Iraq and Gulf Analysis

The UN Security Council, UNAMI and the Yazidi Paradigm in Iraq

Posted by Reidar Visser on Wednesday, 4 August 2010 17:15

Over the past week, the Iraqi press has accorded a hilarious amount of attention to today’s meeting in the UN Security Council devoted to Iraq. The basic purpose of the meeting is to renew the mandate for the UN assistance mission to Iraq, UNAMI, which expires in a few days; this limited objective notwithstanding Iraqi journalists and politicians have conjured up a lively scenario of some kind of concerted international action to install a whole new government for Iraq to end the current deadlock. Beyond their regrettable effect of giving Iraqi politicians an excuse for further postponing government-formation, maybe until after Ramadan in mid-September, there seems to be little substance to these reports apart for their obvious entertainment value – how about a scenario in which Russia and China slug it out over whether Maliki or Allawi should have the PM position; Brazil intervenes to suggest Ibrahim Bahr al-Ulum as a compromise candidate!

Far more serious matter can be found in the small print of the report of the UNAMI special representative of the secretary-general in Iraq. The main part of the report is unremarkable: In predictable fashion it glosses over several of the shortcomings of the 7 March elections and ends up recommending an “inclusive and broadly participatory” government-formation process. But the section on “human rights” has flagged some interesting items that should serve as an indication to the Iraqis about what sort of assistance they can really hope to get from the international community. This part of the report contains several striking items, among them a congratulation to the Kurdish regional authorities for establishing an “independent board of human rights” coupled with a failure to elaborate on why the local elections in that region that were supposed to take place in 2009 have just been postponed until 2011. But by far the most remarkable entry is the following one: “In a further positive development, on 14 June the Iraqi Federal Court passed a ruling increasing the number of seats in the Council of Representatives for the Yezidi minority group in proportion to their population in accordance with the figures from the last national census”.

Many Iraqis will fail to see the positive aspect of this much-overlooked ruling by the federal supreme council. For one thing, it is the latest in a string of partially contradictive rulings by the court on the use of minority quotas in the Iraqi political system. First, in a ruling on 20 July 2009 the court (wisely) struck down a proposal to subdivide the electoral constituency of Kirkuk in ethnic districts (Arab, Turkmen, Kurds) on the grounds that it would constitute racism and that the constitutional requirement of 1 parliamentary representative for 100,000 Iraqis was geographically based and had nothing to do with ethno-sectarian subdivisions:

المادة (49/أولا): من دستور جمهورية العراق ولدى دراسة مضامين هذه المادة وجد أنها حددت عدد أعضاء مجلس النواب بنسبة مقعد واحد لكل مائة ألف نسمة من نفوس العراق. وبينت أن هؤلاء الأعضاء يمثلون الشعب العراقي بأكمله ولا يقتصر تمثيلهم على مكون واحد.

But the latest rulings made on 14 June include firstly a radical interpretation of the principle of proportional representation that threatens a return to the hated single-constituency arrangements of January 2005, and secondly – the “milestone” flagged by UNAMI – instructions to the Iraqi parliament to adjust upwards the number of seats for the Yazidis ahead of the 2014 elections with a reference to population data that show some 200,000 Yazidis already back at the time of the previous census (1997).

This will play well in the international community, where typically the situation of minorities attracts headlines far more easily than less dramatic bread and butter issues. But what are the consequences for Iraq? As is well known, the demarcation of ethno-sectarian groups in northern Iraq is a messy business, with the groups themselves often disagreeing on the criteria for self-definition. For example, some Christians believe they are a religious minority whereas other think they are “ethnic Assyrians”; similarly the Kurds try to convince Yazidis and Shabak that they are Kurds whereas many members of these groups virulently oppose Kurdish overlordship, partly on the basis of religious tenets (the Yazidis have their own religion and the Shabak are Shiites) and partially with reference to language. Ironically, because of the Kurdish attempts to dominate these groups indirectly by installing pro-Kurdish leaders among them, it is the Kurds and their clients that have spearheaded the quest for more “minority seats” in order to populate them with pro-Kurdish placemen – the very demand to which the federal supreme court has now yielded, and which UNAMI applauds before the Security Council. (It deserves mention that UNAMI and the Kurds and ISCI tried the same trick during the revision of the election law in 2008 but were trumped by what was then known as the 22 July group of Iraqi nationalist parties.) So the question is what will follow next. By linking the criteria of numerical representation (1 to 100,000) to the level of minority groups for the first time (previously minority representation had a less mathematical, negotiated basis), the federal court, with the support of UNAMI, could be opening a can of worms where a far greater number of Iraqis may feel tempted to be defined according to ethno-religious criteria. If the Yazidis can, why not the Turkmens or the Kurds?

