Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Archive for the ‘Iraqi nationalism’ Category

The New Football Association and the Politics of Sport in Iraq

Posted by Reidar Visser on Saturday, 18 June 2011 20:45

Ever since the beginning of the war in 2003, Iraqi football has provided an interesting contrast to Iraqi politics. For one thing, Paul Bremer’s aggressive de-Baathification campaign somehow failed to make an impact on the football union, thanks not least to some of its leading figures enjoying support in powerful international sports circles like FIFA. As a result, Hussein Said, a former star player frequently accused of close links to Saddam Hussein’s notorious son Uday, was able to win the position as head of the Iraqi football union in 2004 and stayed on in this position for six years. Secondly, the successful football team itself proved something of an antidote to the prevailing tendency among Iraq’s post-2003 politicians to divvy up positions on the basis of ethno-sectarian affiliation instead of looking to talent and merit. The Iraqi football team that did spectacularly well in 2007 featured players from all kinds of Iraqi social and ethnic background, but the composition of the team never represented any kind of proportional formula.

Today’s election of a new leadership for the Iraqi football union – postponed repeatedly on political grounds since 2009 – serves as an indicator that there are still some differences between politics and sport in Iraq, but also increasingly some similarities.

The new president of the union, Najeh Hamud, comes from Najaf and is mostly described as a “Shiite” although he has never made a big point of his sectarian affiliation. Until quite recently, he was frequently criticised on Shiite Islamist websites for his alleged past Baath ties, but during the past year or so some kind of personal conflict is said to have evolved between him and the previous president of the football union, Hussein Said, who is a Sunni, and whom Hamud served as a deputy. There has even been talk of backing by the Shiite clergy for Hamud, who secured promises of support from many of the representatives of clubs in the Shiite-majority areas during the past weeks. These developments –  along with the fact that just last week Said finally resigned from the presidency he had held since 2004 – could in themselves perhaps be seen as constituting some kind of sectarian dynamic similar to the one seen in the Iraqi army and the state bureaucracy more generally, where Shiites with past Baathist ties have become quite preponderant as a support base for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Another candidate with a Sunni background, Ahmad Radi (who once was part of Tawafuq but later became an Iraqiyya member) also withdrew just hours before today’s election.

But things are not all that clear-cut in football it seems. True, Abd al-Khaliq Masud, a Kurd, ran unopposed as first deputy of the new president in what seemed to be an echo of the politics of ethno-sectarian spoils or muhasasa.  But the main opponent of Najeh Hamud today was actually another Shiite, Fallah Hassan, who comes from Sadr City. (Reports say Hamud got 45 votes and Hassan around 25.) And the second deputy to the new president is also a Shiite, Sharar Haydar, who at one point accused Hussein Said for playing the sectarian card (i.e. Said’s Sunnism) for holding on to the presidency.

In this way, Iraqi football continues to exhibit certain contrasts to Iraqi politics, and today’s developments in particular encapsulate the dilemma of the Iraqiyya party, which professes Iraqi nationalism but is increasingly seen as Sunni-supported: Some will no doubt see today’s developments as some kind of “Sunni marginalization”, whereas others will see the absence of an ethno-sectarian quota-sharing formula as basis for the election as something positive and liberating.

Posted in Iraqi nationalism, Sectarian master narrative | 8 Comments »

