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Roadblocks to Democracy in Iraq Research Paper

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Updated: Nov 30th, 2021


Democracy has been elusive in Iraq ever since the coming of President Saddam Hussein into power in 1979. Prior to his coming to power, the country had been characterized by long periods of political instabilities and military suppressions of political rivals. Saddam himself during his tenure as the Vice Chairman of the Ba’ath party foresaw the formation of a secret police which was responsible for crushing opposition.

On taking over power following the forced resignation of his predecessor, Saddam embarked on a spate of consolidation of power and fighting of his perceived rivals. He did this by adapting an iron fist rule whereby he suppressed his detractors through political detentions, assassinations, and sometimes mass genocide of dissenting tribes. His Ba’ath party controlled all aspect of Iraqis from cultural, social, and political life of the people. His tyrannical regime was such that it could not entertain dissent even from his own family whom he killed whenever he deemed them a threat to his power. As a result those lucky enough were exiled including members of his family while those unlucky disappeared mysteriously. Those killed were buried in unmarked mass graves which were spread across the state. To crash internal opposition he sometimes resulted to such inhuman means as the infamous gas attacks employed against separatist Kurds.

Border disputes led to the long Iran-Iraq war that was quite devastating to the two countries. His expansionist policies and the pursuit for oil resources resulted to his invasion and his eventual occupation of Kuwait which led to his confrontation with NATO allied forces led by US and Britain. This turbulent history characterized by years of dictatorial leadership gave very little space for the development of democratic leadership which was highly suppressed by Saddam regime. This paper thus seeks to explore the key road blocks to attainment of democracy in Iraq.

Key roadblocks to democracy in Iraq

Iraq’s historical background

Iraqis historical background points to thousands of years of resistance to democratic rule. Its remote history was characterized by a number of autonomous social units that sought control over the region. Their strong allegiance to religious authorities and strong affiliation to tribal groupings that were self contained was deeply entrenched into the society (Dawisha, 2005). These tendencies have been carried on into the modern day hence influencing their cultures in a big way. These provide powerful roadblocks to the introduction of new ideas into these societies as they still hold strongly to their traditional beliefs and religious affiliations. This for example makes it very hard to introduce a system that will favor both Sunnis and Shiites at the same time due to their strong attachment to their groupings and their practices.

A huge part of Iraq has remained isolated from government control for the larger part of their history as a result of the harsh terrain and topography alongside lack of building material to construct roads. As a result, many of these regions have lived in isolation and lack of effective government control from the rest of the country. Complex ideas and practices developed to govern their everyday lives. Due to these factors, strong attachment to their localized systems was cemented making it hard for the central government to harmonize its authority with them. The idea of democratization is very alien to the societies and is thus expected to be greeted with strong resistance as a foreign idea.

Another related factor is Iraq’s rich agricultural potential which has throughout history prompted waves of diverse tribal migration. These came from as far as Iran and Turkey who came along with their diverse cultures. These have always disturbed the internal political balance leading to deeply rooted ethnic and tribal differences which fueled ethno-sectarian divisions (Dawisha, 2005). Thus, establishing an effective central government to act as a custodian of democracy will be extremely difficult amidst such glaring diversity of cultural backgrounds, traditions, and beliefs. According to Franke, (2003), there is consensus that Iraq’s political administration can only be achieved through a representative, decentralized federal government with civilian control over the military establishment. Respect of Iraqis individual rights and their diverse ethnic set up must also be accorded consideration.

Entrenched culture of impunity

One of the key bottlenecks towards the democratization of Iraq is the people’s deep orientation to the culture of impunity. The 25 year totalitarian rule of Saddam denied people the basic human right to such an extent that they learnt to live with human right abuses as a way of life. In addition, the culture of impunity by government officials was deeply entrenched within the society so much that it becomes very hard to socialize the public in an alternative way. This is because the large majority of the public have never experienced alternative rule and it takes long time to inculcate democratic change.

