Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

The End of American Iraq: Poor Shi'i Invade Parliament over Corrupt Spoils System

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

The End of American Iraq: Poor Shi'i Invade Parliament over Corrupt Spoils System

Article excerpt

BAGHDAD WAS UNDER a state of emergency on May 1, a day after members of the Sadr Trend stormed the Green Zone and invaded the parliament building, briefly imprisoning parliamentarians in the chamber (and some in a basement) before letting them go. Some apparently were beaten as they left. Most of the protesters, though, were relatively peaceful and had been ordered to avoid violence by their leader, Muqtada al-Sadr. As at Tahrir Square in Cairo in 2011, of which the invasion of the Green Zone was a distant echo, they chanted, "peacefully, peacefully" (silmiyyah, silmiyyah).

When George W. Bush invaded Iraq in 2003 he established blast walls around central government offices, establishing a four square mile Green Zone (i.e., one that was safe and which the U.S. controlled, with the rest of the country being a Red Zone; more or less, that situation never changed). The parliament building and Western embassies were in the Green Zone. I visited it in 2013. You enter through a narrow entranceway and can only really go in by foot (this measure stops car bombs from getting in). The security people who checked us in were international-Ghana and Peru or something. I doubt they would die for the cause. There were Iraqi troops on the outside of the blast walls. Apparently some of them sympathized with the Sadr Trend and let the crowd pull down a couple pylons of the blast wall, after which they streamed in.

Who were the protesters? The Sadr Movement is particularly popular in East Baghdad, or Sadr City, a dense slum where a plurality of Baghdadis live. The father of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, Muhammad Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, was assassinated by Saddam Hussain's secret police in 1998. Young Muqtada survived underground. He re-emerged in 2003 to oppose the U.S. military occupation of his country, forming the Mahdi Army, which more than once fought U.S. troops. His was a movement of the poor and the street. After the U.S. withdrew, al-Sadr adopted a lower profile. But now that President Barack Obama has re-established a U.S. military command in the country, al-Sadr has come back out to protest the renewed U.S. presence and the al-Abadi government, which the U.S. props up.

What were they protesting?

The spoils system.

Now that Andrew Jackson is being taken offthe $20 bill and his demerits and virtues are being debated, the spoils system is back in the news. He made enormous numbers of promises to his supporters about the goodies they would get if he won the 1828 election. He came in firing an unprecedented number of people from government jobs and filling those positions with members of his party. Win the election, you get the spoils.

A sitting president, James A. Garfield, was assassinated in 1881 over the spoils system (his assassin had supported the party but wasn't rewarded as he thought he should have been).

Not until the Pendleton Act of 1883 was a nonpartisan civil service commission created, and the spoils system began to decline at least a bit. (In today's U.S. government, sometimes the Senior Executive Service positions above GS-15 are given to political appointees, and of course the cabinet and sub-cabinet slots are all filled by political appointees; but this is a thin sliver of the upper bureaucracy, whereas most people who work in government offices have a career unaffected by the party in office.)

So how is all this relevant to the storming of the Iraqi parliament?

The Bush administration in its years of military occupation of Iraq presided over the installation of an Iraqi spoils system more rowdy and rapacious than anything Andrew Jackson ever imagined. The Bushies and the U.N. put a parliamentary system in place, so that the parties that form the biggest coalition in the national legislature get to put forward a prime minister, who is appointed by the president. That prime minister then appoints a cabinet, with most cabinet ministers overseeing a ministry. The cabinet appointees came from the parties supporting the prime minister in parliament. …

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