Maliki Dissolves the National Alliance and Says No to U.S. Forces after 2011

Posted by Reidar Visser on Tuesday, 14 June 2011 17:19

It is fair to say that the life cycle of the all-Shiite National Alliance (NA) – the all-Shiite bloc that delivered a second premiership to Nuri al-Maliki in November 2010 – has been an unusual one. In the first place, one could of course argue that when it first came into existence in 2010, the NA was really a reincarnation of the previous Shiite coalition that had existed as the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) from 2004 to 2008 and that was partially re-launched with Iranian support as the Iraqi National Alliance by Ahmad Chalabi, ISCI and the Sadrists in the spring of 2009. But that’s another story. Suffice to say in this context that the National Alliance was actually born twice after the 7 March 2010 parliamentary elections – first in May, when INA nominally merged with the State of Law bloc of Nuri al-Maliki but nothing much happened and no name was given to the new bloc, and later in June, when the leaders of INA and State of Law tentatively began a  process of selecting a prime minister candidate and claimed the position as the biggest bloc in parliament in order to challenge Iraqiyya and Ayyad Allawi (who had emerged as the biggest bloc based on the elections results). Not until October 2010, thanks to steady support from both Iran and US ambassador Chris Hill, did Maliki emerge as prime minister candidate of the Shiite super-bloc.

Now the NA is dead again, or so it seems. The thing is, there is no death certificate as such , only the much-overlooked selection yesterday of Khalid Atiyya, from the bloc of independents affiliated with Deputy Prime Minister Hussein al-Shahristani, as parliamentary head of the State of Law bloc. That in itself may not sound terribly exciting but it is: One of the few defining criteria for a bloc (kutla) in Iraqi parliamentary practice post-2003 is that it must have a head or rais. Now, importantly, after much dithering, the National Alliance did eventually agree on such a bloc leader in December 2010, when Ibrahim al-Jaafari was selected. Accordingly, Atiyya’s emergence as head of the State of Law faction yesterday amounts to nothing less than a de facto secession from the NA, since the recognition of State of Law as a kutla by implication negates the continued existence of the National Alliance. It should be added in a footnote that Iraqiyya has actually moved in the opposite direction, despite lots of centrifugal forces being at work. Also in December 2010, the Iraqiyyun faction led by Usama al-Nujayfi announced the election of its own bloc leader in what seemed to be tantamount to a secession from the broader Iraqiyya coalition. But since at least February 2011, Salman al-Jumayli has quite consistently been described as the bloc leader of Iraqiyya.

These developments are not necessarily going to change anything in the short term. In the first place, bloc size comes into play only when the question of selecting the premier is on the agenda. Second, if Maliki really wants to reshuffle the cards and dissolve parliament, he is still in a position to claim the “biggest bloc” since Iraqiyya has shrunk by some 10 deputies over the past month through the defection of White Iraqiyya whereas State of Law has only lost Safiya Suhayl (who became an independent) and therefore is biggest with 88 deputies. But these latest moves do seem significant as possible elements in a long-term plan by Maliki to create some kind of “political majority” government to replace the current “national partnership”one, possibly based on an alliance between State of Law, the Kurds, Wasat and White Iraqiyya. Still, if that is really Maliki’s plan, he will need to convince Iraq’s president, the Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, to support him as premier once more, which in turn could mean a demand for further concessions by the Kurds. Another question is how Ibrahim al-Jaafari, until recently the head of the NA, will react. Could the recent selection of his party ally Falih al-Fayyad as deputy minister for national security mean that a deal has been done between Jaafari and Maliki? So far the Jaafari website is silent on the issue.

At any rate, any such new coalition will enjoy only a small majority in parliament. In a move apparently intended to pre-empt Sadrist criticism, State of Law today officially declared it is against any prolongation of the US presence in Iraq after 2011.

Posted in Iraqi constitutional issues, Iraqi nationalism, UIA dynamics | 26 Comments »

Kuwait Port Project Makes Waves in Iraqi Politics

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 19 May 2011 12:17

With the month-long parliamentary holiday well underway Iraqi politics has lost some of its momentum. Despite rumours about imminent “emergency sessions”, a decision on the security ministries still seems some way off.

Meanwhile, a decision by the Kuwaiti government to press ahead with a project to build a grand new port on the Bubyan Island, to be named Mubarak Port, appears to be what occupies the minds of most Iraqi politicians these days. Since the project entered the public debate a short while ago, politicians of all stripes have rushed to condemn it.

