Iraq and Gulf Analysis

On Lions and Other Mesopotamian Creatures

Posted by Reidar Visser on Monday, 24 January 2011 15:19

It was a pity the Iraqi soccer team, aka “The Lions of Mesopotamia”, lost by an extra-time goal to Australia in this weekend’s quarter-final in the Asian Cup. After a nervous beginning, the Iraqis played a lot better as the match progressed and once more demonstrated that the country has got word-class potential also beyond the oil and energy sector.

The reason the Iraqi football team does so well is utterly simple: It maximises its potential by putting together the nation’s best talents regardless of their ethnic and sectarian backgrounds. Careful investigations based on a Paul Bremer paradigm for understanding Iraq would show that the number of Shiites in the team is disproportionately high compared with the national demographics and there are too few Kurds and Sunni Arabs. But the bigger point is this: No one cares. Most players are known only by their first name and their father’s name, with no family names indicating place or tribe of origin; TV commentators frequently use first names only during matches. During substitutions, Kurds are exchanged for Shiites and vice-versa, but no one is protesting even as the ethno-sectarian balance gets even more distorted during the course of a match: Only talent counts.

The obvious contrast to the Iraqi national soccer team is the Iraqi political scene. Here some still believe that ethnic and sectarian affiliations are more important than talent: The distribution of key leadership positions almost invariably replicates a scheme in which ethno-sectarian affiliation, rather than ability, is centre stage. Once a Kurdish president had nominated a Shiite premier, the speaker of parliament “had to be” a Sunni. Once a Sunni had become speaker, his two deputies “had to be” a Shiite and a Kurd. In this setting, there is no dynamism and no meritocracy; hence it is unsurprising that the performance of the Iraqi political institutions is invariably substandard.

The practice of allocating top jobs on the basis of ethno-sectarian criteria is a collaborative enterprise in which incompetent Iraqi politicians collude with ignorant Westerners and strong-minded Iranian strategists in order to hide the fact that they are not really qualified for their jobs. In actual fact, their task is simply to provide the best possible services for the Iraqi citizens; yet their inability to do this makes them resort to ethno-sectarian demagoguery instead of admitting that they are not really qualified to be part of the squad. The question Iraqi voters should ask themselves is why the notion of a “Kurdish” or “Shiite” or “Sunni” quota should be any more legitimate in government than on the soccer pitch.

21 Responses to “On Lions and Other Mesopotamian Creatures”

  1. IMARK said

    Briliant observation !

  2. Jason said

    Are there specific individuals that you have in mind as being particularly unqualified?

  3. Reidar Visser said

    Jason, let me be gentle to individuals and instead turn that question on its head: Where are the superstars of the Iraqi government or the Iraqi parliament? Where are Basim Abbas, Muhammad Gassid and Nashat Akram??

    It is particularly interesting that most players on the Iraqi national team lived in Iraq during the hardship of the sanctions in the 1990s and yet they have managed to emerge as one of the best squads in Asia.

  4. bb said

    The Iraqi national soccer players became famous for having been tortured by Uday Hussein if they did not perform to his liking, as were Iraqi Olympians, in a torture chamber set up by Uday at the stadium. So it was truly moving moment in 2004 when the team qualified for the Athens Olympics by defeating Saudi Arabia (quite fittingly, perhaps). An apparatus for conducting electric shocks on the athletes was said to have been taken after the liberation and placed in a museum in a shiite mosque in Sadr City.

    As an Ozzie I always barrack for the Iraqis when we play them and I was sorry when they lost. Am not sure that the Iraqi national soccer team is the right vehicle for deriding the coming together of sunnis, shiites, and kurds in a democratic Iraqi government after those extraordinary years of brutality at the hands of that regime.

    As we would say in Australia: Oy, oy, oy, Lions of Mesopotamia!

  5. Mohammed said

    HI Reidar:

    an interesting observation. However, I would counter that perhaps Iraqi soccer fans are as dissimilar to iraqi voters as iraq’s politicians are from their soccer team.

    I would argue that the big picture shows that Iraqis in the end did care about the sect of a politician. How many Iraqi shiites voted for Tareq al Hashemi? my guess is probably close to zero. How many sunnis voted for Al-Maliki? again, probably close to zero. In the end, iraqi voters wanted somebody who would represent their “perceived” interests more than how qualified they are to be a leader. I will be the first to admit to you that I believe that Iraqiya has far more “qualified” and educated leaders who have the right backgrounds to be ministers, etc than the National Alliance. However, since I perceive Allawi, al-Hashemi, and company to be unashamed lackies of the Saudis (who are every bit if not more sectarian than Iran), I have to ask myself, will this man use his education and qualifications for the benefit of all Iraqis, or will he cater to group X, Y, or Z? Iraqi voters based on the statistics ignored qualifications, and simply voted based on sect. You can argue that iraqi voters have been brainwashed into acting this way, but the trend is too statistically compelling to ignore. Soccer fans simply dont behave the way voters do. I do not ignore the fact that soccer fans ARE also the same sectarian voters, but it shows iraqis have split personalities when it comes to their sports and politics.

