Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Uneasy Anniversary for Iraq’s Inter-Sectarian Opposition Front

Posted by Reidar Visser on Wednesday, 22 July 2009 23:59

[Also available in an Arabic translation kindly provided by Faisal Kadri]

One year ago, on 22 July 2008, one of the most promising political tendencies in post-2003 Iraq got a name: “The 22 July Forces”. The event which linked the date to a nascent political movement was the vote in the Iraqi parliament on a provincial elections law which took place on that day; it brought together an alliance of Sadrists, Fadila, some Daawa and independent United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) members, secularists as well as Sunni-oriented parties who all combined to support a package of transitional pre-election arrangements for Kirkuk in order to address concerns about Kurdish heavy-handedness in the disputed city.

Arguably, of course, the front could be said to be much older. In many ways, the 22 July alliance is but one of several manifestations of an inter-sectarian opposition tendency that in its spirit goes back in time at least to the early cooperation on an Iraqi nationalist platform between Sunni resistance groups and Sadrist militants back in 2004. Indeed, one could argue that this trend is the natural continuation of “normal” Iraqi politics between the 1920s and the early 1960s, when as a rule Shiite and Sunnis would participate in the same political parties (for example, the Shiite element in the Baathist party was very strong early on). In that perspective, the period in Iraqi politics between 2003 and 2007 becomes the exception and not the norm – a period dominated by the ideas of Paul Bremer and the returned exiled Iraqis, and characterised by public sectarianism on a scale never seen in Iraq before.

On the other hand, this is also an anniversary that is likely to go unrecognised by much of the outside world. The most obvious reason is that the alliance itself seems increasingly defunct and few are using the 22 July name anymore. Its initial triumphs were great: It was a precursor to this movement that secured a fixed date for the 2009 parliamentary elections during the February 2008 vote on the provincial powers law, and, during the autumn of 2008, despite presidential opposition, many of the same parties managed to maintain Kirkuk on the agenda and avoided straightforward local elections there in a setting that many local residents would deem illegitimate. But then came the vote on the SOFA in November 2008, the unseating of parliamentary speaker Mahmud Mashhadani in December 2008 (he was loyal to the 22 July group) and the election of Ayad al-Samarrai as new speaker in April 2009. Quite regardless of opposite trends at the local level (as reflected in the January 2009 provincial elections), this all seemed to suggest a return to the “old politics” of 2003–2007 inside the Iraqi parliament, and the dominance of parties that seek to entrench sectarian identities (even as they cooperate) instead of transcending them.

Today, one of the most manifest remnants of the 22 July moment could be the emerging cooperation between ex-speaker Mashhadani and Fadila leader Nadim al-Jabiri, who since around January 2009 have been fronting the new Independent Nationalist Trend, with an explicit anti-sectarian message. There have been reports about support from nationalists like Khalaf al-Ulyan and Salih al-Mutlak, as well as efforts to recruit tribal leaders from across Iraq. On the other hand, there are signs that the Sadrists, once a vital part of the 22 July alliance, could be drifting back towards the sectarian Shiite alliance (the UIA, which these days is undergoing refurbishment in order to appear to voters as a “nationalist” bloc prior to the next parliamentary elections). At least, on two crucial occasions in 2009, the Sadrists have defected from the 22 July position – by backing Samarrai for the speakership in April, and, more recently, by reportedly joining ranks with Samarrai over Kirkuk (by resisting, through its leadership of the legal committee in the Iraqi parliament, legislation that would provide special treatment for Kirkuk also in the forthcoming parliamentary elections.)

The antithesis within: A map of Turkmeneli or “the land of the Turkmens”, a vision of Iraq favoured by some members of the Turkmen community and an indication of a dualism that sometimes complicates Turkmen participation in projects like the 22 July front.

However, another of the support bases of this inheritor to the 22 July tendency may also constitute its Achilles’ heel. The issue that brought the trend to the limelight one year ago was Kirkuk and the demand for transitional power-sharing pending local elections. While the focus on ethno-sectarian quotas for Kirkuk back then was seen by many as contradictive and antithetical to the overall nationalist agenda of the 22 July front and the emphasis on rejecting such quotas, the temporary nature of the proposed arrangement to some extent mitigated this criticism back then, and left the impression of an attempt to rescue the Iraqiness of Kirkuk in the face of Kurdish domination. These days, however, in the context of the debate on the law for the next parliamentary elections, some of the adherents of the 22 July trend are making suggestions for electoral arrangements that go further in undermining their own basic position. In particular, the suggestion that Kirkuk be subdivided into four electoral districts based on ethnic identity (Kurds, Turkmens, Arabs, Christians) would serve to reify those very sectarian identities that the 22 July parties have signalled an intention to cut across.

The problem is that the 22 July alliance relies on the support of several elements that oscillate between their Iraqi and more parochial identities in ways that are sometimes contradictive. This is seen for example among the Turkmens (some of whom, not least those in exile, at times drift towards a decentralisation stand by advocating the establishment of an ethnically based federative unit in the Turkmen belt from Kirkuk to Mosul), as well as the Shabak (whose leader Hunayn al-Qaddo yesterday called for special ambassadorial quotas for the Shabak and the Yazidis; this seemed a clear example of the muhasasa principle which the front is supposed to combat). A less defensive approach would be to appreciate the considerable disdain for the established Kurdish parties among Kirkuk Kurds and to try to win them over, and to focus instead on special supervisory arrangements that could help instil confidence among local residents about the fairness of the elections. Rather than becoming bogged down in demands for special quotas in Kirkuk, the supporters of the 22 July trend could think more bravely about the upcoming elections and the prospect of bigger alliances that could include both players who are currently outside the political process as well as forces that supported Maliki in January but are unhappy about his apparent plans to return to the UIA fold. For example, the focus on deep constitutional reform among many 22 July adherents (as opposed to the window dressing revision favoured by the parties that dominated the 2005 election) could emerge as a vote winner among the Iraqi public in 2010.

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