Bubyan is the territory marked as “Kuwait” on the above map

It is interesting that many protests against the project are not focused on the territorial status of the Bubyan Island as such, despite the fact that Iraq claimed ownership of the island for much of the twentieth century and that it featured as one among several elements in the official Iraqi justification for invading Kuwait in 1990. Rather, several of the arguments against the port are of a practical nature. Above all, commentators tend to focus on the fact that if Kuwait finishes its port project ahead of Iraq’s own scheme of a great new harbour at neighbouring Fao south of Basra, Iraqi commerce will suffer. Some even predict that the Fao project will be abandoned altogether as a consequence of the Kuwaiti initiative.

As a result of this focus, the protests may perhaps turn out to be short-lived: Even some of the protestors admit that the Iraqi government itself must shoulder some responsibility for having procrastinated with building port facilities in a more timely fashion at Fao, which would have enjoyed unrivalled access to the Gulf and altogether avoided the problems of the Khor Abdallah – the sound shared with Kuwait in which Bubyan lies and which leads to the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr.

It should still be noted that lingering Iraqi claims to Bubyan are not entirely gone, despite the UN demarcation subsequent to the Gulf War. Some legal experts contend that UN boundary commission went too far in settling the maritime border (in addition to the land border), and by using the median of the Khor Abdallah sound instead of the thalweg (the line that follows the natural riverbed). In a recent interview, Tariq Harb – a legal adviser to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki – went as far as claiming that the UN demarcation under UNSC 833 was illegitimate or at least disputable given the alleged absence of any Iraqis on the border commission. This seems to misstate the case somewhat, since the Iraqi government was indeed represented through Riyad al-Qaysi and eventually accepted the demarcation (in 1994). Only a more fundamental challenge by the current Iraqi government relating to the very legitimacy of the pre-2003 Baathist government as a representative of Iraq in international affairs would be able to question the post-1991 settlement more generally, but there would still remain difficulties in finding historical arguments for treating the Bubyan (and the second disputed island of Warba) different from the rest of Kuwait.

For now, perhaps the most interesting result of the Kuwaiti port project  is the creation of a new alliance in the Iraqi parliament that brings together people who usually stand rather far apart but who now all agree to watch the issue of the Kuwaiti port scheme closely. A new parliamentary “formation” (tajammu, thus apparently not a bloc or kutla) was declared Wednesday, with members mainly from the breakaway faction of Iraqiyya known as White Iraqiyya (Aliya Nusayf, Aziz al-Mayahi and Kazim al-Shammari),  Iraqiyya itself (Attab al-Duri, Qusay al-Abbadi and Hasan al-Hamdani), Sadrists (Asma al-Musawi , Hayfa al-Atwani and Rafi Abd al-Jabbar) plus Izzat Shabandar (an ex-Iraqiyya member who is now a member of State of Law).

So far, of course, this is a small-sized movement and mostly a curiosity. It is probably still a phenomenon that the political leadership needs to take seriously as they move ahead on more important issues like the security ministries and the question of a post-2011 US military presence. It is noteworthy that this alliance brings together both Sadrists and Iraqiyya members (Duri) that have been publicly critical about a post-2011 American presence and if Maliki wants to challenge them on this issue he will need to do more important things than bickering over vice-presidencies. The latter holds true also for the Salih al-Mutlak faction of Iraqiyya which lately has spent time challenging the newly elected vice-president for State of Law, Khudayr al-Khuzai! (According to the law on the deputy presidents, only the president himself has an explicit right to initiate a process of sacking his deputies – parliament can only summon them to question them.) What the vice-presidential vote demonstrated was that Maliki’s dream of a “political majority” is still a long way off – in this case it was threatened through opposition from both Sadrists and ISCI of his own, all-Shiite National Alliance. The latter may well opt to join the Sadrists in opposing any SOFA extension, making it doubly important for Maliki to bring Iraqiyya firmly over on his side if he does indeed harbour a desire to obtain a parliamentary majority for any kind of prolonged US presence beyond 2011.

Posted in Iraqi nationalism, UIA dynamics | 3 Comments »

Maliki-Nujayfi Showdown in Mosul

Posted by Reidar Visser on Sunday, 24 April 2011 22:45

In 2009, Mosul represented a promising trend for those hoping for rapprochement between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq. Today, the city exhibits some of the tensions that could potentially create instability in the country unless more is done to create a solid parliamentary foundation for the second Maliki government.

