"Iraq Is a Democracy."
In theory, but it doesn't work like one. Yes, it has had three, free national elections and a constitutional referendum and there are elements of democracy. I started covering Iraq in 1998, living there from the start of the war until late 2009, and it certainly feels freer than before. Saddam Hussein held his last election, a plebiscite in 2002, and claimed 100 percent of the vote (and maybe it was true -- who would risk voting against him?). Under the old regime, even when I could slip away from government minders, people were usually too scared of informants among their family and friends to speak openly. You weren't even allowed to keep your mouth shut. Failure to join the chanting crowds at pro-government rallies -- watched closely by neighborhood-level Baathists -- could cost you your job, admission to university, or worse. Now there's lots of open talk, government criticism, and widespread Internet access.
But Iraq is not democratic in a reliable or deep sense, where people can expect equal rights, legal protections, or access to their leaders. Free speech is still a dangerous pursuit. At least seven reporters or their staff have been killed this year in what appear to be direct attacks on news agencies, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Most others are afraid to get too specific in their criticisms of the leadership. Regulations are tightening, and the track record of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has just maneuvered himself into another term in office, is getting darker. The government has started requiring that news agencies register their staff and equipment. Media regulations ban quotations from anonymous sources. Human Rights Watch recently documented government efforts to ban public demonstrations and encourage security forces to violently disperse attempts at peaceful protest.
Despite vast U.S. training efforts, rule of law is still mostly an abstract concept. Criminals can regularly buy their way out of jail and the falsely accused, or those thousands held for months without charges, often have to resort to buying their freedom as well. Secret prisons have been found where inmates face torture by beating, electric shock, and rape. Maliki -- along with other leaders -- has used arrest as a tactic to neutralize political opponents. It's most apparent in the still-dangerous and fluid Diyala province, where several Sunni politicians have been jailed. A leader of the Sunni Sons of Iraq -- the militias that helped the United States fight al Qaeda -- was also arrested by Maliki's forces in what one U.S. colonel told me was a case of "collateral political damage." One of the real concerns among opponents and some U.S. officials now is whether, given another term, Maliki's Dawa Party will consolidate so much power -- such as by taking direct control over some military units -- that it prevents any future opposition.
Among the many laws held over from the old regime is one that allows the prime minister and cabinet ministers to block investigations into their subordinates, thereby stifling attempts to prosecute corrupt officials. The big money these days is in kickbacks for government contracts. But any business owner can also expect to pay steady handouts to predatory cops and bureaucrats who threaten to yank their permits. Government payrolls -- including in the military -- are bloated with employees who show up only part time and kick back some of their salaries to their bosses. In July, someone told me about one midlevel ministry official who was finally busted for requiring bribes of people he hired. He apparently got caught only because some who had paid him off complained that he hadn't put them on the payroll as promised.
As violence continues and the country remains in a state of emergency, most areas, including Baghdad, are under the de facto command of the Iraqi Army, with all local security forces answering to a military strongman who decides who gets arrested, what roads stay open, and when curfews are imposed.