The long reign of Saddam’s totalitarian rule had also an adverse effect of making people to lose their faith in ability to influence their destiny and to institute change in the society. People lost their control over their lives and the idea of ordering their lives towards a collective destiny became far fetched (Frank 2003). According to Basham (2003) the platforms of building a pluralist society in Iraq are either missing or declined following decades of neglect by the state. He adds that ethnic identity and religious solidarity outshine individual liberty. These factors will continue acting as a bottleneck to democracy unless Iraqis are first taught on how to organize themselves to advocate for their interests both locally and nationally.

Suppression of the media

Freedom of the press is one of the key aspects of a democratic rule. However, even after the end of Saddam’s regime, media freedom has remained restricted. Journalists continue to be detained by government, kidnapped, and sometimes killed by the rebel insurgents. This has made it very difficulty to enlighten the public through civic education and also to report and highlight the kind of atrocities being meted out on the public. Those found reporting about the activities of mainly Sunni insurgents have not been spared which has impaired the freedom of the media and finally democracy. 37 such journalists had been killed by March 2003 according to a report presented by Committee to Protect Journalists (Rubin, 2005).

Opposition to western values

There is growing opposition to what is perceived by the Iraqi as imposition of Western values in the name of democracy. The residents feel that US is only interested to use Iraqi as a base for its domination of the region rather than democratization of the country (Lind, 2008). They further contend that the US is only interested in imposing their cultural values which are in conflict with the Islamic values. The Christian founded Western democratic values do not agree with the Islamic value which leaves analyst questioning the viability of a Western type democracy in an Arab country. Many are for the opinion that democracy in Iraq must come from the Iraq themselves and not unless that avenue is exploited, achievement of democracy in Iraq will remain far fetched.

Foreign Interference

Continued dependence on military support from America and the allied powers and interference on its sovereignty by its neighbors will continue to hamper democracy in the country. Since war broke out following Saddam’s deposal, there has been an increase in foreign sponsored extremist insurgency. This has had the effect of making it hard to attain democracy in Iraq. According to Neo-Roman Theory, individual liberty is not only constrained by use of force or the threat of it but also dependency which is also another type of constraint. This implies that so long as the Iraqi continue to rely on foreign protection, they will continue to live in some form of self inflicted slavery as their liberty will continue to be held at ransom by their protectors or the foreign forces which have infiltrated into their land. Civilian attacks and bombardment by foreign insurgents along with imposition of laws by the radicals is evidence to this.

Lack of security

The current instabilities witnessed in the country are a hindrance to democracy. Free and fair elections which are a key component of any democracy are difficult to materialize under such circumstances. Lack of security denied many Iraqis from exercising their democratic right of election (Dawisha, 2005). The past election was almost an entirely Shiite affair as many of the Sunnis who make up about 35% of the population failed to participate in the election. The poor participation of the Sunnis in the election dilutes the rule of democracy. In addition, there were intimidation on the voters by the rebels who threatened to harm voters resulting to shunning of the exercise and low turn out due to the fear of attacks from the insurgents. This meant that the resultant government did not representatively reflect the will of the people which is a sure recipe for future resistance.

Furthermore, despite assurance by the government to guard the voters many could not go to the polling stations due to heavy fighting and shelling in their provinces. As a result Prime Minister al Maliki can only hope that U.S. and its allies continue their stay in Iraq because their exit could spell doom to his regime (Lind, 2008). There is an increasing threat of sliding the country into full civil war as a result of increasing polarization of communities, weaknesses of the state, rising infiltration of the anti government militia alongside increasing violence. This makes it only feasible to concentrate efforts in looking for workable solutions to these instead of the search for democracy. Democracy no longer is a priority due to these problems hence creating yet another roadblock (Diamond, 2006).

Weak electoral laws

Poor electoral laws are also likely to weigh down on the effectiveness of the democratization process. For example, it is said that during the past elections many of the candidates opted to remain anonymous. This caused a release of conflicting information by the Iraq Independent Commission who could not give an accurate number of the candidates that were going to participate in the election. As a result the elections were marred by confusion among voters who did not know the candidates on the voting list. The result was a growing anxiety and serious divisions among the electorates over the outcome of the elections (Burns, 2005). Due to the election’s low credibility among the public some lost the desire to vote further undermining democracy (Jamail, 2005).