  6. Reidar Visser said

    BB, it is precisely the right vehicle. This is not about Uday versus democracy; it is about a mediocre sham democracy versus a high-quality one. The bottom line is that if Iraqi voters had called the bluff of Iraqi politicians and their demands in the name of ethno-sectarianism, they would have enjoyed better government.

    Mohammed, you did not mention the some 400,000 personal votes that Ayad Allawi got in Baghdad. Were they all Shiites like him? Or were they all Sunnis, voting for him as a “Sunni stooge”? My guess is they were a mix – and maybe many of them are soccer fans too! By the way, I wouldn’t rule out some Sunni votes for Maliki either; Sunnis certainly voted for State of Law in the 2009 local elections in places like Basra and Baghdad.

  7. Dear Reider

    I wrote about this subject article on 4-8-2007 in this website and linkk :

    good observation

  8. Reidar Visser said

    Thanks for the link Muhaned! I remember the soccer team assumed great importance in the Asian Cup in 2007 because at the time it coincided with the “soft partition” debate. During the autumn, just as Joe Biden started his federalism quest in earnest, even ISCI seemed to realise it was a bad idea with a Shiite region. Today, the “soft partition” idea may be dead, but muhasasa remains a problem.

  9. Mohammed said

    Hi Reidar:

    I am sure there were some sunnis who voted for Allawi (as did shiites who were probably more secular, ex-baathists, or still neo-baathists). But I am talking about big picture models, not exceptions to the rule. Let us use maliki as an example, since he was the biggest vote getter. Let’s say for argument’s sake that Baghdad is 60-70% shiite and 30-40%sunni and 5-10% christian/kurd (you can mix and match the numbers as you wish since they are guestimates at best on my part). If you look at the people who voted for al-Maliki, I am sure that > 95% of his voters were shiite. Thus, you can run the statistics on these numbers and show that Maliki’s appeal in Iraq is not representative of the population in any stastistical sense. It is just not a debatable point. You cannot counter the argument by saying “I am sure at least one sunni voted for Maliki,” because it is not statistically meaningful. In the end politics is about the number of people you appeal to. It would be like saying Sarah Palin in the USA appeals to african americans because I am sure that there is at least one african american “Tea Party” number. Who in his right mind would plan a winning tea party strategy based upon making sure that the 1% of african americans voted for Tea Party candidates??? The same argument I make about al-Maliki, I can also make about al-Hashemi. Al-Hashemi is not an idiot. He knows who his “base” is, and he will plan his policies to appease them.

    I am not making the argument that such politics and sectarianism is healthy and good. Far from it. I would much rather that people were sect-blind when it came to their voting. I agree with you that Allawi probably does have the most cross sectarian appeal. But his appeal was not strong enough to equal Maliki’s appeal on a man-to-man basis, because I believe sectarian politics still prevails with voters. I am not arguing about the virtue of sectarianism when it comes to the voters, but I do believe that it is today’s reality. My sunni relatives hate al-Maliki (for no other reason than he is a shiite (aka Iranian in their eyes), even though I can tell you that today, they have much better jobs than they did under Saddam, most voted for al-Hashemi, and a few voted for Allawi, and not one sunni relative voted for Al-Maliki), and my shiite relatives are split between Allawi (secular relatives) and al-Maliki (religous relatives). I am sure that most of your readers would tell you the same about their relatives if you asked them.

    Again, I am not saying this is right, but it is reality. And unfortunately, the politicians are responding to this (and feeding it on in many cases).


  10. Reidar Visser said

    Mohammed, I included Maliki in order to not focus exclusively on Iraqiyya. I would still argue you cannot dismiss Maliki’s performance in mixed constituencies in 2009 (before de-Baathification) or that of Allawi in 2010 as statistically insignificant. Nor should we dismiss Allawi as an exception. Jawad Bulani’s (Shiite) leadership of the “Sunni” Unity of Iraq is another example. Allawi and Bulani aren’t stooges; they are politicians that have sect-neutral qualities.

  11. Jason said

    In American baseball we have “farm leagues” where the most talented are discovered and rewarded for excellence with advancement to the major league. Local and state government provide a similar “farm system” for cultivating and discovering future national political leaders (especially state governors), giving voters an opportunity to grade candidates on merit, as opposed to mere regional sentiments. Is this process playing out in local and provincial govts in Iraq? Any bright lights on the horizon?

