It's not just foreign patronage that skews Iraqi policy -- it's the pernicious influence of sectarianism, which the Iraq war heightened. This phenomenon has come and gone in waves through the centuries -- in recent memory, the 1979 Iranian revolution reverberated across the region, creating apprehension in other states that feared its influence on their Arab Shiite populations and on local Islamic movements.
Today, sectarianism has replaced the Palestinian cause as politicians' most reliable means to rally support -- and to distract from their own failures to deliver. While many of Iraq's elites have become increasingly wealthy thanks to the increase in oil exports, Iraq's people still struggle to receive basic services, such as electricity.
Identity politics also undermines Iraq's attempts to establish a consistent foreign policy. For instance, some Shiite politicians portray the alternative to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as a fundamentalist Salafi regime, which will support the creation of a "Free Iraqi Army" -- Sunni rebels funded by Qatar and Saudi Arabia -- to overthrow Iraq's Shiite government. Some Kurdish politicians also play on fears that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is turning into a dictator who will deploy U.S.-supplied F-16s against the Kurdish people. Meanwhile, some Sunni politicians claim that Iraq is becoming an Iranian client state led by Shiite clerics.
These tensions have led to questions about the viability of the Iraqi state. Some observers portray Iraq as an "artificial" state made up of three homogenous and antagonistic communities -- Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds. They argue that it was held together only by dictatorship and that Saddam's removal inevitably led to fighting due to "ancient hatreds." But that is an inaccurate reading of Iraq: While Iraq's different peoples have at times had a troubled history with the country's rulers, relations between the communities themselves have been mostly peaceful over the centuries -- much more so than relations between Protestants and Catholics in Europe. Iraqi tribes have members who are Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish, and intermarriage has been common since the time of the monarchy.
It's the explosion of sectarian hatred following the U.S. invasion that is the anomaly. During the Iran-Iraq War, Shiites constituted around 80 percent of the foot soldiers and 20 percent of the officers of the Iraqi Army -- and fought loyally for the Iraqi state. Most Sunni Arabs and Shiite Arabs are Iraqi nationalists -- even though they have different interpretations of what the concept means and what Iraq's foreign-policy orientation should be. Sunnis tend to believe that Iraq should be aligned with the Arab world against Iran, while Shiites believe some Sunni countries pose a threat to them.
The question is: What equilibrium will Iraq find? Will it revert back to authoritarianism, with its leader crushing dissent, this time with U.S.-trained and U.S.-equipped security forces? Some people certainly worry it will. In the old Middle East, dictatorship produced extremism -- today, new elites may use the very methods that were once used against them to put down threats to their rule.
Will Iraq's elites reach agreement on the rules of the game by which politics will be conducted? One positive indicator of this was the recent willingness of political parties from different coalitions to work together in parliament to prevent Maliki from increasing the number of commissioners on the Independent High Electoral Commission, as they believed it would be to his advantage.