This, in other words, is what the UN Security Council has in store for the Iraqis: More Paul Bremer logics, where the Iraqi population is carefully calculated according to ethno-sectarian criteria and then given their proper share. It is the perfect way of legitimising and perpetuating a neo-imperial approach: The Iraqis are seen as a primitive people forever locked in ancient communitarian hatreds above which they can rise only with the benevolent assistance of Western diplomats. It is a kind of epistemology that went out of fashion in academia somewhere in the early twentieth century, but in the UN Security Council it is apparently still taken seriously. Tomorrow, after the ongoing consultations, UNAMI is likely to have its mandate renewed for another year. That will probably not include installing a “salvation government”, as some Iraqi newspapers had speculated, but the Yazidi paradigm will remain, almost unnoticed.

27 Responses to “The UN Security Council, UNAMI and the Yazidi Paradigm in Iraq”

  1. I continue to be amazed at the anti-kurdish attitude in your postings; viz: the Kurds try to convince Yazidis and Shabak that they are Kurds . Why do you not write the Arabs try to convince Yazidis and Shabaks that they are not Kurds, which would be equally true?

    The truth or otherwise of such statements are, of course, dependent on your definition of Kurdishness. If you use linguistic criteria, then almost all Yezidis are indeed Kurds, and many Shabak too. Your definiton must therefore be another one, for instance one based on religious affiliation as well as language.

    It is, of course, a fact that many yezidis are suspicious towards the Kurdish leadership, which they perceive as sunni-dominated. Still the overwhelming majority of Sheikhan-yezidis seem to consider a future within the Kurdish region far preferable to being at the mercy of Arab chauvinists. They therefore support the transfer of Sheikhan to Dohuk from Nineva.

    I believe the attitudes of some yezidi leaders in the Sinjar area is pragmatic; they do not perceive joining the Kurdistan Region as realistic, and want to mend fences with the Arab majority in Nineva, with whom they expect to share the future.

  2. Reidar Visser said

    My views are based on contact with minority leaders of Nineveh who are fed up with daily threats by the Kurdish leadership and prefer to articulate separate identities. The main point is that despite all the money the Kurds have put into minority politics, there continues to be substantial anti-Kurdish movements among the Yazidis and the Shabak. Yazidi leaders who are critical of the Kurds won the Yazidi seat in the 2010 parliamentary elections.

  3. Mohammed said

    Hi Reidar:

    regarding the question of minorities, and their representation, do you have an up to date estimate on the population of the various ethnic groups and sects of Iraq. I find it interesting that a recent poster on your site (Salah) did not even accept the idea of Shia being a majority in the country. I have never heard a senior sunni leader like Tariq al hashemi ever admit to shia being a majority.

    It then follows that people like Salah would believe that if Shia were leading the country, they would be usurping the rightful sunni majority’s will (sunni majority being sunni arabs and sunni kurds) in his eyes.

    Do you have a breakdown of votes by number of votors, and likely percent turnout based on surveys?

    Would a census (that is internationally monitored) help to bring some resolution to this controversy?


  4. Reidar Visser said

    Mohammed, the last official data classifying Sunnis and Shiites were as far as I can remember estimates given by the British in the 1920s. Arnold Wilson published some of these in his book on Iraq, and I have got many more detailed ones of Basra in the materials I worked with from the 1920s. I have also got some copies from the 1957 census in my office but I am pretty sure that and subsequent ones only listed “Muslims”, “Christians” and “Jews”, though linguistic minorities were counted, cfr. the unwillingness of the Kurds to use the 1957 and 1965 censuses for Kirkuk city since they show a Turkmen plurality etc. so evidently that information has been collected.

    The more basic question is this: Does it matter? According to the Iraqi constitution, no privileges are accorded on a sectarian basis so what is the point? I think many Iraqis would reject this, and I thought it was interesting to see how one of the few public proponents of a “sectarian census” – Muhammad Baqir al-Nasiri – made a rather strained case in defence of his views: He wanted the census to be taken, but individual ID cards should only say “Muslim”. Again, what’s the point? Why do you have to know??

  5. Ali W said

    lol, thats was a good idea to stop the commenting on your previous posting, it could start a mini civil war. Although I think you should have answered that friend of ours and told him that both the combination of all sunni arabs + sunni kurds = 35%

    And in regards to the minority issue, Reidar I think it would be quite understandable for the minorities such as Assyrians (christians), Shabak, Yezidies etc would rather be a part of KRG and would support them, the reason for this to live in Sunni areas as a minority has shown itself to be very dangerous. They are constantly attacked and killed. Whilst the Kurds are more tolerant than the people of Mosul.

