Iraq's April 20 provincial elections were like two elections in one country. They included all provinces outside the Kurdistan region except Kirkuk, due to a long-standing dispute over election law, and the predominately Sunni provinces of Anbar and Ninawa, where the cabinet postponed elections under the pretext of security following a series of candidate assassinations. Elections are now set for July 4 in those two provinces.
The "Shiite election" covered the southern nine provinces plus Baghdad and parts of Diyala and Salah al-Din. In this election Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's State of Law Coalition (SLC) won a reduced plurality, large enough to keep alive any hopes Maliki might have of a third term following next year's parliamentary elections, but too weak to provide him a clear mandate. Secular Shiite parties faired poorly, and most of the vote shifted to Islamists, likely in reaction against the excesses of recent Sunni protests.
Relations between Bahrain and the United States reached a new level of volatility this week as the kingdom's cabinet approved a parliamentary proposal to, as Information Minister Samira Rajab said, "put an end to the interference of U.S. Ambassador Thomas Krajeski in Bahrain's internal affairs." The Bahraini cabinet's endorsement of a proposal to stop Krajeski from "interfering in domestic affairs" and meeting government opponents is a significant move that should do more than raise eyebrows in Washington.
While U.S. diplomats have been repeatedly attacked by the pro-government media and by the country's parliament for being too close to the pro-democracy opposition, attacks which included personal threats, this is different. This wasn't a crackpot newspaper or a loose cannon member of parliament saying this, but rather the cabinet, which includes the prime minister and the crown crince. The crown prince was supposed to be Washington's friend -- the young western-educated heir to the throne, the reformer in the family, the guy of the future -- whom the U.S. government had banked on to champion democratic reform in Bahrain.
Mr. Hassan al-Yafa'ei, head of the secessionist "Hirak" in al-Houtta South of Yemen, spoke with passion and grief about his region. He is filled with indignation over the unfair discrimination of the South. He is completely convinced, however, that the 1986 civil war is a historical incident that will not be repeated. In his view, the almost 10,000 deaths that occurred in a single month is just an "aberrant phenomenon." Al-Yafa'ei, just like many other Southerners, underplays the possibility of violence occurring if a Southern secession should take place. Such incessant denial of the possibility of the past repeating itself is convenient for many Southerners who want to become an independent Southern nation -- putting the chapter of "Unity gone bad" behind them.
The question of "What will happen to the South if a secession takes place?" has rarely been probed by Hirak. The mechanisms of this desired disunion are left to the same politicians who plunged the South of Yemen to its previous fate of wars and instability. And once again, sentiments of people in the streets are high on "self-determination" rhetoric, without adequately thinking through how this step would resolve their political differences and leaders' penchant for popular exploitation.
Fatima Abo Alasrar
In the fall of 2012, three mothers, along with their infant children, begin serving one-to-two-year prison terms in Iran. Their crime? Being Baha'is in the birthplace of their faith. In February 2012, a man is jailed without charge in Saudi Arabia. Why? According to authorities, for his own safety because he allegedly "disturbed the public order" by tweeting comments deemed to insult the religious feelings of others. In December 2012, an atheist blogger is sentenced to three years in prison in Egypt. His offense? Posting online content that allegedly "insulted God and cast doubt on the books of the Abrahamic religions."
These are just some of the many examples of the contempt that governments in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) often exhibit toward freedom of religion or belief. Since the onset of the Arab Awakening in early 2011, religious freedom conditions have not improved, but declined. While larger hopes for justice and democracy are experiencing convulsive birth pangs, majority and minority religious believers alike face increasing government repression in many MENA countries; sectarian violence is on the upswing; and violent religious extremism is fueling regional instability.
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Last week's attack on the French Embassy in Tripoli was the first significant terrorist attack against foreign interests in the Libyan capital since the fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi. More crucially, it marks an escalation in the covert war being waged to determine the future orientation, institutions, constitution, and very soul of the new Libya. At the same time the conflict between the government and militias has escalated, with the latter besieging the ministries of defense, interior, and foreign affairs, demanding the resignation of the ministers and the immediate application of the political isolation law, which is in the process of being debated and voted on. Collectively, these events show a decrease in the legitimate political institutions' capacity to guide the transition process successfully and an increase in the attempts of armed elements to alter the rules of the political game in their favor.