Back in 2009, local politicians in Mosul opted to work with the Maliki government in terms of challenging what they saw as Kurdish encroachments on the northern parts of the Nineveh governorate. In calling for assistance from Baghdad, the Sunnis of Mosul were requesting the help of a Shiite-dominated army with the declared aim of restoring the territorial integrity of their province. In terms of national reconciliation, it arguably represented one of the more significant steps taken since 2003.

Today, something vastly different is taking place. A few days ago, a new police commander for Mosul, Mahdi Sabih al-Gharawi, was appointed by the interior ministry in Baghdad. This prompted immediate protests by the local council, and yesterday it adopted a consensus motion that expressed disapproval of the actions of the Baghdad government and instead appointed a previous deputy commander as temporary chief of police. Athil al-Nujayfi, the brother of parliament speaker Usama al-Nujayfi of Iraqiyya, has been leading the protests against Gharawi.

The subtext of the drama is as follows. The local councils complains that the newly appointed police chief is “not from the governorate.” (He comes from Shiite-majority Wasit.) Moreover, if one looks back at Gharawi’s past career at the interior ministry, it becomes clear that he was frequently accused of  acts of torture and association with Shiite death squads during the dark days of sectarian violence in 2006. Against that backdrop, his appointment to Nineveh in the current climate comes across as particularly provocative.

Additionally, the legal procedures seem to have been subverted in this appointment too. It is unclear how Gharawi even became a candidate, since the provincial powers law of 2008 specifies a procedure in which the governor is to come up with 5 candidates, the governorate council limits the field to three and then the ministry in Bagdhad selects one. Today, the head of the security committee in Nineveh indicates that they have not been involved in selecting three suitable candidates so far.

Of course, the ministry of interior – which appears to have orchestrated these developments so far – is currently under the control of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who technically remains the deputy minister of interior. Waiting in the wings is probably Adnan al-Asadi, another Daawa operative who so far has been most successful in attracting support within the all-Shiite National Alliance as a prospective minister of interior. For these reasons, the Mosul appointment could serve as a warning about tendencies that may even grow stronger in the months and years to come. Demonstrations in favour of a US withdrawal have gained momentum in Nineveh lately, and the monster agenda recently adopted for next week’s parliament includes an item called the “law on the withdrawal of foreign forces from Iraq”. In other words, absent any voices of moderation in the last minute, it seems as if both the central government and the people of Mosul are prepared to close their eyes and go ahead with requesting a full US withdrawal according to the SOFA – all in the name of an Iraqi nationalism that is  in deep trouble in the real world of Nineveh politics.

Posted in Iraqi nationalism, Kirkuk and Disputed Territories, Uncategorized, US policy in Iraq: Leverage issues | 18 Comments »

Iraq and Libya: Parallels and Non-Parallels

Posted by Reidar Visser on Wednesday, 6 April 2011 23:06

Subsequent to the start of the Iraq War om 2003, Western analysts spent a prodigious amount of time and energy debating an “alternative” Iraq policy that never had any chance of succeeding in the real world and which therefore served as a major distraction in the overall discussion of policy options: A three-way soft partition of the country. Today, with the sudden upsurge of Western interest in Libya – and with a general explosion of simplistic punditry focusing  on the ethno-sectarian geography of the broader Middle East – it is only a question of time before think tankers in the West will discover certain tripartite patterns in Libyan history, too, and use them as a basis for discussions of possible ways forward. However, even a cursory and preliminary reading of Libya’s history should make it possible to preempt at least some of the scenarios that seem destined to appear in future discussions.

