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Iraq: Learning Lessons From Lebanon

  • Kathleen Ridolfo --> Much like Hizballah in Lebanon, Shi'ite militias have filled the gap in services in southern Iraq (file photo) (epa) PRAGUE, July 26, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- In 2003, Iraq observers warned that Iraq faced the danger of going down the same road as Lebanon, which fought a bitter civil war from 1975-90. Although relative stability eventually returned to Lebanon, the country remained under the thumb of Syrian occupation until last year, and continues to operate under an outdated political structure that is not representative of the realities on the ground.

The conflict that erupted between Lebanon and Israel two weeks ago illuminated the unresolved issues that have thwarted real democratic development in postwar Lebanon. Iraq faces similar challenges, and would be wise to take heed of Lebanon's experience, both past and present.

Ten lessons Iraq should take from Lebanon:

1. A Government Based On Sectarian Quotas Does Not Work

Although Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki pledged to form a national unity cabinet based on the qualifications of its members, in reality, the cabinet was formed through political wrangling of various factions and trends that won seats in the parliamentary election. Ministers were appointed according to their party affiliation rather than their qualifications.

2. Do Not Allow Non-State Actors To Fill The Role Of Government

In postwar Iraq, as in Lebanon, Shi'ite militias in the south filled the vacuum left in the absence of central authority, providing much-needed aid on the local level to widows, orphans, and families in need.

Replicating Hizballah's experience in Lebanon, Iraq's Shi'ite militias -- namely cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq's (SCIRI) Badr Corps -- secured massive political support through their sponsorship of local communities, where they provide health care, jobs, food, and other forms of social welfare to the needy. That support continues to grow in the absence of a strong national welfare system.

3. Do Not Ignore Social Inequalities

Ethnic and sectarian tensions helped feed divisions in pre-civil-war Lebanon. In post-Hussein Iraq, much focus was placed on the injustices suffered by Shi'a under Saddam Hussein, and on taking away the "privileges" once held by Sunni Arabs because of their ties to the regime.

Such focus further alienated Sunni Arabs from the new political order, and contributed to sectarian tensions. While it was crucial for the post-Hussein government to ensure equal social rights for its long-oppressed majority Shi'ite population, it should have taken greater steps to support a cohesive social fabric.

4. Raise Economic Standards Across The Board

The post-civil-war Lebanese government failed to improve economic conditions in southern Lebanon; money didn't flow to the south because of continued unrest there, and infrastructure and services remained poor. As already noted, this failure contributed to local support for Hizballah, which filled the role of the state in its absence.

In Iraq's early postwar months, reconstruction projects focused on areas in and around Baghdad, largely neglecting Shi'ite-populated and relatively stable areas in the south, as was widely noted by British officials working with the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority in 2003-04. Al-Maliki should take pains to avoid a repeat of this situation if and when he launches his planned international compact for Iraq later this year.

5. Disarm All Militias

Hizballah's power relative to that of the central government is immense, allowing it to operate as a state within a state. Iraqi militias are striving to establish a similar situation. In some areas of the country, militias police their areas in the absence of any real government security force.

6. Build A Military That Supports The State

In the opening days of the current Hizballah-Israel conflict, it became clear that the Lebanese army could not be relied upon to rein in Hizballah. According to Ephraim Inbar, director of Bar Ilan University's Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies: "A large percentage of the [Lebanese] population is sympathetic to Hizballah. The army is not a cohesive force, and there is no strong political will. It's more a symbol of sovereignty than an actual tool," "The Jerusalem Post" reported on July 16.

The same danger exists in Iraq, where post-Hussein military recruits have largely come from Kurdish peshmerga forces or Shi'ite militias loyal to their parties. Iraq's Shi'ite-dominated Interior Ministry forces have not taken steps to rein in violence, particularly in the capital, and have been accused of carrying out sectarian attacks on members of the Sunni Arab community.

7. Beware Of Neighboring States

Iraqis have been wise to raise concerns over the interference of neighboring states in their internal affairs. However, elements of the ruling Shi'ite coalition who have historically strong ties to Iran continue to defend their eastern neighbor's actions, which could ultimately leave Iraq vulnerable to the possibility of a broader regional conflict being played out on its territory.

Iran has a very specific agenda in Iraq: to expand its sphere of influence in the region. Likewise, Sunni Arab states bordering Iraq have their own agendas: containing the spread of Iran's Shi'ite theocracy, and more importantly, ensuring that the democratic experiment in Iraq does not get off the ground. Democracy in Iraq threatens to destabilize the regimes in the region, including Turkey, where a democratic Iraq with a powerful Kurdish regional government would be seen as a threat in that country to its attempts to control its own sizable Kurdish population.

8. And Curb Their Influence

Had Hizballah supporters Syria and Iran been dealt with years ago, Hizballah would arguably never have developed into the powerhouse that it is today, with a functioning and fully armed army, a savvy media machine, and significant financial resources at its disposal. Iraq would be wise to take steps to curb Syrian and Iranian influence over homegrown Iraqi groups as well.

9. Reconcile Competing Ideologies

Competing ideologies threaten to destabilize Iraq, as they did in Lebanon. Iraq's Sunni Arab population continues to hold fast to Arab nationalism, while the country's Shi'ite population, which despises the Arab nationalist agenda, focuses more on a Shi'a-centric ideology that places religion at the center of legal, social, and cultural life. As time passes, the cleavages between these ideologies grow wider, placing the country at further risk of civil war.

10. Promote A Country-First Program

In Iraq, as in Lebanon, sectarian and religious loyalties are placed above loyalty to the state. Such divisions threaten peace and stability and will erode any sense of a cohesive national identity for future generations of Iraqi youth.
Iran, Syria, And Hizballah

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