For the international community the attack against the French Embassy and the radicalization of the conflict between militias and government institutions must serve as a wake-up call, and remind them that the gains of the NATO-led intervention are at risk of being undone. The countries that helped overthrow Qaddafi should redouble their efforts to support the creation of professional armed forces and police, vocational training, and constitution writing. If greater support is withheld, the French Embassy attack may prove to be the start of a trend, in which case Libyan -- and by extension North African -- instability would become a permanent status quo. The crisis in Mali and the growing instability in Algeria -- and most recently Tunisia -- offer clear evidence in support of this conjecture.
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King Abdullah II spent most of last week in Washington, D.C., where he tried to shore up U.S. support for Jordan by meeting with business leaders (pitching Jordan for foreign investment), civil society organizations (including American Arab, Muslim, and Jewish organizations), congressional leaders, the vice president, and finally, with President Barack Obama at the White House. Yet upon his return to Jordan, the king was met with a new statement of domestic opposition, signed by almost a thousand opposition figures, railing against a multitude of regime policies, both foreign and domestic. Having just returned from a seemingly successful visit to the United States, this is probably not the welcome that the king was hoping for.
Jordanian officials used to joke that Jordanian foreign policy could best be explained by noting that Jordan existed "between Iraq and a hard place." That old English-language pun may not have been riotously funny in the past, but in the present it no longer even comes close to explaining the extent of external pressures on the kingdom. The economy remains disastrous. The reform process remains incomplete and contested. And the Syrian civil war edges ever closer to Jordan, threatening to drag the kingdom into a conflict that it is desperately trying to avoid.
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Life rarely gives you second chances. But if handled deftly, the Arab Peace Initiative (API), discussed yesterday at a Blair House meeting between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and an assembled group of Arab foreign ministers, could help form the basis of a serious reconstituted peace process. The delegation came to Washington under the guise of the Arab Peace Initiative Follow-up Committee -- a group charged with securing acceptance of the API by Israel and others.
The API was proposed over a decade ago by Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah at a 2002 Arab League Summit in Beirut that convened amidst raging Israeli-Palestinian violence. Endorsed by the Arab League, the proposal offered Israel the prospect of peace, security, and normal relations -- a goal Israel has sought since its independence in 1948. In return, the Arabs called on Israel to agree to a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with East Jerusalem as its capital.
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Mounting anti-Ikhwan sentiment inside and outside Egypt has become indisputable. The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) government's poor performance coupled with its political arrogance and immaturity have irritated many Egyptians and alarmed western policymakers. However, the crucial question is: Does it really matter? Does the MB take their critics seriously? More importantly, how will this anti-Ikhwanism play out with the internal politics of the MB?
The MB doesn't seem to be much concerned with the growing resentment against its rule. The movement is chiefly preoccupied by grabbing as much power as it can and its leaders don't give much attention to the allegation that their popularity is waning.
Moreover, President Mohamed Morsi tends to ignore, disdain, or threaten the opposition's leaders, which he believes are attempting to undermine his rule. For him, as long as MB support is secure, nothing should be worrying. Not surprisingly, since taking power, Morsi has shown no sign of disentanglement between the presidency and the MB. His discourse and policy are still much attached to the MB's ideology and leadership.
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The bloody struggle playing out in Syria has taken on increasingly sectarian tones, with dangerous implications for the future of this important country and the region. Protests originally focused on governance, political rights, and human freedoms. President Bashar al-Assad and his regime responded with violence, torture, and abuse, labeling opponents as "terrorists" and emphasizing sectarian differences. Two plus years into this increasingly protracted struggle, Assad's actions have helped create what he feared -- armed anti-government elements seeking his overthrow, with violent foreign religious extremists importing their dangerous worldview and political agenda.
Considering the diverse set of actors fighting the Assad regime, there will be another war for control of Syria once he leaves the scene. It will pit onetime rebel allies against each other, with alignments along sectarian lines or divides over secular versus religious governance. These cleavages are already starting to show, such as with the recent announcement by al Qaeda and Jabhat al-Nusra of the establishment of an Islamic State in Syria.
Therefore, for the future of Syria, the fight after the fight may be as important as the first.
