Friday, January 18, 2008

A Lot of Strands to Keep in My Head, Man

As someone who has long paid attention to shifting Iraqi political currents, and the potential formation of cross-sectarian political alliances (or vectors) capable of transcending the rampant communalism that pulls Iraq apart, I would be remiss if I failed to mention some recent movement in the ranks. The latest alliance to emerge (fragile and contingent as it is) organizes itself along a different axis than the shorthand frequently resorted to by many observers, myself included: that of Sunni vs. Shiite vs. Kurd. The current groupings are sorted by preference for a unified, centrally controlled Iraq vs. a highly federalized, if not partitioned, Iraq.

Earlier this week, Juan Cole reported:

12 parliamentary blocs have signed on to the memorandum of agreement, including a Turkmen party. They said that the central government should continue to enjoy its prerogatives with regard to administering national resources and expressed "severe anxiety" about attempts to conclude contracts by provinces without coordinating with the federal government. (This point is a slam at the Kurdistan Regional Authority, which is doing oil contracts without reference to the Oil Ministry in Baghdad).

The agreement also calls for the issue of Kirkuk Province to be settled by negotiation rather than by referendum. The Kurdistan Regional Authority wants to annex Kirkuk, but most of the Turkmen and Arabs there don't want that to happen. The Kurds have flooded Kurds into the province, so that they would win a referendum if it were held, but the other Iraqis are dragging their feet, so that the issue has been postponed until this summer and may be postponed further. The problem is that the referendum has the potential for sparking both a civil war and a regional war with Turkey.

The parties signing the agreement also want the al-Maliki government to set a timetable for withdrawal of US troops.

As that last sentence indicates, the proponents of a unified Iraq also tend to take a more hostile position vis-a-vis the United States (and Iran), and thus are frequently identified as "nationalist" despite the narrow, sectarian leanings of some that inhabit this camp. Reidar Visser (who has long suggested that the Sunni vs. Shiite vs. Kurdish paradigm be replaced - or enhanced - by a unified(nationalist) vs. separatist(sectarian) framework) had this to say about recent developments:

...[I]mportant non-sectarian trends are also blooming. The recent agreement by a majority of Iraqi parliamentarians (the coalition is said to number around 150 MPs) to work against radical decentralisation of the Iraqi oil sector and for a negotiated approach (rather than a referendum) to the Kirkuk question represents this kind of important inter-sectarian effort that brings Iraqi nationalists of all shades together, whether they be (Shiite) Sadrists, Sunni Islamists, or secularists. It may even be possible that this kind of nationalist alliance – which is the fruit of a process that started almost as soon as the Maliki government was formed in 2006 – will have better prospects now that a de-Baathification law has been agreed on and no longer will torpedo rapprochement along such lines in the way it has done so often in the past.

Viewed against this backdrop, some of ISCI's recent gambits take on a new light. Perhaps it was in reaction to the challenge mounted against its overriding objective of creating a separate Shiite super region in the south that ISCI decided to explore alliances with Sunni Awakenings groups as discussed in this post. Visser mentions other entreaties:

Still, few issues are clear-cut in Iraqi politics, and some details regarding the recent manoeuvring in the Iraqi parliament as well as in Basra may suggest that the sectarianism/nationalism dichotomy itself could be quite fluid. The Fadila party, which since 2006 has been part and parcel of most initiatives to create a broadly based, non-sectarian alternative to the Maliki government, was conspicuously absent from the list of signatories to the recent anti-federal demands. Indeed, the party has officially issued a statement to the effect that it does not support the initiative, albeit without stating the reason for this opposition. Conceivably this may have to do with the federalism issue, where at least some forces in Fadila are quite pro-federal, but disagree with ISCI on the size of future federal entities. But it also comes on top of a rather sudden calming of the chaotic political scene in Basra. Here, ISCI and Fadila have been at each other’s throat for two years straight, but have recently both signed up to some kind of city-wide truce – although without revealing any details that can corroborate the idea of a real political compromise.

Juan Cole notes that the Kurds are none-too-pleased, and mentions another side of the Fadhila strategy as well:

For their part, the Kurds deplored the statement. The Kurdish independent Mahmud Osman, said that "we were surprised by this resolution." He said that the group's antipathy toward article 140 of the constitution (which calls for the holding of an early referendum on whether Kirkuk Province should accede to Iraqi Kurdistan) "can only be interpreted as an attack on Kurdish issues."

President Jalal Talibani [ed: a Kurd] extended an invitation to the Islamic Virtue Party (IVP) [ed: aka Fadhila] to join the already- assembled 3-party alliance that underpins the current establishment. This invitation was a transparent attempt to detach Fadhila from their new friends and to draw it into an alliance with the Kurds and to entice it to join the forces in favor of a loose federalism rather than a powerful central government.

The problem with these vectors is that they are, thus far, limited in scope and do not yet represent a true, durable consensus on a number of crucial issues. Visser's take on the ostensibly "nationalist" Sadr current is telling:

Similarly, there is unwillingness by some (but not all) Sadrists to accept concessions associated with the Sunnis like the new de-Baathification law. Its recent adoption in the Iraqi parliament was hailed by a few vocal Sadrist MPs, but thoroughly condemned on websites that express a more sectarian Sadrist view such as Nahrainnet, which has highlighted negative reactions to the bill among some of the lower-ranking clergy of the Shiite holy cities.

On the other hand, if Sadrists were that upset with the new law, maybe it wasn't all bad? Not that such sincere anger helps the unifed nationalist front, however. As you can see, a lot of ins, a lot of outs, a lot of what-have-yous.

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