints, huddles in emergency meetings and issues proclamations that draw little attention on the streets or in foreign capitals.

And this may be the best that Iraqis and Americans can hope for.


The surge of sectarian fighting after a Shiite Muslim shrine was bombed last week has dealt a hard blow to hopes for creating a functioning Iraqi state.

Instead of laboring to create a well-run economy or a democracy, Iraqi and American resources are being diverted to stave off a civil war between Shiites and Sunnis, who are suspected in the bombing. And the formation of a new government appears likely to devolve into a series of capitulations to the various constituencies that have the power to plunge the nation, and the region, into chaos, officials and experts say.

“We are dedicating all our time to ward off what might be dire consequences,” said Hussein Ali Kamal, the Interior minister’s intelligence chief. “If the crimes and attacks increase, I do not think anyone in this country will survive.”

The outlines of a future Iraq are emerging: a nation where power is scattered among clerics turned warlords; control over schools, hospitals, railroads and roads is divided along sectarian lines; graft and corruption subvert good governance; and foreign powers exert influence only over a weak central government.

The bleak prospects have serious implications for the U.S. Washington wants to tone down its overt political influence in Baghdad and decrease the number of U.S. troops precisely at a time when the fledgling Iraqi government has shown itself incapable of maintaining political or military control.

“This is something that’s been leaning in this direction for some time, and the mosque incident has accelerated the process,” said Edward S. Walker, a former assistant secretary of State for Near East affairs. “What we’re talking about is people looking out for their own. I don’t think it can be turned around.”

Doomsayers long have warned that Iraq was turning into a failed state like Somalia or Taliban-run Afghanistan, a regional black hole. It’s far too early to write Iraq off as a quagmire, analysts say, but the threat of contagious and continuous instability -- like in Lebanon -- looms.

“The expectations of the United States and its allies have been lowered considerably,” said Mark Sedra, a researcher specializing in rebuilding post-conflict countries at the Bonn International Center for Conversion, a German think tank. “Now the main goal is just creating a state that controls instability and contains the high levels of violence that prevail at the moment and prevents that violence from spilling over into neighboring states or destabilizing the region.”

Even before last week’s events, the authority of the Iraqi government had been overshadowed by an insurgency that shows no signs of letting up, a constitution that provides for a weak executive authority and armed militias that run swaths of the country.

“All of this is creating great, great decentralization and a failure to provide services,” said Phebe Marr, an Iraq specialist at the United States Institute of Peace, a Washington think tank. “Until they get a real central government, they’re not going to provide any effective central authority. This is going to require some time -- a long time.”

Analysts say one of the major flaws in the attempt to build an Iraqi government has been a reliance on religious and ethnic divisions. Political parties, parliamentary blocs, army brigades and even ministries are breaking down along sectarian lines.

Keen to right discrimination suffered by Shiites and Kurds under former President Saddam Hussein, Washington encouraged the sectarianism in an effort to ensure that all groups would be fairly represented in the government. But many analysts say such governments are inherently unstable. Every political question turns into an existential threat, or a promise to one group or another.

Lebanon, too, cobbled together a sectarian system of political representation as it emerged from its 15-year civil war in the early 1990s. Then, too, it was an attempt to halt the violence by assuring people from different groups that their rights wouldn’t be trampled.

But what was intended as a temporary fix never has been vanquished. Religious and ethnic identities still rule Lebanon and remain a source of potential destabilization.

“They’re really trying to take a shortcut by basing the whole thing on sectarian division,” said U.N. advisor Timur Goksel, who watched Lebanon’s civil war grind on and views Iraq’s nation-building efforts with trepidation. “There’s been almost no attempt to build institutions.”

Signs of Iraq’s Lebanon-ization abound.

Plans to crush militias long have been shelved in an effort to co-opt them. In Baghdad’s Sadr City district, the large slum where 10% of Iraq’s population lives, black-clad Al Mahdi militiamen loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr rule the streets while police officers cower.

Even the U.S. military, which once clashed with Al Mahdi in gun battles in the capital and in the country’s Shiite south, has grudgingly come to accept that the militia is here to stay. The Shiite militiamen could end up being melded into the official Iraqi security forces.

“Now is not the time for the Iraqi government to take specific action against the militias,” Army Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch told reporters at a news conference Saturday. “It’s going to be worked over time.”

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has been trying to persuade Iraqis to appoint apolitical technocrats to head sensitive ministries, such as Interior and Defense. But with the recent outbursts of rage by Shiites and Sunnis, who both perceive themselves as victims, the best U.S. and Iraqi officials may be able to hope for is dividing security forces along sectarian lines.

Parts of west Baghdad are being patrolled by Sunni-dominated army units, and parts of eastern Baghdad by Shiite-dominated Interior Ministry units.

Repeatedly over the last few days, requests to police for information about damage to Sunni mosques in western Baghdad or on the city’s outskirts were met with plaintive shrugs: The mostly Shiite police force does not enter certain parts of the city or countryside.

“There has been a lot of movement of people of one sect or another into certain branches of the military or the police,” said Walker, the former State Department official who is now president of the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank. “We’ve tried, but it’s hard to integrate them. But I don’t see that there’s any mood to integrate at this point.”

The U.S. hoped that qualified Iraqi politicians and professionals would emerge from the rubble of Hussein’s regime to lead Iraq. Instead, Washington has had to rely on once-exiled politicians tied to political parties or militias to run the country.

The result has been a patronage system in which ministries are viewed as cash cows for supporters. Ministries have become rife with corruption and payoffs. Jobs are doled out to political supporters.

“It’s expected that you reward your own,” Walker said. “It goes down to the tribal base of these societies. You don’t have a sense of nationalism.”

Like Lebanon, whose sovereignty repeatedly has been encroached by more powerful neighbors, Iraq remains a geopolitical playground for foreign countries.

With a weak central government and a lack of strong national identity, countries in the region support the interests of their sectarian or ethnic kin: Iran backs the Shiites, Turkey backs the Turkmen minority, Jordan and Saudi Arabia back Sunnis.

“It’s clear that various states in the region are hedging their bets about what’s happening in Iraq,” said Sedra, who has studied the Iraq, Afghanistan and Balkan conflicts. “The Iraqi government is trying to assert its own sovereignty, but it has failed.”