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Anniversaries of invasions, occupations, and cease-fires are reminders that wars never end. The 10th anniversary of the U.S. led-invasion of Iraq prompted discussions about the damage that long-term occupation and violent conflict cause. Yet with few exceptions, these debates lack a willingness to engage with the psychological afterlife of wars for Iraqi civilians or recognition of international responsibility toward the psychological burden that awaits Iraqi society. When the subject of mental health is part of the debate, it is mostly from the military perspective: the mental wellbeing of veterans and soldiers has been a focus of media, academic, and governmental attention, whether noting increases in violent behavior among soldiers or rising rates of suicide (with 349 active member suicides in 2012, a 16 percent increase since 2011), depression, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). But, as with estimates of more easily quantifiable physical casualties, journalists, researchers, and policymakers do not seem to have a reliable estimate of civilians' and displaced persons' psychological state.
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As Iran's economy continues to deteriorate, the labor movement is a key player to watch because of its ability to pressure the Islamic Republic through protests and strikes. Iranian labor, encompassing unskilled workers from rural areas and lower-class urban laborers is not a homogenous group. And thus far, Iranian laborers have not joined the opposition Green Movement en masse. But the economic pains caused by the Iranian regime's mismanagement, corruption, and international sanctions have dealt serious blows to worker wages, benefits, and job security -- enough reason for Iranian laborers to organize and oppose the regime. Parallels can be drawn between the Islamic Republic's treatment of the labor movement today and the Shah's treatment of Iranian workers before his overthrow, particularly in the regime's denial of the right to organize, the quashing of protests and strikes, and its refusal to address worker's rights.
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Over the past year a steady stream of youth activists and political critics has filled the dockets of Kuwait's courts. Charged for their actions during street protests or for tweets deemed insulting to the emir, their presence attests to both the emergent confrontational ethos among the younger generation and the erosion of Kuwait's standing as the Gulf's most free political society. But the latest Kuwaiti to appear before the judiciary on the charges of challenging the country's ruler is no ordinary citizen. Musallam al-Barrak is Kuwait's most popular politician, and for some, the conscience of the nation.
His sentencing on Monday to five years of hard labor for a speech he gave in October 2012 has deepened Kuwait's political crisis. For two nights the opposition has gathered by the tens of thousands in solidarity, many defiantly reprising the famous lines directly challenging the emir that led to his conviction. On Wednesday the political standoff turned violent as special forces raided one of his homes in an attempt to arrest him, and allegedly mistreated some of his relatives. That night after Barrak gave a speech punctuated by celebratory gunfire, thousands of his supporters marched on a local police station. Security forces met them with tear gas and stun grenades resulting in many injuries.
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Sudan and South Sudan reached a deal in the early hours of March 12, after a week of negotiations in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, which should spark the beginning of exports of South Sudanese oil from Sudan's Port Sudan, on the Red Sea coast, for the first time in more than 15 months. Companies are already gearing up for production from the oil-rich states of Unity and Upper Nile in the north of South Sudan, and the first shipments of oil are due to be made by the end of May. Yet although the resumption of oil will bring the first meaningful income to South Sudan since early 2012, as well as help ease a severe economic crisis north of the border, there is still a feeling that what has been left undone by the deal is just as significant as what has been achieved.
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Since its first running in 2004, the Bahrain Grand Prix has been a mainstay of the country's complex political calendar. Indeed, controversy brewed well before a single race could take place, with critics decrying the expense of constructing the vast Bahrain International Circuit even as many citizens struggled to find jobs, housing, and affordable land. At the same time, the track's isolation in the far south of the island -- well, as far south as one can go before hitting military fences -- fed the notion that the race, hosted not far from Sakhir Palace, was conceived mostly as a diversion for society's elite, and aptly demonstrated the misplaced social and economic priorities of the ruling family.
As such, the Formula One event consistently has been the occasion for popular protest and violence, giving the impression that the event is but a microcosm of Bahrain's larger opposition-government divide, with the latter pursuing self-serving policies while ordinary Bahrainis try in vain to effect meaningful change.
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Commentators have offered numerous theories for what caused the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions and who participated in them. They range from youth and their chronic unemployment, to liberal activists and their demands for civil rights, to workers and absolute levels of material deprivation. Stories of individual participants and analyses of specific groups taking part in the uprisings have provided much insight into this question, but only a representative sample of participants can help weigh the importance of different factors driving protesters. The latest wave of the Arab Barometer, a nationally representative survey administered in the wake of the protests, provides some answers.
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A two-day conference at the University of Bahrain in the capital Manama last week was intended to show the United States and the region that the Bahraini government is making progress toward democratic governance and addressing the grievances of the country's majority Shiite population. But the discussions were less than convincing because there was no empirical data or other direct evidence to support the participants' claims.
