In two years, Iraq has gone from being a rogue state to being an ailing, if not failing, one. In January 2003, Saddam Hussein's totalitarian dictatorship ruled over most of the country with an iron fist, a mammoth intelligence system, and a bloated 400,000-strong army. Power and resources were concentrated in the hands of Saddam and his lackeys in Baghdad, supported by the Sunni heartland in the center of the country. With its paranoid nationalist ideology, Iraq was a constant threat to its neighbors.
Since then, at least three fundamental changes have occurred. The first has been the collapse of both the government and its support base. Thanks to the insurgency and the elimination of the Baath Party and Saddam's military, Iraq's center of gravity has shifted away from Baghdad and toward the provinces. Second, Iraq is now experiencing real politics -- a revolutionary development for the region. The newly elected assembly and the cabinet of Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari are mediating conflicts between political parties and their constituencies through bargaining and tradeoffs rather than intimidation and violence. Third, the country's politics are no longer driven by nationalism and the interests of a middle class of state functionaries, but rather are guided by cultural identities based on ethnic and sectarian blocs. The election of January 30, 2005, confirmed the displacement of the former Sunni ruling class and the emergence of both a dominant Shiite majority and a strong Kurdish minority, with profound consequences for the country's domestic and foreign policies.
These disruptions are unlikely to be settled easily anytime soon. Given the excruciating compromises Iraq's transition to democracy requires, the political process in Baghdad is proceeding about as well as could be expected. But the insurgency, focused mainly on the capital and its environs, is sapping energy, isolating the country's center from the provinces and Iraq from the outside world, and complicating economic revival. Not surprisingly, the hope and optimism that once buoyed believers in the U.S. occupation have given way to disappointment
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