Saddam's Ghost and a Federal Future in Iraq

17/09/2012 17:18 BST | Updated 17/09/2012 17:18 BST

Four years ago I joined a Labour Friends of Iraq (LFIQ) delegation to Baghdad. We took a military flight from Kuwait and a Puma helicopter from Baghdad airport to the Green Zone. The chopper flew low and fast over Baghdad to prevent rockets arming themselves before hitting us. An armoured bus took us to the Embassy for a sobering security drill. We already had our flak jackets and helmets.

I am a professional coward so self-medicated to get me through the first night in a pod with sandbagged roofs to stop mortars but which was rather flimsy against rockets on a horizontal trajectory.

Our first day was punctuated by a dozen mortar rounds, one of which came very close. By the time we met the PM and Islamic Dawa Party Leader, Mr Nouri al-Maliki we were slightly rattled but an accidental mistake broke the ice.

The translator unknowingly described Maliki as the General-Secretary of the Ba'ath Party - former owner Saddam Hussein. The leader immediately interjected "Dawa." The translator looked puzzled but not scared. Mr Maliki then quipped that the interpreter would have been executed for this in the old days.

This vignette came back to me on reading the Guardian's recent editorial, Iraq: back to the future, which said that the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's authoritarianism has some way to go before he matches Saddam Hussein's terror - but the charge sheet is growing.

The charge sheet includes the following, according to the Guardian: "the night of the US withdrawal, troops and tanks led by Maliki's son surrounded the houses of his vice-president Tariq al-Hashemi and two other members of the Sunni-dominated Iraqiyya coalition. On Sunday Hashemi was sentenced to death in absentia, for masterminding death squads against rivals. Confessions were tortured out of three of his bodyguards, one of whom died from his injuries. Iraqiyya, which won the most seats at the last election in 2010, is not the first victim of Maliki's power grab."

The editorial quotes leading Iraqi scholar Toby Dodge's chronicling of how "Maliki gained complete control over Iraq's security forces, subverting the formal chain of command, moving the office of commander-in-chief into his office, and creating provincial command centres, commanded by generals who were handpicked by him."

It further suggests that Maliki's next target will be the Kurds, whose autonomy he will threaten, and then the Sadrists and that "the end product will be a centralised state not unlike Vladimir Putin's Russia" with "the toolkit of a democratic state (a parliament, set elections, a constitution) for a purpose that is anything but - the maintenance of power at all costs, torture and death squads included."

Sadly, there is much in this. One of the main aims of the LFIQ delegation was to raise the need for Iraq to scrap Saddam's old laws banning public sector unions and for the country to abide by its constitution and meet international standards for the freedoms of unions and other independent organisations.

Civil society is crucial to a vibrant democracy and the unions can bring people together whatever their religion or politics. Mr Maliki said all the right things and it was all reported and amplified in a packed press conference. But things haven't really changed. The unions are being treated badly.

It is obvious that those who seek sectarian domination and segregation do not value movements that overcome such differences. It is also sadly obvious that authoritarianism often requires an enemy against which people can unite. And the Kurds can be seen as a convenient whipping boy.

The Guardian editorial has raised profoundly important questions about history and the future for Iraq and its friends. Centralisation is the enemy of pluralism and the friend of division.

Centralised power in Baghdad had murderous results for Shias, including 250,000 members of Mr Maliki's Dawa Party. It also entailed genocide over decades for hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Kurds, whose energy resources and agriculture were deliberately neglected and destroyed.

The Kurds seek international recognition of this genocide via and have reasonable fears that the chauvinist virus behind the genocide is still alive.

The popular endorsement in 2005 of a federal and pluralist constitution should allow Sunnis, Shias and Kurds to live together and overcome the legacy of fascism. Sadly, implementation in important areas such as revenue sharing and energy management is bogged down in Baghdad, in contrast to much more dynamic links between the Kurdistan Region and Turkey.

Centralisation could slow Kurdish prosperity which benefits Iraq as a whole. Baghdad should now recognise that Iraq can best succeed and improve the lives of all its people by sharing power through agreed federal structures.

It's very good to read that the Iraqi government and Kurdistan have reached "a preliminary deal on Thursday on a months-long oil dispute that will see the autonomous region export 200,000 barrels of oil per day."

The next step is agreeing an Oil and Gas law that can allow Iraq and the Kurdistan Region to best exploit their huge energy assets. They all suffered for so long under Saddam whose only concern was to get enough revenues to keep his elite in clover and to fuel a military machine that carried out genocide. Now these assets can be used to overcome the past and spread prosperity. But centralisation and authoritarianism won't do the trick.