Many participants -- Bahraini academics, some government officials, and even U.S. congressmen -- declared that there has been real progress in the ongoing national dialogue, which began anew this winter between the government and factions within the opposition. The majority Shiite opposition is demanding political and economic rights. The dialogue first began in the spring of 2011, after an uprising by the Shiite-led dominated opposition erupted, and has come and gone since then. [BREAK]]
At the conference, while participating on a panel about Bahrain's political situation, I asked several participants to describe in detail the progress they were referring to between the government and the opposition. None of them provided any substantive answers. After the conference was over, I checked in with a few opposition leaders who told me that there have been approximately 10 sessions with relatively low-level government participation, but the government has offered no concessions to meet the opposition's demands and the dialogue has been virtually ineffective.
A second topic that dominated the conference involved whether opposition groups, such as al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, has close ties to, or is even manipulated by, Iran. The consensus was that the group takes orders from Iran when organizing demonstrations against the Bahraini government; some participants even accused some Shiite opposition factions of attempting to establish an Iranian-style theocracy in Bahrain with a cleric as the head of state. At least one participant claimed the opposition was collaborating with Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards to try to overthrow the Bahraini government.
Congressman Dan Burton, a Republican from Indiana, and former diplomat John Bolton chimed in to warn of the Iranian threat. "Iran is trying to undermine the government of Bahrain and we need to make sure Iran's aims are not achieved," Burton said. Bolton warned that the threat from Iran is not only Tehran's potential to develop a nuclear weapon, but "the regime has made it clear it aims for hegemony" in the region. A Bahraini participant said he did not blame al-Wefaq for its actions because it "gets its instructions from Iran."
There is little doubt that for more than 30 years Shiite Iran has tried to assert its influence through military force and soft power throughout the Middle East. And nearly every week, leading figures in Iran, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, chastise the Bahraini government for its repression of its Shiite population and call for the regime to be toppled. And true, there were attempted, but failed, coups plotted by Iranian agents in the 1990s against the Bahraini government.
But to date, there is no evidence -- at least based upon public information and my own research of the country -- that Iran is working to topple the Bahraini government, even though Tehran would welcome a change in Manama. A member of the royal family agreed with me that a distinction needs to be made between Iran's direct intervention in countries such as Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen, and its indirect influence in Bahrain. For example, Iranian state-owned media broadcasts its programming into Bahrain on an estimated 30 media outlets in Arabic. The message is generally that the Sunni Bahraini government represses the Shiite population, and Iran is the guardian of all Shiites.
A distinction should also be made between Iran's religious influence on the Arab Shiites, not only in Bahrain but across the Arab world, and its political influence. Many Shiites, including some in Bahrain, follow the teachings of clerics in Iran as well as those in Lebanon and Iraq.
In addition, even if Iran were trying to destabilize Bahrain, this has nothing to do with the grievances of the opposition. The Bahraini government should not try to cast aside the legitimate demands of the opposition by playing the card of the Iranian threat. If the Bahraini government wants to convince Washington and the region that reforms are underway, officials should provide details instead of focusing on Iran, which only sidelines this discussion.
As part of an attempt to show the Bahraini government is enacting reforms in order to address the marginalization of the Shiites, conference participants stated that most of the 24 recommendations in the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), an over 500-page report authored by the renowned international law expert, Cherif Bassiouni, have been implemented. In fact, Congressman Burton said that 18 of the recommendations have been enforced, but he did not say where he got his information.
The BICI report, issued in November 2011, confirmed that thousands of people were detained and tortured during the heat of the uprising in 2011, and some were killed by government security forces. The report also confirmed that many Shiite had been removed from their jobs for discriminatory reasons. The report called for sweeping reforms, including a restructuring of the police and security forces, an independent media (which in Bahrain is controlled by the state), and an end to repression.
Looking for confirmation on Burton's statement, I asked at the conference if anyone knew which of the BICI recommendations have been implemented. According to U.S.-based human rights organizations -- which have been very vocal about Bahrain's reluctance to take the report seriously -- only a handful of the 24 recommendations have been implemented.
There is much talk these days in Washington of progress between the Bahraini government and opposition groups toward reaching reconciliation. The promotion of the crown prince, considered the reformer in the family, to deputy prime minister has made some in the United States hopeful that the reform process will pick up speed.
