How fragile is democracy in Iraq?
For one thing, there are no political campaigns because "the candidate would be killed" and no campaign offices because "they would be bombed."
In fact, Juan Cole told an audience of educators and students on Monday afternoon, only the presence of the U.S. military has kept the very brief experiment in Iraqi democracy from turning into a bloodbath.
So Cole, a professor of Middle Eastern history and president of the University of Michigan-based Global Americana Institute, has grave doubts that democracy will become a permanent fixture of Iraqi society.
"I would say that the chances are low of continuing elections" after the American withdrawal, currently slated for 2011, said Cole, a blogger and author of "Engaging the Muslim World."
His presentation at the University of Montana was part of the President's Lecture Series. Titled "Iraqi Politics on the Eve of the Election: Prospects for Obama's Disengagement," it provided a religious and cultural context to Iraq's tumultuous and violent recent history, from the U.S. invasion in 2002 to the present day.
Parliamentary elections will take place early next year in Iraq.
President Barack Obama will likely fulfill his promise to have American troops home sometime during his first 16 months in office, but the religious and cultural factions so entrenched in Iraq will ensure that Iraqi democracy will remain tenuous at best, Cole said.
"Iraq will limp along, a somewhat wounded country and fragile for a long time, but the likelihood is there will be no large-scale U.S. presence in the country in as little as two years," he said.
American hubris and cultural ignorance of the realities of Iraq's fractious demographics have scuttled U.S. plans ever since then-President George W. Bush decided to pursue a democratic Iraq, Cole said.
The country's Shiite majority has used every means to be the controlling authority in the 275-member parliament, and has also engaged in "ethnic cleansing" of Iraqi neighborhoods to marginalize and push out religious and secular Sunnis.
And, he noted, also to kill them.
As many as 3,000 Sunnis were being killed a month after the February 2006 bombing of a Shiite shrine, he said. While the U.S. surge of 30,000 troops likely played a role in lowering the body count, the Shiite success in ethnically cleansing Baghdad was likely more a factor.
Religious Shiites essentially control Iraq, much to the Bush administration's dismay, Cole said. The country's first elections in 2005 were a wake-up call to Bush, who had thought a secular majority would rise up from free elections. Instead, religious Shiites won 60 percent of the seats in the new parliament.
"That outcome," said Cole, "was a huge disaster."
And elections slated for early next year likely won't change that, said Cole.
"The elections are the last 'gift' of America to Iraq," he said.
Reporter Jamie Kelly can be reached at 523-5254 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.