  12. Kermanshahi said

    Reidar, in 2009, I wouldn’t call 2/28 seats in Salah ad-Din and 2/29 in Diyala, both of which have very large Shi’a minorities, meanwhile winning nothing in Anbar and Ninawa, a “Strong preformance” in Sunni areas. As for results in Baghdad and Basra, the 38 and 37% al-Maliki recieved there are far below the total number of Shi’as in the area. In total Maliki+Sadr+ISCI+Jaafari+Fadhila had 58% in Baghdad, while Tawafuq+al-Mutlaq+al-Allousi+al-Hal had 18.6%, which is a 75-25 ratio, which is the same as the Shi’a-Sunni ratio in the city. In Basra Tawafuq won nearly 4% and together with Allawi they had 7% of votes and 12% of the seats (excl. minority seats) – sure a large portion of Allawi voters in Basra were Shi’a but probably a cunk were Sunni. This very much reflects the number of Sunnis in Basra aswell.

    Allawi’s party infact the only party in Iraq which has support among both Sunnis and Shi’as. All other self-proclaimed “non-secterianists”: al-Mutlaq, al-Nujayfi, al-Hashemi, have failed badly here, others like al-Allousi and al-Bulani showed that they don’t have any relevant support among either groups. And the worst flop of them all was al-Maliki’s attempt to to appeal to Sunnis. Out of 87 originally elected deputies 0 were Sunni, meanwhile not a single major Sunni party wanted to join him.

  13. Reidar Visser said

    Kermanshahi, please read the comment that you are quoting. I’m talking about Basra and Baghdad, where polling station data obtained by the entities indicated strong SLA performance in some Sunni areas. Obviously your aggregate (i.e. governorate-level) calculation does not take this aspect into consideration, and I’m also amazed about the precision with which you claim to know the exact demographic composition of both cities.

  14. Salah said

    The question Iraqi voters should ask themselves is why the notion of a “Kurdish” or “Shiite” or “Sunni” quota should be any more legitimate in government than on the soccer pitch.

    This is what I do argue long time till now. The problem it’s not of Iraqi citizens as such, first the ethnic quota clearly imposed by Paul Breme i.e. American occupiers and they created these three unrelated division Kurd Sunni, Shiites, while Kurd its ethnic minority the other two are faith deferent factions,, it’s so funny that most MSN and all media took that mouth piece on board and start megaphone this division as if this Iraq and this the divided nation. The history of Iraq is far more deep and rich back 5000 years all those ethnic and religions from Babylonian to these days the learn and behaved to live on one peace on land that land called Mesopotamian, none on the planet had the mosaic of Iraqi society and its complexity

    But Iraq have had many occasions that suffered of internal conflicts when invaders come in and full the hatred and killing for their sake and love of conquer that land.

    Most Iraq will argue openly that those who living and isolated in green zone they have the benefits of these division in Iraq and its clearly they full the killing and crimes as internal conflict from 2003 till now on different levels and names.

    Finally I put this like to show you who the Kurd North celebrating the wining of Iraqi sport team holding and there eyedroppers reflected their pleasure chairing that success of that team holding the Iraqi flag no other ones this all in North Iraq Kurdish area.

    يوم للعراق

  15. bb said

    To clarify: My point wasn’t about Uday v democracy. It was about the totalitarian Baath regime itself: Uday’s state-enabled torture meeted out to the soccer players and Olympians was emblematic of that particular regime in the history of Iraq. You did not even mention it.

    Not all totalitarian regimes descended to the level of brutality, even depravity, that Saddam’s Baath did in the period 1980-2003; Pol Pot/Kymer Rouge had been circumscribed in Kampuchea by that time. Iran has seen nothing like it, at least as far as we know. One would have to look at africa, perhaps for comparisons, and even then it might be hard to find a comparable until perhaps Mugabe’s latter Zimbabwe.

    Given that history is so much in the recent memory of the Iraqis of all sects and ethnicity who suffered, it is surely not surprising that only 7 years after liberation Iraqis would be still be emphasising power-sharing rather than the adversarial pre-2003 model you seem to prefer?

    Don’t you feel the Iraqis may need 10, even 20 more years, of confidence building to create a new recent history for themselves before they will feel confident enough to cut across communal lines in their voting patterns and develop parliamentary oppositions on the western model?