Stability in Bahrain is of great importance to the United States. Manama is the home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, whose presence in the Gulf ensures the flow of oil and other energy exports through the Strait of Hormuz, the waterway connecting the Gulf to the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. Because of significant U.S. strategic and economic interests in a stable Bahrain, the Obama administration has declined to adopt a hard line on the Bahraini government's human rights abuses and institutionalized discrimination.
If the conference was any guide, the Bahraini political elites do not want to be perceived as presiding over a repressive state. Therefore, the moderates within the Bahrain government -- those in the crown prince's inner circle -- should seize upon the moment and push for reform. This would be far more effective at improving Bahrain's image and showing a commitment to reform than conferences in which there is little or no talk about addressing the grievances of the opposition.
Geneive Abdo, a fellow at the Stimson Center and a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, is the author of the forthcoming, The New Sectarianism: The Arab Uprisings and the Rebirth of the Shi'a-Sunni Divide, to be published in April by Brookings.
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Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are essential to democracy and a key way for people of all political views to band together to influence public debate. But once more, the Egyptian government is threatening to restrict NGOs that receive foreign funds. Exercised about criticism from some of these groups, the ruling party is pushing a bill that would empower the government to decide which groups are allowed to receive foreign funding. That would invite the government to pick favorites, approving foreign funds for lapdogs while rejecting them for critics, particularly human rights groups.
But why are foreign funds so nefarious when received by NGOs yet apparently uncontroversial when received by others? The Egyptian military receives billions of dollars in aid from the United States; does that make it a subversive organization? The Egyptian government is desperately seeking foreign funds from the International Monetary Fund (IMF); is that an act of treason? Egyptian businesses are clamoring for foreign direct investment and the spending of foreign tourists; are these acts of disloyalty?
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The growing reports of increased U.S. support for the armed opposition in Syria with the training of Free Syrian Army (FSA) militias in Jordan and the facilitating of arms shipments into the country through Turkey mark an increase in overall U.S. assistance over two years into the conflict. While such actions are tempting in efforts to bring an end to Syria's deepening civil war, a military solution for either side has not been achievable these past two years. What is needed, instead, is to combine military assistance with a coordinated strategy of capacity building within the opposition, which can then have measurable results and reinforce international efforts to find a political solution to the crisis.
A better-trained, organized opposition that is able to make political and military gains could change not only the situation on the ground, but also the perception of the crisis in Russia and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's inner circle. Based on our conversations with former senior members of the Assad regime and individuals in contact with the regime presently, Assad is still confident that he can manage to suppress the uprisings and bring the opposition to the table to negotiate on his terms.
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After a three-year rupture, one of the most important relationships in the Middle East is on the cusp of repair. It will be a long while before Turkey and Israel can go back to business as usual, and the relationship will remain hostage to Israeli policy toward Palestinians. Nevertheless, last month's Israeli apology to Turkey has far-reaching implications for the region. It clears a path for the two countries to work together, albeit behind-the-scenes, on their most urgent common concern -- Syria -- as well as a host of other issues, including military technology and NATO-Israel cooperation.
The impasse broke two weeks ago when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologized to his Turkish counterpart, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for a 2010 Israeli raid that resulted in the deaths of nine Turkish citizens. The two countries' relationship had been strained in the preceding years, in part because of Israel's war in Gaza, Operation Cast Lead, in December 2008 to January 2009. In the summer of 2009, Erdogan famously stormed off a stage at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland after a clash with Israel's President Shimon Peres over the war. But the 2010 raid gave Erdogan an opportunity to curry favor at home with the MHP, the Nationalist Action Party, and raise his regional stature further.
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The role and plight of ethnic minorities in Iranian society tends to receive little attention from Western analysts and policymakers. This may be largely due to the predominance of Tehran as the focal point of Iranian culture, politics, and foreign policy. Moreover, Iran's ethnic minorities have been heavily marginalized by Iran's Persian-dominated Shiite theocracy. The suppression of minority rights has resulted in ethnic insurgencies over the years, some of which continue to bedevil the Iranian regime.
Nevertheless, many Iranian officials, religious leaders, and intellectuals, particularly those associated with the reformist movement, have come to view Iran's ethnic minorities as an essential component of the national fabric. They have also come to realize that the Iranian regime's repression and discrimination against minorities has not only slowed Iran's advancement, but it could one day jeopardize the survival of the Islamic Republic -- and even Iran's territorial integrity.