  6. Santana said

    Reidar- I also agree with Salah that if the Kurds were counted as Sunnis then the majority in Iraq are not the Shias…..and you are right Reidar- according to the constitution there is no point to even publish these numbers or have such detailed censuses but the sad truth is that the Shias bring it up ALL the time during the very private meetings of Gov formation talks !!It almost trumps the constitutional arguments in these talks….

  7. Reidar Visser said

    Ali, if you ask Hunayn al-Qaddo (who used to be with the UIA by the way and has excellent relations with the Hadba) he will complain that the Kurds make life very difficult in the Shabak villages in Nineveh. Ditto with respect to the Yazidi reform movement.For an earlier post on the subject, see

  8. Mohammed said

    Hi Reidar:

    In the ideal world, I agree with you. But, Iraq is not an ideal country that is blind to ethno-sectarianism.

    Iraq has been traditionally ruled by sunni arabs under Baathist rule. Moroever, Iraq resides next to Gulf Arabs who have traditionally also had sunni rule (and shiite minorities in those countries have been systematically oppressed). Sunni arabs in iraq were raised with the idea that they were the rightful rulers, and any shiite who was religious and not loyal to baathist rule was really an iranian fifth columnist (as you see many of your sunni posters on this site have pretty much stated (people like Santana and Salah in my view are pretty representative of sunni iraqis, and believe me, my sunni relatives would say exactly the same things)). As long as you have that type of sentiment, Iraq will not be at peace. Regional arab governments are the ones that have brought up the idea of a “Shiite crescent.” Arab governments are far more sectarian than Iraq’s goverment is. Thus, how can saudi arabia be a friend to iraq (as santana claims) when it oppresses its own shiite minority?

    From a purely social sciences point of view, it is important to understand the makeup of a country (the US census bureau asks these types of questions). Thus, if there was a UN and Arab League certified study that showed 70% of Iraqis were shiites, peoples eyes would be opened. If sunnis are fighting because they think that they are not getting a proportionate amount of power in the country, they need to have a yardstick that is accurate to measure how much power (power equals representation in government, dollars sent to the province for services, etc) they should have. How do you expect to pass an oil law and revenue sharing formula if people in anbar will not accept that basra has X number of people, etc, and thus entitled to Y number of dollars? Iraq needs a census.

    I am not advocating a census to allow sectarianism to flourish, I am advocating a census to help people who still have the mentality of the previous regime that Iraq must be governed by sunnis. They need a dose of reality.

  9. Reidar Visser said

    So guys, I hope you see my point: Those of you who crave these numbers should go all the way and ask Paul Bremer or Ad Melkert to be the next high commissioner for Iraq!

    Mohammed, you don’t need to know sectarian identity to divide the oil between Nineveh and Basra. You just count the number of citizens in each place. I am surprised that you bring this up because even in the Iraqi parliament there was consensus on a strictly demographic division of revenue between governorates and the whole idea of revenue-sharing as a “sectarian problem” in Iraq has been constructed by US think tankers and senators. The fact that the US census bureau does something doesn’t mean the whole world needs to emulate it.

  10. Mohammed said

    Hi Reidar:

    I expected you to say this, and I would be fine with a census based on geography. It would not precisely give us the sectarian make up of the country, but it would give us a better idea for each region, and I agree with you, in the end, it is about how much power (representation in government and money) each region is entitled.

    Once the province populations are accurately accounted for, the picture will be clear.

    I want to clarify one thing though. The US that has a breakdown of the different ethnic groups, the USA does not have quotas for each group’s representation in government. If by Bremer politics you mean that we should mandate sunnis get X%, shia y%, kurds z%, then no, I disagree with that. I would have no problem with a sunni or kurd PM who is dedicated to the idea that each iraqi has the same rights as another, and has the right to be religious or secular, sunni, shiite, christian, etc.

    The problem is people are not as ideal and fair as you Reidar. The reason for the census is not to allocate quotas based on sect, it is for education, and to help the country heal, as it is rife with people who will not accept the rights of the other.

  11. Reidar Visser said

    I understand what you are saying, Mohammed. You seem to want to have these statistics “for the information of the people of Iraq”. But somewhere in your argument there seems to be the underlying assumption of some kind of “collective [sectarian] right”. I mean who “will not accept the rights of the other”? Do not all Iraqis have exactly the same rights? Or have I misunderstood you?

