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The Stockholm Conference and Conditionality in Iraq

By Reidar Visser (www.historiae.org)

28 May 2008

As international experts prepare for the 29 May conference in Stockholm on development aid and debt relief for Iraq under the Iraq Compact scheme, the picture of US policy-making in this area is depressing. Despite a declared intention of pursuing a unifying policy, through its peculiar choice of Iraqi allies the Bush administration is in fact contributing to fragmentation. Whereas the formula of a tripartite federal state based on “Shiite”, “Sunni” and “Kurdish” regions enjoys only limited popular support in Iraq outside Kurdistan, it is being pursued very determinedly by Washington’s Iraqi partners: the two biggest Kurdish parties (KDP and PUK) and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) – the only Shiite party that supports a federal arrangement based on sectarian identities, and also historically the Shiite party with the closest and most long-standing ties to Iran. Even Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who used to criticise the notion of strong federal regions, may have become increasingly dependent on ISCI and the Kurds after his latest moves against the Sadrists. Whilst he theoretically maintains the position that the demarcation of new federal entities is the constitutional prerogative of the Iraqi people, the current machinations by his government to influence this autumn’s provincial elections could serve as a forewarning about what kind of methods it may choose to employ in the federalisation process later on.

Moreover, despite a façade of rhetorical disagreement in the US policy debate, both Democrats and Republicans are in practice giving in to Iran when it comes to Iraq. The Bush administration has chosen to promote Tehran’s friends in ISCI (and at the same time uses much of its resources to weaken Iran’s historical enemy in the country, the Sadrists, thereby leaving them with no other option than rapprochement with Iran); the Democrats, for their part, insist on a narrative of an “irreversible Iranian victory in Iraq due to the follies of the 2003 invasion”, where, it is maintained, a certain level of Iranian influence must simply be accepted as a given. And because the rest of the world is doing precious little to influence these patterns, the nationalist majority of Iraqis – Shiites and Sunnis who want no role for Iran in Iraq whatsoever and who consider tripartite division an “Iranian plot” – are left with no outside support.

There is one exception to the generally disheartening picture of US policy-making for Iraq. During the Crocker & Petraeus hearings in the US Congress last April, individual representatives repeatedly raised useful questions that related to conditionality and leverage. For example, Senator John W. Warner (R.) of Virginia asked whether the fact that the United States is concluding a new security arrangement with Iraq in 2008 might perhaps provide a good opportunity for Washington to make use of its leverage and thereby push the Maliki government into doing something about long-delayed legislative projects related to the fundamental question of national reconciliation. Similar suggestions have been heard from time to time by Democratic representatives who are not attracted to Joe Biden’s “alternative policy” of actively supporting additional federal regions south of Kurdistan.

Unfortunately, however, “conditionality” seems to be a foreign term to the Bush administration. Ryan Crocker’s bland response to Warner suggested that he had not given much thought to any such idea. Weeks later, during visits by US officials to the Gulf countries, Washington’s remarkable unwillingness to use leverage for political ends once more asserted itself: “Arab countries should move to re-open embassies in Baghdad as soon as possible”. Full stop, no caveats.

Should the Arab countries really open embassies in Baghdad and unconditionally cancel all debts? In the current situation, that would in practice mean bankrolling a system of government in Iraq based on ethno-sectarian regions which few Iraqis are asking for. In fact, Arab reluctance to make friends with the Maliki government could be one of the last sources of external support for those Iraqis who remain deeply unhappy with the way in which a small, foreign-sponsored parliamentary elite is ramming through a state model in Iraq that may well turn the country into an orifice of institutionalised sectarianism instead of a beacon of democracy in the region. Only a week ago, developments in Basra underlined just how much opposition to the Maliki line can be found outside the Green Zone, even in core Shiite areas. A vote by the Basra provincial council – reportedly by consensus, and thus conceivably even involving some “defections” from the local ISCI branch – protested against the central government’s decision to remove the head of the Southern Oil Company. The initiative was headed by Fadila, an Iraqi Shiite Islamist party which enjoys considerable sympathy in other Arab countries thanks not least to its outspoken criticism of Iran, but which symptomatically has received scant attention from the US.

Today, the latest phase in the forced ethno-federalisation of Iraq is being played out as the Kurdish–ISCI ruling minority tries to fashion a provincial elections law that can suit its strategy of minimising popular impact on the elections results. Open lists that would give voters the opportunity of overruling party elites in their choice of candidates have been discussed in Iraq recently, but the KDP-appointed president of the “independent” electoral commission, Faraj al-Haydari, has already deemed this “impracticable”. Similarly, the idea of smaller electoral districts is being dismissed because of Kurdish concerns over Kirkuk. This all echoes the December 2005 parliamentary elections, in which no less than one third of ISCI’s members of parliament were “elected” not on the basis of the popular vote but rather were promoted as a result of party manipulations of the list after the ballots had been cast. But then again it is only two months since the Kurds and ISCI fought tooth and nail to avoid any timeline for elections; it would be naïve to expect a sudden change of priorities just because the provincial powers law has been adopted by parliament.

In Stockholm, the Iraq Compact will come up for discussion. As the compact currently stands, it is reminiscent of the Bush administration’s approach to Iraq: open-ended commitment and no substantial demands for political reform. In the annual report by the Iraqi government to the compact organisers, a prominent item under the “national reconciliation” heading is the “expectation” that the Tawafuq bloc will soon rejoin the Maliki government! In fact, forthcoming changes to the Maliki government have been announced regularly ever since the summer of 2006 without any real change actually taking place, but Western governments have been amazingly persistent in taking these optimistic prophecies at face value. At the same time they have remained acquiescent when faced with equally determined efforts by Maliki to avoid any robust checks and balances being introduced to the revision of the hyper-decentralised 2005 constitution.

Stockholm could be an opportunity for a fresh discussion of to what extent the Maliki government’s line is truly representative of Iraqi public opinion and really constitutes a sound basis for a new political system in Iraq. Arab states could try to find a constructive position between full boycott and unconditional surrender to the ISCI-Kurdish blueprint for the new Iraq. More likely, however, the conference will play out as a polite gathering of diplomats that will fail to ask critical questions about the overall direction of Iraqi politics, thereby perpetuating the West’s abandonment of the Iraqi people.

See also: related coverage at CNN.

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