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There could be more outrageous public relations disasters for a government to engage in. There could be. I just can't think of any. Imagine Jon Stewart being arrested on charges of insulting U.S. President Barack Obama and insulting Judaism. Then imagine that in the entire English-speaking world, there are only political satirists. You then get to what it means for the Egyptian authorities to issue an arrest warrant for Bassem Youssef, and the easily predictable repercussions. But this case goes far beyond Bassem Youssef -- it speaks to the future of freedom of expression and the media in the largest Arab country, and to the success of its ongoing revolution.
Bassem Youssef is a unique phenomenon -- a political satirist that is well known all over the Arab world, as well as the West. His meteoric rise through the use of social media and television over the past two years could never have been planned, but he emerged at a time when Egyptians and Arabs were waiting for a non-partisan critic to combine classic Egyptian irony with political awareness. In the aftermath of the Egyptian uprising, Bassem Youssef considered the revolution as a continuing one -- and that his role within it would be to push the envelope of public discourse, holding authority to account. But always with humor -- and thus far, he has touched not only the hearts of Egyptians, but of Arabs around the world.
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Egypt's experience with constitutions over the past half-century may reverse Marx's dictum that everything in history occurs twice, first as tragedy and then as farce. Egypt's 1971 constitution -- memorably described by NGO activist Nasser Amin as "a joke that turned serious" was replaced by a 2012 document written in a process that began with high hopes and ended with bitter recriminations, high-handed maneuvers by the drafters, and an opposition boycott of the final stages of the drafting.
But if Egypt's current constitution was produced in a tragic process, the ongoing drama may now be taking a series of unexpected turns as the constitution begins to work in ways that are surprising the political forces that dominated its composition. The short-term result is confusing and complicates an already impossibly complicated transition. The longer-term result could be to entice opposition elements back into participating as they come to realize the system does provide opportunities to hem in their adversaries who now sit in power.
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"Freedom of The Press" is often referred to as the fourth pillar of any modern democracy. Democratizing the media has been one of the achievements of the United States in many state-building experiments around the world -- but this was not the case in Iraq. After the U.S. intervention in 2003, Iraqi media was transformed from being a heavily controlled state propaganda tool, to a plethora of political, ethnic, tribal, and sectarian mouthpieces.
When Saddam Hussein assumed power on July 17, 1979, the Iraqi press was mostly government-owned. The former Iraqi dictator used the media to promote his ideas and to control the country in a style reminiscent of the Nazi regime in Germany. His propaganda machine was active until the end. Remarkably his official newspapers were still being distributed on April 9, 2003 -- the day his brutal regime was toppled.
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In many cases, the deluge of Iraq-10-years-on commentary seems to be preoccupied with apportioning blame and delving into questions that cannot but deteriorate into adolescent moralizing or ideological one-upmanship such as "was it worth it?" Or "was it right to invade?" The subject of "sectarianism" (here identified with the Sunni-Shiite divide), a morally charged and confused one at the best of times, has featured prominently in these polemics. This is particularly unfortunate given that a subject as complex and as multi-layered as sectarian identity cannot be reduced to the confines of an ill-conceived U.S. military adventure in 2003.
Since the invasion, many people in Iraq and beyond, repulsed by the ugly manifestations of sectarian entrenchment and ultimately sectarian violence have tried to find someone to blame. Such efforts have often been linked to views regarding the war: blame "sectarianism" on the Americans and their partners if you were against the war and blame it on any and everyone else, not least Arab Iraqis, if you were for it. However, whilst it is undoubtedly a momentous turning point in the story of sectarian relations, 2003 is by no means the first chapter. Suggesting that 2003 marks the definitive line between a sectarian and a non-sectarian Iraq is as misleading a view as one insisting on viewing sectarian entrenchment as the status quo ad infinitum of Iraqi society.
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Following the successful ousting of the Baath regime on April 9, 2003, Iraq began its transition toward a process of democratization that gradually achieved important gains in transferring some powers to the previously disenfranchised population. This transition has progressed from direct U.S. rule to partial Iraqi participation, and finally full Iraqi administration of the country. Since Iraqis reclaimed sovereignty in 2004 they have managed to write and ratify a constitution, hold regular provincial and general elections, and begin to establish a tradition of peaceful transfer of political power and parliamentary life. This is a very significant reversal of the authoritarian rule in Iraq between 1958 and 2003, when governments were only replaced by violence and coups.
