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Post-Sectarian Strategies for Iraq

By Reidar Visser (www.historiae.org)

18 March 2009

It is becoming increasingly unfashionable to think long and hard about Iraq. In Washington, a great intellectual trek from Iraq to Afghanistan is already well underway. Despite the increasing similarity between Obama policy on Iraq and priorities defined by the Pentagon in the latter part of the Bush presidency, critical Democratic voices on Iraq policy are gradually becoming something of a rarity, with growing support for a narrative to the effect that “the peaceful conduct of the January 2009 local elections represented a transformation of the military gains during ‘the surge’ to political gains in the shape of a more mature form of politics in Iraq.” In the capital of other countries of the world, including many Arab states, there are increasing signs of willingness to accept the Iraqi transformation process as something that is now more or less complete.

But if the fundament – the 2005 constitution Iraqi political more generally – is in itself unsecure and disputed, is it really such an excellent idea to focus only on the surface of Iraqi politics and to ignore the deeper questions? Is it a sound strategy to reduce national reconciliation issues to the question of Kirkuk, where a “grand bargain” logic would simply mean the perfection of the bazaar-style carve-up of Iraq seen since 2003, and not its much-needed antidote? Is it wise to call for a “regional role” for Iran at a time when many Shiites in Iraq, Iran and elsewhere consider this to be nothing but a cave-in to a particular Khomeinist current that has sought to dominate Shiism globally since the late 1970s even though it is still rejected by many members of its targeted constituencies across the Middle East, including in Iran and Iraq?

Two recent reports on Iraq policy issues address these and other questions. The first one, More than “Shiites” and “Sunnis”: How a Post-Sectarian Strategy Can Change the Logic and Facilitate Sustainable Political Reform in Iraq (available as PDF) has been prepared by a group of prominent Iraqi academics and professionals in cooperation with the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI) and explains how institutional reform and constitutional revision are the keys that can guard Iraq against many of the threats that historically have been at the forefront of the minds of Western policy-makers – including excessive Iranian political interference, the dangers of a relapse into authoritarianism, and/or renewed attempts by jihadist groups to turn Iraq into a sectarian battlefield and a central front against the West. The Iraqi group singles out the December 2009 parliamentary elections as the most promising vehicle for bringing political change to Iraq, and asks for the support of the international community so that these elections can be not only free and fair but also generate a serious debate about the basic framework of Iraq’s political system itself.

The report facilitated by NUPI concludes with 18 specific recommendations as to how the outside world can regain leverage in Iraq while at the same time aligning itself with broad national and “post-sectarian” Iraqi agendas rather than sectarian ones. Among the key proposals are the following:

• The United States should officially acknowledge that, between 2003 and 2008, US strategy in Iraq has not always been sufficiently appreciative of the desire of the majority of Iraqis to live as one nation, and at times has directly been at odds with the vision of a unified state. President Barack Obama’s emphasis on Iraqi national unity in his recent policy speech was a step in the right direction, but more of this is needed so that those Iraqis currently on the sidelines of politics can feel that even if Washington does not want to interfere in the constitutional process anymore, the US at the very least would not try to prevent them from working for a non-sectarian Iraq (as some conspiracy theories have it). Simply refraining from uncritically reproducing sectarian categories in policy declarations on Iraq would send a positive signal; an official statement to the effect that the United States is looking forward to the day when merit alone should determine the identity of Iraq’s top political leaders would be even better, and would resonate with important forces in Iraq that still feel alienated in a system where an ethno-sectarian logic continues to prevail in many arenas.


• While “unconditional engagement” by the Arab states with the new Iraq to some extent may serve as a counterweight against Iranian influences, it seems unwise that the entire Arab world should give up all its leverage at once. Thus, at least some Arab states should try to keep Iraqi constitutional issues on the agenda by linking debt cancellations and full restoration of normal relations to progress in the constitutional revision process in whatever direction the next Iraqi parliament wants to take it. Again, a promise of reform – or simply making it legitimate to talk about reform – could be sufficient to induce broader participation in the 2009 parliamentary elections. This would appeal to and galvanize both the vast masses of voters whose ballots in the last local elections were “wasted” (in the sense that they did not elect any representatives), as well as important segments of the resistance that are currently on the sidelines (who would be more responsive to carrots framed in “Iraqi” rather than in “Sunni” terms). The degree of leverage that actually exists at this level was revealed quite spectacularly in recent meetings between Iraqis and the Secretary-Genera of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, as both Sadrists and Daawa elements (in this case Ibrahim al-Jaafari) indicated an interest for an Arab League role (in facilitating national reconciliation or achieving debt relief respectively).


• President Obama is also on the right track with his focus on refugee return, but the US government could improve its chances of success if a deliberate attempt were made to talk about the Iraqi exiles as a great resource and an asset to the future government of the country rather than only as a problem. In other words, they are much more than “a challenge to the stability of the region” – a phrase that occurred in Obama’s policy speech at Camp Lejeune in February.