  16. Reidar Visser said

    BB, you just don’t get it, do you? Do you know how many Sadrists worked for Uday and for Saddam’s fedayeen? The patterns of communal discrimination that you refer to simply weren’t as clear-cut as you claim, so the aspiration of a politics that transcends ethno-sectarian identities is a far more natural aim than you assume. Just read the texts linked to by Muhanned and Salah and you will find Iraqi voices speaking on these matters. Oh, but they are in Arabic, so perhaps you should instead turn to some English-language MSM where you can get all your preconceptions confirmed instead.

  17. M said

    I share your frustration and totally agree with you. However, I ca think of two reasons why this is not happening and should not be happening in politics : 1) political “peace” trumps all other concerns. As there are hierarchy for human needs, there seems to be hierarchy for political needs. However, if Iraq evolves politically well, the second stage or perhaps the third or fourth will naturally puts talents before political needs. 2) Saddam created a differential in talents. He only trusted Sunnis and so he selectively picked them for higher education and placed them in positions of power: look at how many Rawi and Ani with PhDs-holding positions of deans, directorship , and high ranks in the army as compared to Musawi, Asadi and Husseini. Well, there is Shahristani with a PhD in nuclear physics who was appointed in Abu Ghraib prison instead, and Dr. Allawi and Jaafari who were sent on a permanent mission in Europe! Not only Sunnis fared well in education and positions but indeed they were the most experienced in running states affairs because they were and are the only ones running states affairs over 35 years. Even Kurds fared well because of the freedom and access they had in the 90’s. Honestly, if we use talents and meritocracy in running Iraq, not too many Shiites qualify. When we get to the phase where a Sunni, a Shiite, or a Kurds looks after the collective wellbeing of Iraq, then talents should take over ethnicity and sect. Only then we can replicate our soccer team true Iraqi talented spirit!

  18. Reidar Visser said

    M, I came across a similar argument in materials from the British mandate, relating to the late Ottoman period, when most Shiites eschewed the government schools. A few Shiites wanted the Brits to stay longer, in order that “our sons achieve education” and could thus become a natural part of the state during the course of time. But aren’t we pushing the Ottoman-Baathist parallel a little too far here? Surely, Saddam allowed Shiite talent to grow also away from the soccer pitch. Maybe not in the top command, but many of the commanders and top officials employed by Maliki since 2006 are in fact Shiites who worked for the Baathists. How about the oil sector? There were many prominent Shiites there too. Maybe they are not in the Islamic parties, who were mostly in exile except for the Sadrists, but they certainly exist.

  19. Michael Knights said

    Well I can tell you this: I’m looking forward to the Gulf Cup in Basrah in 2013! That should be a great event for the province and for Iraq. Basrah Sports City is coming together really well and could function as a magnet for broader investment across the eastern arc of the city. It is already beginning.



  20. Salah said

    it might be hard to find a comparable

    BB pass few well known “totalitarian regimes descended to the level of brutality”, the first one anyway the human tragedy in Iraq after 2003 left Iraqi speechless about the tyrant regime crimes of the massive and level of suffering the faced for the promise of freedom and democracy for the last seven years.

    May I refresh BB mind and hint, General Augusto Pinochet Chile dictator, and Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and most important is Palestinians suffering from human crimes of Israeli the only democracy in ME.

    All that there is most important one should not let anyone forgotten the WMD saga and what’s turned to be, hope keeping up argue this were far from the reality in this world.

  21. Salah said

    This for BB about the new politics system in Iraq!صدر رئيس الوزراء السيد نوري المالكي قراراً بتعيين إبنه أحمد المالكي بمنصب مساعد مدير مكتب رئيس الوزراء.

    وكان مدير المكتب الدكتور طارق نجم قد استقال بعد أن جرى سحب الكثير من صلاحياته كما ذكر ذلك مصدر مقرب من المكتب للوسط، وتم تعيين الدكتور حامد الموسوي بمنصب مدير المكتب وكالة.

    ويمتلك أحمد المالكي نفوذاً كبيراً في مؤسسات الدولة، كما يتمتع أصهار المالكي بنفوذ واسع وخصوصاً في الأجهزة الأمنية حيث يتولى أحد أصهاره مسؤولية الاشراف على عمليات بغداد، اضافة الى منصب مدير المكتب الخاص.

    السيد نوري المالكي، كان قد قال لقيادة حزب الدعوة في وقت سابق، أنه يفخر بأنه لم يعين أبنه الوحيد أحمد في أي منصب.

    وقد تولى أحمد المالكي عدة مناصب منها منصب مدير عام في رئاسة الوزراء في بداية تولي والده رئاسة الحكومة، ثم انتقل الى منصب مدير عام المشتريات في رئاسة الوزراء، قبل ان يتحول الى أعمال أخرى.

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