With the realisation that the initial motives for the 2003 invasion of Iraq – Saddam’s alleged stockpile of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and his links to Al-Qaeda – were grievous intelligence errors the Bush administration, with varying degrees of success, were able to spin the war’s rasion d’etre and redefine the parameters of victory. A central tenet of this approach was to begin speaking about democracy as if it had always been one of the aims of the war itself. For the first few years, the effort to democratise Iraq appeared to gain some credible momentum: a complex array of political, religious and ethno-sectarian factions formed political parties and civil society movements; uncensored news was enthusiastically consumed across the nation; Iraqi citizens took to the streets to protest key government decisions; and millions of Iraqis voted in relatively free and fair national elections (Davis, 2004, 2007, Isakhan, 2008, 2011b). Central to each of these developments were various Iraqi religious establishments – but especially those of the Shia Arab population of Iraq – who saw no distinction between their Islamic faith and the notion of democracy. Not surprisingly, a body of literature has emerged which has been very optimistic about Iraq’s engagement with both ‘Islam’ and ‘democracy’ in the post-Baathist period, while acknowledging the challenges it faces in creating a stable, egalitarian and democratic society (Al-Musawi, 2006, Cole, 2006, Davis, 2005, Dawisha, 2009, Isakhan, 2011a, Stansfield, 2007).
However, there have been virtually no studies which have sought to question this optimism in the light of more recent events. Addressing this lacuna, this paper documents the last few years (2006- 2011) which have seen many elements within the Iraqi political elite – most notably the Maliki government and his State of Law Coalition (SLC) – demonstrate what has been referred to in literature on other Arab states alternatively as ‘liberalised autocracy’ (Brumberg, 2002), ‘semi-authoritarianism’ (Ottaway, 2003) or ‘pluralised authoritarianism’ (Posusney and Angrist, 2005). That is to say, that these states consolidate their incumbency while putting in place measures that can be considered more or less liberal. To do this, the regime actually utilises (and controls) nominally democratic mechanisms such as elections, media freedoms, political opposition and civil society as part of their strategy to retain power. Of particular interest here are the ways in which the Maliki government – and Shia Arab Iraqi political factions more broadly – have manipulated both ‘Islam’ and ‘democracy’ towards such ‘pluralised authoritarianism’.