Here's an update of the column I wrote early last month about my missing Iraqi driver/fixer/friend, Salam, who disappeared into Baghdad's jail system last year.
The "crime" that landed him there was his fight against sectarianism: He'd tipped U.S. and Iraqi soldiers to a family of radical Shiite militiamen from the Mahdi Army who were killing Sunnis in his neighborhood. (Salam is a Shiite but hated to see any innocent Iraqis murdered). The family had contacts in Iraq's army and security services, and got Salam arrested as soon as U.S. troops left his area.
Salam's struggle is the prism through which one should view Iraq's prospects after parliamentary elections this weekend. He managed to call me from jail last week, and his story was grim.
In January, after Salam had spent a year behind bars, a judge found him innocent of the trumped-up charges. But as soon as he stepped foot outside the jail, two Iraqi military vehicles approached him, and he was snatched and delivered to another jail. More false charges were lodged against him by the same Mahdi Army family.
Salam believes a second judge will clear him. Yet, if sectarian forces can so easily manipulate the security system, there's no guarantee he'll be freed.
Analysts are hotly debating whether Sunday's elections will prove democracy is taking hold in Iraq. There's no question that security is better and Iraq has pulled back from the abyss of all-out civil war. And in the Middle East, a shift of power by ballot rather than bullet should be applauded.
But that alone does not a functional democracy make. Today's Iraq is a political spoils system in which sectarian parties fight over oil wealth but don't deliver its benefits to the people. Ministers are picked on the basis of religious sect and ethnicity rather than competence, and corruption is rampant. Members of parliament, after minimum service, are guaranteed lucrative pensions for life.
No doubt, these are the growing pains of a country emerging from decades of dictatorship, war, and sanctions. But Iraq's new system - warped by corrupt international contractors, abused by greedy politicians - has failed to create a government that works.
"Where are the institutions of democracy, the checks and balances, the courts?" asked Ali Allawi, who served as minister of finance and minister of defense early in the post-Hussein era and is one of Iraq's most astute political analysts. "Politics are freer here than elsewhere in the Middle East, and there is freedom of expression. But as for functional institutions which are necessary for modern civilized life, I don't think you can say it is better."
Early hopes that the political coalitions competing in this election would move beyond sectarian lines are also fading. A year ago, the Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, seemed poised to broaden his coalition to include prominent Sunni tribal leaders. But Sunni input has shrunk.
Instead, Maliki acquiesced as many Sunni candidates were barred from running based on the charge that they were former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party (membership in which was necessary for anyone who wanted to advance professionally). Shiites are indeed worried (overly so) about a Baath resurgence, but this de-Baathification push is more about political manipulation than genuine fear.
There are signs that the renewed de-Baathification campaign may extend to ousting hundreds of professional Iraqi army officers who are Sunni to replace them with former members of Shiite militias. The army - an institution that might have served to pull the country together - could degenerate, and become a tool used to punish those who object to an overtly sectarian state.
If Iraq fails to overcome its sectarian divides, it can probably muddle along, but stability will elude it. Unless these divides are bridged, it may take months for parliament even to form a government after the vote.
And if Iraqi pols remain focused on a sectarian division of spoils, instead of governance, "parliamentary democracy will become discredited," said Allawi. He added, "There will be nostalgia for an authority figure," and Iraq could revert to a typical Mideast model of authoritarian rule.
This is why I see Salam's fate as symbolic of where his country is headed. He was jailed because Shiite militias still have power and links with security forces, while political leaders connive and honest judges remain powerless.
So hold the huzzahs for Iraqi democracy, and let's see whether Salam is freed. The day he returns safely home, I'll believe there's hope for democracy in Iraq.