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Finally, Some Good Sunni Federalism: Are You Happy Now, Joe?

By Reidar Visser (www.historiae.org)

30 November 2011

US Vice President Joe Biden has visited Iraq many times, with many different messages.
Back in 2007, Biden travelled to the Sunni-majority governorate of Anbar in search of federalists. He wanted to fill a glaring lacuna in his wonderful plan for a tripartite Iraq: Real Sunnis that were ready to forget about Baghdad and focus on local provincial politics instead. He was unable to find any takers.


It was not for lack of trying, though. Here is what Biden told Anbar leaders at the time:

“In the early days of America’s republic, the United States were not united. No one wanted a strong central government. We built one country by bringing problems and responsibilities down to the local and regional level, as you are doing here in al Anbar. Like you, we found that by giving people control over the fabric of their daily lives – security, education, jobs – government was more responsive to the needs of the people. And the people began to focus more on what united them than on what divided them. Once people regain control of their lives locally, they are more inclined to think nationally.”


Still in the autumn of 2008, as the US presidential campaign was heating up and Biden emerged as the running mate of Barack Obama, he seemed to favour federalism for Iraq. More than that, in remarks that seemed based on a cosmology in which Sunnis are incurably allergic to Shiites and vice versa, Biden even claimed that his own ideas from 2006-2007 were beginning to find resonance in Iraq:


“No. The surge helped make that–what made is possible in Anbar province is they did what I’d suggested two and a half years ago: gave local control. They turned over and they said to the Sunnis in Anbar province, 'We promise you, don’t worry, you’re not going to have any Shia in here. There’s going to be no national forces in here. We’re going to train your forces to help you fight al-Qaeda.' And that you–what you had was the awakening.”


But when Biden came to Iraq in August 2010, now as vice president of the United States and the special Iraq envoy of President Barack Obama, he had a different message to sell. The backdrop for that visit was a national address on Iraq by Obama in which the term “federalism” did not occur. Biden echoed this new line in his own remarks on the ground in Iraq:


“Perhaps the most important development of all is that in the aftermath of a second national election, Iraqi leaders are sitting down to settle their differences through negotiation and not through violence. Another way of putting it -- as my staff always kids me for saying -- politics has broken out in Iraq. The fact that no single party or coalition got anywhere near a clear majority would make forming a government, a parliamentary system, difficult under any circumstances. A decade -- after a decade of dictatorship and war, it’s an even more daunting task here in Iraq. Unlike after the last election, however, a caretaker government is providing security and basic services and preventing a dangerous power vacuum from erupting.”

A more specific account of US policy priorities was presented by Biden before the UN Security Council in December 2010:


“Since President Obama asked me to oversee our administration’s Iraqi policy when we took office, let me assure you that the United States will continue to work with the Iraqi leaders on the important tasks that lie ahead, conducting the census, integrating Kurdish forces into Iraqi security forces, keeping commitments to the Sons of Iraq, resolving disputed internal boundaries in the future of Kirkuk, passing critical hydrocarbon legislation and a fiscally responsible budget, and helping to stabilize its economy.”

Again, no mention of “federalism”.


It will be interesting to see whether Joe Biden dares to embark on a discussion of federalism during his current visit to Iraq, which began yesterday and is intended to mark the end of the US military involvement in the country. Unlike the situation during previous visits, there now exists in Iraq something that Biden used to call for back in 2007: Sunnis that demand federalism for their own areas.

The problem for Biden is that the sudden emergence of federalism in Sunni-majority areas is a totally unexpected development that must have taken the Obama administration by surprise. Today, Sunni interest in federalism is an anomaly; a sign that something went seriously wrong during the still unfinished government formation process subsequent to the parliamentary elections in March 2010. Anything other than admitting that Sunni pro-federal sentiment is a sign of crisis would be an unfaithful account of US Iraq policy from 2009 to 2011.

American sources certainly don’t seem capable of detecting the anomaly. Biden keeps telling us he is eligible for Iraqi citizenship because of his efforts. (Oddly enough, he always quotes American sources as authority for this claim.) The New York Times today hails his “seemingly encyclopaedic knowledge of Iraq’s tribal politics”.

The ugly reality of today's Iraq is that in the context of increased Sunni calls for federalism, constitutional provisions are ignored by both opponents and proponents of federalism in Sunni areas. Illegal attempts at sub-governorate separatism seem to multiply. The Americans, for their part, elegise on Iranian influences in the shape of nasty militias but seem oblivious to the fact that they themselves gave Iran precisely what it wanted in Iraq in late 2010 in terms of a prime minister appointed on the strength of a sectarian Shiite coalition and an ethno-sectarian political framework more generally.

No matter how Joe Biden may try to spin it, it is not a pretty sight.


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