  12. Santana said

    Good post Mohammed- I agree 100% with your comment …you said- “I would have no problem with a sunni or kurd PM who is dedicated to the idea that each iraqi has the same rights as another, and has the right to be religious or secular, sunni, shiite, christian, etc.”

    Well we have such a potential PM that meets all the criteria you stated and his name is Allawi…(and a shiite to boot)…but Iran won’t allow the INA or the Kurds to accept him and Maliki/SLA show no compromise whatsoever.

  13. Mohammed said

    Hi Reidar:

    no, I do not believe in “sectarian rights.” there are unfortunately enough sunnis and shiites who do believe in sectarian rights, that iraq has failed to make progress. I believe that every iraqi should have the same rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. a shiite should be free to vote for a sunni and vice versa.

    However, there are sunni arabs who think that a shiite who is religious (even if he is qualified) should not be in a position of power. This is a problem not just in Iraq, but also iraq’s neighbors (where shia are minorities). They question his loyalty based on his sect, thinking him to be a minority, loyal to a neighboring shiite majority country of Iran. Such a sentiment has been engrained in them by the former regime and the rabid anti-shiite saudi sponsored arab media and sunni religous leaders.

    Iraqi shia do not just wake up in the morning, and say, “hey, how can I help out iran today?” For goodness sakes, not even iranian citizens like their government. I am not loyal to iran. But I believe that shiites in iraq should be free to worship as they please (they were not afforded this freedom under saddam, and are not given such freedom in saudi arabia (allawi’s backers)). Sunnis should also have freedom to have their mosques and religious books not banned.

    I know shiites who view sunnis with similar consternation. The reason iraq does not move forward today Reidar is precisely because of sectarianism. To get over sectarianism, you cant just ignore it, you have to learn about it, and educate people, that is the job of social scientists.

  14. observer said

    can anybody lead me to where the law gives a monopoly to the Islamic she3a parties for the representation of the she3a of Iraq?

  15. Mohammed said


    welcome back! I am delighted to see a post from you as your posts are among the more insightful on this forum. Certainly, the law does not nor should not give a monopoly to religious shiites to represent shia in iraq.

    It is unfortunate today that the religious shiite are the only shia that are well organized. My problem is not with people who are religious or secular. What we have in iraq today is extremism on both sides, and this is a reflection on Iraqi society. When iraqis socialize, you will see that “religous shiites” will look down on alcohol-drinking shiites, and say that by definition they are unfit to lead. The same goes for secular shiites who will look at a woman wearing a hijab and say that she is backwards (mutakhalifah), and that a religious shiite man is really a mullah-hugging traitor who is in the pockets of iran.

    I renounce both types of extremism.

  16. Reidar Visser said

    Sorry to be such a purist, but to me it is the notion of any kind of “Shiite representation” (or of course Sunni representation) that strikes me as being at odds with the Iraqi constitution – hence my rant against the “Yazidi paradigm”.

    As far as I can see, the strongest notion of any kind of communal representation in the Iraqi constitution is article 49:

    المادة (49):
    اولاً :ـ يتكون مجلس النواب من عدد من الاعضاء بنسبة مقعد واحد لكل مائة ألف نسمة من نفوس العراق يمثلون الشعب العراقي بأكمله، يتم انتخابهم بطريق الاقتراع العام السري المباشر، ويراعى تمثيل سائر مكونات الشعب فيه.

    Even here it seems just to say that “all components” must have representation – some kind of representation – in parliament. It certainly does not establish any specific principle of ethno-sectarian proportionality. To me it reads more like a provision to ensure that no component is totally unrepresented. Again it is UNAMI’s move towards Paul Bremer’s model of mathematical proportionality that worries me since there is no logical way of stopping it once it gets rolling.

  17. Reidar,
    I believe sectarianism is here to stay in one way or another, the point is to channel it to do something useful like monitor and control discrimination through an elected body, not to appear to fight it but in reality harboring a sectarian attitude. Sectarianism is caused by fear and there will always be fear, what we need is less fear and we Iraqis know where it is coming from.
    Regarding the Federal Court’s Yazidis decision, do you know if it was reached unanimously? I read an interesting observation that all of Federal Court’s decisions were unanimous despite the fact that the members represent “all components”, there is no dissention, which is strong evidence of coercion, or of loyalty buyout; I understand the federal court judge’s salary is over ten grand per month..

  18. Reidar Visser said

    Faisal, indeed, it has been signed by all 9 judges: Midhat al-Mahmud, Faruq Muhammad al-Sami, Jaafar Nasir Hussein, Muhammad Saeb al-Naqshbandi, Akram Ahmad Baban, Akram Taha Muhammad, Hussein Abu al-Timman, Michael Jurjis and Abbud Salih al-Tamimi.