Institutionalization of torture and other forms of human right abuses

Gross human right abuses are a road block to democracy in Iraq. Foreign occupation has also contributed to the deterioration of the whole aspect of democracy in the country. There are restriction and bans on public gatherings, curfews and road locks all over hence denying Iraqis their freedom of movement, assembly and more important their freedom of self expression. The new government has been taken to be a culprit in human abuse against it citizens (Human Rights Watch, 2005). Furthermore, they continue to experience home demolitions, destruction of their agricultural produce, and mass detentions in their homeland hence making it exceedingly difficult to convince them the real essence of democracy. To them democracy is only an illusion or a creation of the western powers to further their imperialist interests.

Torture alongside other forms of human right abuses has been used by the government, their US military counterparts and the insurgents to extract information from their detainees. All along it has been treated as an acceptable form of practice leave alone a standard practice in interrogation hence infringing on the rights of the victims. Many prisoners as a result die while undergoing investigations while others suffer from permanent incapacitation (American Civil Liberties Union, 2005). Many Iraqis up to date are going through arbitrary arrests, long detention without trial, and judicial reviews as well as inhuman treatment in detention camps. In addition, they are denied access to their families, basic social amenities, and legal representation which lead to unfair trials. The situation is so bad that the public live in constant fear of kidnap by the same government which is supposed to be the custodian of its rights.

The role of Islamic culture

Islamic culture presents a huge road block to attainment of democracy in Iraq. This is because the ideals of democracy are in total contrast with the values of Islam. For example, Sharia laws advocate for subordination and marginalization of women rights and other basic human rights. Freedom of expression, Speech, association, and religion are highly suppressed. The law is biased against women as they receive harsher punishment for the same crimes with men while their male counterparts receive leaner ones and sometimes walk free. Such acts as public stoning, flogging, amputation of body parts, and jihad have no place in the rule of democracy. Thus, Islamic culture becomes a deterrence of democracy due to the existing incongruence with democratic practices. Cultural and religious liberalism will be a necessary precondition for democracy in Iraq (Schwalbe, 2005).


The road to attainment of democracy in Iraq is riddled with a myriad of road blocks that not only threaten to tear the moral fabric but also to destabilize the country. These marked bottlenecks emanate from the cultural, religious, and historical background. As a result of the current wave of instability gripping the country, democracy is no longer an important priority of the state rather than the pursuit for restoration of peace, arrest of militia activity and design of an all encompassing and representative political framework to govern the country. Besides, the whole aspect of democracy is in total contradiction with Islamic values which makes it an alien idea to Iraq. As a result democracy is seen to be founded under Christian ideals which make it unacceptable to the Muslim world.

Reference List

American Civil Liberties Union (2005). Newly Released Investigative Files Provide Further Evidence Soldiers Not Held Accountable for Abuse, ACLU: New York

Basham, P. (2003). Rebuilding Iraq: Prospects for Democracy, Cato Policy Report. Web.

Burns, J. (2005). The Vote, and Democracy Itself, Leave Anxious Iraqis Divided, New York Times.

Dawisha, A. (2005). The Prospects for Democracy in Iraq: challenges and opportunities. Third World Quarterly, Volume 26, Numbers 4-5, Number 4-5/2005, pp. 723-737(15). Routledge, part of the Taylor & Francis Group.

Diamond, L. (2006). Can Iraq Become a Democracy? Can Iraq Avoid Civil War? Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Studies Association, Town & Country Resort and Convention Center, San Diego, California, USA Online . Web.

Franke, F.R. (2003). Prospects of Democracy in Iraq. Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Web.

Human Rights Watch, (2005), Iraq: Torture Continues at the Hands of New Government, 2005.

Jamail, D. (2005). Iraq: Outlook for National Elections and Governance. The Washington Institute for “Vote Where, How, and for Whom?” Inter Press Service. Web.

Lind, W. (2008), Military Matters: Maliki confounds Bush, United Press International, UPI Security Industry; 2008.

Rubin, T. (2005). Iraqi, Chinese journalists grasp what Americans have forgotten, 2005, Philadelphia Inquirer, The (PA).

Schwalbe, S. (2005). Democracy in Iraq, Air & Space Power Journal. Chronicles Online Journal. Web.

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