However, the slow transition to democracy and the many setbacks in the process are still frustrating to many Iraqis. This is mainly because Iraqis have no consensus on the shape of their future regime. They are divided on the questions of federalism and the scope of the central government's powers; a majority government versus a power-sharing arrangement; the identity of Iraq as a neutral state with policies driven by its national interests or as a part of some larger regional context (Arab, Islamic, etc.); among many other disputes.
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After nearly three decades of bloody struggle with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Turkey might finally be entering a post-conflict era. On Wednesday, the PKK's jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan, who has been serving a life sentence on Imrali Island since 1999, called for an immediate cease-fire and for thousands of his fighters to withdraw from Turkish territory. The call followed a round of talks that began in October 2012 between Turkey's National Intelligence Organization (MIT) and Ocalan to convince the PKK fighters to lay down their arms and withdraw from Turkish soil. On Ocalan's counsel and in a gesture of good will, the PKK released eight Turkish soldiers and civil servants last week that had been abducted almost two years ago.
Ocalan's call could mark the first step in ending one of the world's longest running insurgencies. If it were to succeed, it would also favorably impact Turkey's democratization process, as well as possibly change the course of the Syrian uprising.
While observers of the Iraq War anniversary argue over the scale of the mistake -- a colossal folly rooted in imperial ambition and hubris, or simply an error based on faulty intelligence and misplaced fear -- the devil is in the details. These numbers, assembled by some of the 29 contributors to the Costs of War Project based at Brown University, help put the past 10 years in perspective.
0: Al Qaeda had no presence in Iraq before the 2003 U.S. invasion. But a new organization, known as Al Qaeda in Iraq, has since formed and has attacked U.S. and Iraqi forces, and wages regular attacks on Iraqi civilians. Additionally, by 2013, AQI had spread offshoots and technical know-how to Syria, Jordan, and Libya. If Iraq became a "front" in the war on terrorism, as Jessica Stern, former member of the National Security Council and current fellow at the Hoover Institution, and her co-author Megan McBride, say "it is a front that the United States created."
2 plus 2: Conflicts exacerbated by the Iraq War. Iran and North Korea were apparently not intimidated by the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, nor deterred from pursuing weapons of mass destruction. Conversely, the war in Afghanistan was arguably prolonged by the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and has escalated into Pakistan, with a corresponding increase in military spending and loss of life.
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If there is any consensus on Yemen these days, it is around the assertion that the National Dialogue Conference that commenced Monday must succeed. Of course, what must happen often does not. But the problems with the insistence on the need for success go deeper. The meaning of success is subject to such widely different interpretations, by domestic and international actors alike, that any outcome short of outright anarchy is likely to be heralded by some, while even a seeming breakthrough will be condemned by many.
But the more substantial problem with the claim that the National Dialogue must succeed is that it overlooks features of Yemen's transitional process that have been broken from the outset, and largely ignores the sustained, reasoned critique that this process has engendered from the beginning. This critique has been expressed not simply by mounting separatism in the southern city of Aden and its peripheries, or even the obvious loss of sovereignty over some parts of the country over the past two years. Indeed, those forms of critique actually fit the prevailing narrative of Yemen as preternaturally divided and ungovernable, a narrative that helped to justify former President Ali Abdullah Saleh's rule for three decades, as he sold himself to Yemeni and foreign audiences as the least worst alternative to anarchy.
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Looking at the past 10 years of Iraq's history through the lens of displacement reveals a complex -- and sobering -- reality. Before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003, humanitarian agencies prepared for a massive outpouring of Iraqi refugees. But this didn't happen. Instead a much more dynamic and complex form of displacement occurred. First, some 500,000 Iraqi refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) who had been displaced by the Saddam Hussein regime returned to their places of origin. Then, in the 2003 to 2006 period, more than a million Iraqis were displaced as sectarian militias battled for control of specific neighborhoods. In February 2006, the bombing of the Al-Askaria Mosque and its violent aftermath ratcheted the numbers of IDPs up to a staggering 2.7 million. In a period of about a year, five percent of Iraq's total population fled their homes and settled elsewhere in Iraq while an additional 2 million or so fled the country entirely. It is important to underscore that this displacement was not just a by-product of the conflict, but rather the result of deliberate policies of sectarian cleansing by armed militias.
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