  19. Jason said

    I can tell you all too well from the experiences of my own city that all this identity politics will lead to no good, only bad. Counting heads according to race or religion is only useful for arguing that some particular group is not getting its share of the government positions, money, or power. The argument is always used as a crutch by someone who lacks qualifications or competency to win the position on the basis of actual ability and merit. Government should not be in the business of “allotting” positions or resources based on race or religion at all. (In fact, government should minimize its role in the business of allocating economic resources – to the maximum possible that should be the function of free economic markets.) THIS IS A DEAD END, IRAQIS!

  20. Ali W said

    We all agree sectarianism is bad and we all want the government to be fair, however that is impossible for now as Faisal and Mohammed have stated. Iraq requires a period of peace and prosperity with a 99% educated population before we can start putting these things behind.

    My family had really good Sunni friends, they met at university in Baghdad in the 70s, they have a son only a month younger than me, both families moved to the UK, all their lives they hated the baath and Saddam, until he was executed, now they think he was a martyr. The people have changed, sunnis must move on and stop dreaming of the past, they will never rule single handedly again.

  21. Jason said

    Reidar, your thoughts on this article?

  22. Santana said

    Jason- What you stated is very precise and flawless logic, problem is that we are not there yet, even though there is strong evidence showing the Iraq people moving in the right direction away from identity politics but still far from being able to fully implement what you are describing. The fact remains that we desperatly need a “big brother” close by as we slowly move forward and try and separate religion from government…..Iraqiya forming the new government is the first major step in that direction….. The U.S severing the umbilical cord at the worst possible time is very worrying-and all just so Obama can say on public TV that he kept his troop withdrawl promise ….big deal!…(he thinks this will help offset his poor performance on many key issues in the U.S.) this is scary and very flawed thinking. The U.S public does not care one bit about Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran..etc….Americans looks at their checkbook, jobs and maintaining their American way of life…..pulling out now is kinda like stopping a strong antibiotic after only a dose or two…. the disease will come back with a vengeance.
    A democracy this fragile and left to fend for itself is a recipe for disaster.

  23. observer said

    It is a sure bet that the constitution will be revised in the coming years to correct the inconsistencies and vague language that has plagued the political process since 2005. However, the problem will be the issue of trust between the peoples of Iraq, sect-wise, race-wise, and all the other fissures that exist in Iraq. It is not news to anybody that Iraq’s fissure lines are not manufactured, but real. It is unfortunate, but it is important for Iraqis to understand that if they are to move to the future with strength, they benefit from being together in a large state that respects their rights both as individuals and as a collective.
    I’ve said it here before, to the consternation of some, that in Iraq, trust is the missing ingredient that makes everything look so difficult. The re-writing/revision of the constitution will be plagued by this distrust and will make it difficult. The only way it can happen is if we can somehow get a period of 4 to 8 years of relative calm where we can put our energies in re-building the infrastructure and re-create these bonds of trust that existed (admittedly tenuous at best) in the 50’s and 60’s. How do we get from here to there – is another matter entirely.
    I suppose first things first. The developments to date in Iraq, can not be viewed from an Iraqi prism alone. Please keep in mind what is happening in Lebanon vis-a-vis the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Syria. The increasing tensions between Lebanon and Israel. The increasing pressures on Hizb Allah. The events in Gaza. The increasing pressure of sanctions on Iran, and even the Europeans’ snub of Turkish attempts to join the EU. All these factors are in play and have an effect on the Iraqi political scene.

    It is an understatement to state that the next month will be a make or break for Iraq.

  24. Reidar Visser said

    Jason, I don’t subscribe to the WSJ so I’ll wait until a pirate version appears somewhere.

  25. Salah said

    In most of your post you consider your intentions of a system of proportional ethno-sectarian power-sharing in Iraq.
    In democratic systems is this acceptable? I feel this ethno/Sec thingy is in fact violated the root of democracy, is under democratic system all people same regardless of their color, religions, ethnicity, isn’t Reidar?

    In the most democratic world there were nothing of ethno/Sec power sharing we talking about US , UK Norway, Australia, and other western world were in fact the boundaries of ethnic/Sec more bolds that in Iraq.

  26. Reidar Visser said

    Salah, please read the article carefully, it is a criticism of the way in which the international community – in this case UNAMI – is supporting the principle of ethno-sectarian proportionality in Iraq even beyond what the Iraqi constitution makes provision for.

  27. Jason said,0,7336629.story

    Awfully quiet around here.

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