• To open negotiations with Iran about everything except Iraq (which would not be up for negotiation) would send a reassuring signal to many Iraqis, the Arab world at large, as well as Iranian oppositionists and reformists. Not only is fear of horse-trading about Iraq between Washington and Tehran the most recurrent nightmare scenario among Iraqis who are critical of the post-2003 political process. Many reformist Iranians, too – and Shiites critical of Khomeinism generally – would welcome an end to the idea of an “active regional role” for Iran. That sort of role would only give hardliners an excuse for disregarding reform at home, whereas US willingness to negotiate on nuclear energy and resumption of bilateral diplomatic relations between Iran and the United States would resonate with Iranian demands in areas where the regime in Tehran appears to enjoy more widespread popular backing for its positions.


• The group of Iraqis agrees that some kind of grand settlement on Kurdistan issues would have a beneficial effect on the atmosphere of Iraqi politics more generally (hence, the report is not titled More than "Shiites" and "Sunnis" and "Kurds"), but strongly recommends a search for a solution that would bring closure rather than create domino effects. This is why the group has not embraced the International Crisis Group proposal of “oil for soil” (which would create a federal region of Kirkuk) or UNAMI’s piecemeal demarcation project (which adopts an ethnic logic that could ultimately tear Kirkuk apart and open ever more “disputed territories” dossiers). Instead, it has proposed that international recognition of the autonomy of the three current Kurdistan governorates could provide unique depth to the Kurdish autonomy while at the same time allaying the fears of the neighbours (this proposal is inspired by ideas previously put forward by Liam Anderson), whereas a 10-year transitory regime for Kirkuk could provide the breathing space needed to move away from the destructive Balkans logic that currently prevails.

Another policy paper, Iran’s Role in Post-Occupation Iraq: Enemy, Good Neighbor or Overlord? (by Reidar Visser and published by The Century Foundation, available as PDF) shares some of these perspectives, and adds some discussion of the relationships between Iran and the various Shiite Islamist factions in Iraq after a year which US policy-makers often portray as a bad one for Tehran as far as the Iraq situation is concerned. Here are some of the main findings:

• While the common notion of Iraqi Shiites as Iraqi nationalists appears to be true with regard to the Shiite population of the country as a whole, it is not historically correct with respect to the pro-Iranian exiled Shiite Islamists that were installed as leaders of Iraq by the United States since 2003, such as ISCI and at least some of the Daawa factions.


• The irreducible minimum of Iranian desiderata in Iraq appears to be the maintenance of a system in which politics remains defined on the basis of sectarian identity, regardless of state structure more generally. Thus, whilst Tehran may be only experimenting as far as territorial partition in the shape of federalism is concerned (confer the increasingly ambiguous position of ISCI), psychological partition in the shape of ethno-sectarian quotas and power-sharing seems to be a more permanent goal. For this reason alone, a post-sectarian agenda seems the most promising avenue for a counter-strategy against excessive Iranian influence in Iraq.


• Accordingly, the reconstitution of the United Iraqi Alliance – possibly dressed up as a “national” and more centralist alliance under the leadership of the Daawa and the Sadrists but still a clearly Shiite Islamist project – could be a natural priority for Tehran when faced with ISCI’s declining popularity.


• Whilst Nuri al-Maliki has taken a number of valuable steps towards emphasising the virtues of a functioning centralised state (rather than abstract project of new federal regions), as well as professionalism as the number one criterion for recruitment to high-level jobs, only institutional change and constitutional revision can consolidate these positive tendencies in a way that would make Iraq more corrosive against external influences. Today, the Washington narrative of Maliki as an Iraqi nationalist and even secularist with widespread popular appeal remains problematic in many ways – including the continued importance of some pro-Iranian elements within his electoral coalition, his poor performance in Sunni areas north of Baghdad in the recent local elections, as well as renewed flirtation even inside his own Daawa branch with policies that can only benefit Iran in the long run (like pursuing a sectarian logic in the appointment of the next parliamentary speaker, or working to reconstitute a broader Shiite sectarian alliance).


• The United States seems to underestimate the scenario that a future pro-Iranian Iraqi regime may elect to (or feel pressured to) speak a perfectly Iraqi nationalist language on issues such as complete withdrawal of foreign troops (including “advisers” etc.) while at the same time coordinating pragmatically with Tehran for the long term. By way of example, for decades, Syria’s government has been impeccable in its ideological attachment to Arab nationalism but without jeopardising its long-standing ties to Iran.

Perhaps what many Iraqis now want from the outside world is most of all that these issues that relate to Iraq’s political system are allowed to remain on the agenda and are not swept under the carpet in uncritical jubilation for the drop in violence (and the new attention to Afghanistan). They continue to feel that the current system is biased against them, and that only systemic change can produce a level playing field. It may be tempting for the outside world to try to polish the facades in Iraq and then move on as if everything is normal, but that kind of approach also involves turning a blind eye to more profound issues that may well continue to haunt the region for decades unless they receive proper attention. While American policy-makers are increasingly reluctant to have a wide-ranging debate on these questions, the Iraqis themselves continue to speak with a clear voice: for the sixth consecutive time since 2004, a majority of respondents in the ABC/BBC poll of Iraqis recently produced an overwhelming majority (this time 70%) in favour of a centralised state structure, hence effectively rejecting aspects of the 2005 constitution. While the federalism question in the poll is awkwardly framed (among other thing it does not do justice to the potential for asymmetrical federalism in the constitution), the result nonetheless speaks for itself: It shows the need for the international community to continue to ask tough questions about Iraq and its post-2003 system of government.


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