Iraq lives

Reidar Visser
22 November 2006

There is nothing new in westerners making facile generalisations about Iraq and its people. Ever since the 1990s, strange maps of a tripartite Iraq have been bandied about, purporting to illustrate an Iraqi society subdivided into three homogenous "ethnic" blocs. Today, after the Democrats' mid-term election victory in the United States, "territorial solutions" are receiving renewed attention, as part of a possible "Dayton-style solution" to the Iraq crisis.

The upside of the references to Dayton and the Bosnian settlement of the mid-1990s is the prospect of multilateralism, an approach which may well bring some much-needed dynamic to the situation in Iraq. More problematic, though, is the idea that any such meeting should try to work out a compact between three - and only three - major "ethnic groups".

This map of an imaginary reconstituted Iraq is published by Goals For Americans

True, today's Iraq in many ways presents an ethno-sectarian mayhem. Population displacements, abductions, death-squads - the country is experiencing a deep sectarian crisis, probably of unprecedented magnitude. Wild maps of a divided Iraq are indeed being cheered by some Iraqi politicians (especially, it should be added, those residing in magnificent castles close to the Green Zone and its dependencies of upscale Baghdad neighbourhoods).

But it is not true, as some reporters claim, that the idea of Iraq as a unified entity is dead. In fact, many ordinary Iraqis still want nothing but a return to a unitary system of government capable of delivering security and basic services.

Today, however, analysts who emphasise the point about persisting Iraqi nationalism are routinely dismissed as utopians. References to long trends in history and warnings about the dangers of myopia are criticised for being out of touch with reality. A refusal to take part in forums organised around a "three-community" approach to Iraqi politics are met with raised eyebrows. Perhaps the best thing to do is therefore to stand back, and let some Iraqis speak for themselves.

Reidar Visser is a research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs. He holds a doctorate in middle-eastern studies from the University of Oxford. He is the author of Basra, the Failed Gulf State: Separatism and Nationalism in Southern Iraq (Lit-Verlag, 2005), the first study ever on a specific case of southern separatism in Iraq. Many of his writings on questions of federalism, autonomy and decentralisation in southern Iraq are available at his website, http://historiae.org

Also by Reidar Visser in openDemocracy:

"Iraq's partition fantasy" (19 May 2006)

The argument of Peter W Galbraith that "to save Iraq, one has to end Iraq" is addressed in another openDemocracy article:

Zaid Al-Ali, "Saving Iraq: a critique of Peter W Galbraith"
(26 October 2006)


Three Basrawi voices

In the 21 October 2006 issue of the Iraqi newspaper al-Manara, several residents of Basra - a city characterised by deep divisions of opinion as regards federalism - expressed their views on the decentralisation issue. The interviewees, who were identified by name and photograph, commented on the new law for implementing federalism in Iraq, as well as the more fundamental question of federal versus unitary models of government. Their articulate views and their heroic day-to-day efforts to combat sectarianism offer an effective counterweight to media reports about an Iraq divided into three mutually antagonistic monoliths.

According to Haytham Hashim, in principle there are no problems with federalism. In his view, "federalism and the law on the regions are part of family of successful and workable systems that have seen widespread application in the civilised world, including in Arab countries like the UAE, and I belong to those who say that federalism is unification not partition."

But he is concerned about the way in which it will be implemented in Iraq: "The federal system should be demarcated in a spirit free from racism and sectarianism, by allowing governorates to become [uni-governorate] regions in their own right, or by combining with other governorates. But the adoption of this law at the present juncture I find somewhat hastened, because what the country is going through as regards security and economy does not permit the application of such a law... I believe the fate of this law will depend on the will of the Iraqi people, and on their preparedness to live with this new system with which they are not familiar."

Nuha Zaki is more sceptical about the basic concept of federalism. She says: "I think the concept of regions is a bad idea, especially in the current situation with the sectarian winds and influences that are raiding our country, leading to the enshrinement of divisions at a time when we should do our utmost to combat sectarianism and make Iraq return to its past as a unified country and a unified people from north to south. The establishment of regions will lead to barriers that will have consequences for such areas as the economy and trade, which will be impeded by the creation of borders... And at the social level, many Iraqi families are spread throughout the country from north to south and more borders will mean less contact within families. And politically speaking, I don't think we are in a sufficiently stable situation for our government to embark on this project."

A third Basrawi, Abu Usama, thinks that in certain settings, federalism may be a commendable political model. He describes it as a "developed democratic system of government".

But he too is sceptical about its application in Iraq: "Iraq, the land of the two rivers, was from the days of the monarchy a centralised state from north to south, and when the republic was declared, the late leader Abd al-Karim Qasim held on to every square inch (dharra, literally, 'atom' or 'tiny particle') of our dear fatherland of Iraq. But today we live under fire of the loathsome occupation which is aimed at splitting Iraq into races and sects ... Not everything that is workable in the west may be in harmony with Arab and Muslim Iraq. It is impossible to divide a unitary state and then reconstitute it as a federal state ... Today, Iraqi citizens don't need regions, they need security and services."

Across the sectarian divide

According to many western analysts, these three citizens of Basra do not really exist. They are ghosts, raving about outdated ideas which "in reality" have been obliterated. Iraqi nationalism is supposedly dead; sectarian values rule supreme throughout the country.

Why then, do Basrawis bother to appear in full public view with their critical views on federalism?

Why do they dare to suggest possible pitfalls concerning its implementation?

Why do Iraqis sometimes mock the very sectarian categories they are supposed to belong to?

Why is it that the leading Shi'a cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, in his latest pronouncement (15 October 2006) is at pains to point out that sectarian violence is more than just a problem of "Sunni extremists" (takfiriyyun, literally "those who brand others as unbelievers")?

By hinting about sectarian malpractices on both sides ("in addition to the takfiris, there are those who engage in sectarian violence in order to achieve specific gains"), Sistani risks quarrels with certain Shi'a politicians who prefer to reduce the situation to a "Sunni takfiri problem", but he nevertheless sees a point in trying to transcend the sectarian divide.

Any "Dayton-style" conference that fails to include representatives of this kind of Iraqi patriotism will constitute a cheap sell-out - a surrender to the forces of terrorism, xenophobia, and ignorance.

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