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.
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.
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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