Biden, Bush and the “Moderate Centre” of Iraqi Politics
Posted by Reidar Visser on Sunday, 7 October 2007 23:59
[Op-ed published on 7 October 2007 in The News Journal, Wilmington, Delaware – the home state of Senator Joseph Biden, the principal American advocate of “soft partition” in Iraq.]
Sunday September 30, 2007 saw a rare display of Iraqi-American unity in Baghdad: The US embassy as well as scores of Iraqi politicians joined forces in condemning a US Senate resolution to impose a federal state structure on all parts of Iraq. In general, there was agreement that the proposal which had been introduced by Senator Joseph Biden constituted gross interference in Iraqi internal affairs. Iraq already has a specific and very elaborate procedure for deciding the federalism issue, but both the timeline (nothing will start until April 1, 2008) as well as the size and number of the future federal entities (to be decided by popular referendums on the basis of grassroots initiatives) are clearly at variance with the Senate’s proposal of an “international conference” intended to accelerate and simplify matters. For once, it seemed as if the Bush administration and the Iraqis were united in stressing the virtues of a unified Iraq capable of recovering from sectarian distrust.
There was one anomaly in this picture of Iraqi-American unity of purpose: the main forces that pulled together to condemn the Senate’s decision were mostly from parties that are being largely ignored by the Bush administration. They included Sadrists, the Fadila party, independents and Daawa members of the United Iraqi Alliance, the Tawafuq bloc, and secular groups like Iraqiyya and National Dialogue Front. All in all, they made up a strong Shiite-Sunni alliance accounting for more than a simple majority in Iraq’s parliament. By way of contrast, all of Washington’s principal allies in Iraq were absent: the Kurds enthusiastically welcomed the Senate decision, and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq wavered in its response, probably understanding some obvious parallels between the Senate proposal and their own scheme for a Shiite region, but also sensing a public opinion blowing in a different direction.
Could the message from Baghdad have been any clearer? Is there now any doubt as to where the real center in Iraqi politics is located? The reactions in Baghdad to the Senate decision show clearly that there is in fact a majority of Iraqi politicians that are prepared to work for the Bush administration’s goal of a unified and non-sectarian Iraq, staunchly independent from its neighbors while at the same time at peace with them. But this majority is different from the elusive “moderate coalition” that Washington has tried to cultivate over the past year – so far without any success in terms of “benchmark legislation” or national reconciliation. It is a majority that differs from the Bush administration’s preferred allies in some key respects. It might for example be more restrictive towards foreign investment in the oil sector and would no doubt like to see a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops. But this majority are the politicians that could deliver what should be the United States’ primary objective in an Iraq of lowered and more realistic expectations: maintenance of the country’s territorial integrity, instead of its absorption into the realms of neighboring states as separate fiefdoms.
Engaging with this nationalist majority would require a rethink in Washington, above all with regard to federalism. It is now high time that US politicians understand that ethnic and sectarian variants of federalism are simply considered unbeautiful by most Iraqis, and to insist on their implementation would only make matters worse. The alternative is to try to build on the majority potential that is so evident in these latest reactions in Baghdad to the US Senate’s proposal: offer a timetable for withdrawal of US troops in return for a revision of the constitution that would include some kind of limits on federalism. Yes, limits. It is such limits that have the potential to build bridges between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq, to reinvigorate Iraqi nationalism, and to help heal sectarian conflict. They have repeatedly been proposed by nationalist forces in Iraq, but are routinely being blocked by Washington’s “allies” among the Kurds and in the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq who have jostled their way to key positions in the constitutional revision committee. True, this is the logical opposite of what Senator Biden has just proposed, but then again a viable way forward in Iraq will be one that enjoys a clear majority in the Iraqi parliament, rather than in the US Senate.
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