Regular readers of this column will be familiar with the main elements in an historian’s refutation of the soft-partition option for Iraq. Briefly, the soft partition scheme as it emerged in the post-2003 period ignored at least three important historical facts: 1. The three-way division of Iraq in late Ottoman times did not follow ethno-sectarian lines (Baghdad had most Shiites and Mosul was mixed) and was never complete (Baghdad served as a proto-capital for all three provinces in certain spheres of administration including military and judicial affairs); 2. The three-way partition had existed for some thirty years only (circa 1880-1914) before which there were long periods of administrative unity in a single province (Baghdad); 3. Far from being an “artificial” term, the concept of “Iraq” was in fact frequently employed by the local population, Ottoman administrators and foreigners alike in the nineteenth century. In sum, then, the post-2003 soft-partition scheme for Iraq had no historical basis, meaning that on top of the numerous ethical and practical considerations involved in its implementation, it seemed unlikely to find any popular resonance even if an attempt had been made to push it through.

When it comes to Libya, unlike Iraq, the country actually does have a history of twentieth-century federalism as well as complete territorial fragmentation. During the first years after independence, from 1951 to 1963, Libya had a federal state structure which among other things featured extensive taxation powers for the three federal regions (Benghazi in the east, Tripoli in the centre-north and Fezzan in the south). That tripartite federal structure, in turn, was based on complete administrative separation in the 1940s, when developments in the Second World War and the ouster of the Italians in 1942 had led to the creation of three separate zones of occupation with their own administrations. Although the ethno-sectarian geography of these lands did not correlate perfectly with the tripartite administrative configuration, Benghazi stood somewhat out thanks to a strongly influential puritan Sufi movement (the Sanusiyya), whereas non-Arab (particularly Berber) influences were said to be somewhat stronger in the west and the south. In contrast to the situation in Libya, Iraq remained a centralised state from the formal inception of the monarchy in 1921 until the beginnings of experiments with Kurdish autonomy in the 1970s.

On the other hand, though, if we go further back in history, the parallels between Iraq and Libya are quite striking. Just like the territory of modern-day Iraq was administratively unified for a great deal in the late 1700s and the early 1800s, a political entity almost perfectly coterminous with the modern state of Libya existed in the same period: The Barbary state of Tripoli. Contemporary accounts of North Africa in the early nineteenth century almost invariably focus on four dominant political entities in the region: Morocco, Alger, Tunis and Tripoli. Headed by the Albanian Karamanlis – a group of military officers that broke with the Ottomans and as such another parallel to Iraq where the Georgian mamelukes reigned – the Tripoli state engaged in lucrative piracy activities in the Mediterranean that enabled it to subjugate, albeit tenuously, the territory to the south and east of Tripoli (incidentally, those piracies also brought them into conflict with the United States). After the Ottoman reconquista in 1835 (the timing being another Iraq parallel) that same geographical area remained mostly unified as a single vilayet until the 1880s. At that point, Cyrenaica was definitively separated as a distinctive unit. By way of contrast, Iraq oscillated between unified rule and various subdivision formulas throughout the nineteenth century.

Unlike Iraq, there is less continuity as far as nomenclature is concerned in the case of Libya. Rather than using the name “Libya”, many contemporary sources simply referred to these lands as Trablus al-Gharb or “Tripoli of the West”, i.e. to distinguish it from the “eastern”/Syrian Tripoli in what is Lebanon today. For example, despite the formal differentiation in the late Ottoman period between the vilayet of Tripoli and the special administrative district of Benghazi, the Ottoman historian Mahmud Naci referred to Benghazi as “part of Tripoli” in his discussion of the Sanusiyya. Similarly, an early Libyan historian, Ahmad Mahmud, referred to the “Cyrenaican desert of Tripoli” as the birthplace of Umar al-Mukhtar (who would go on to become a famous Libyan nationalist) and to Fezzan as “an oasis that belongs to Tripoli”. Conversely, in the case of Iraq, the term “Iraq” appears far more frequently in sources from the nineteenth century and was often used interchangeably with the greater Baghdad vilayet. In the Libyan case, then, it seems clear that the Italian occupation from 1912 onwards was instrumental in introducing a new term for referring to the country, even though also the Italian administration for some years featured administrative differentiation between Tripoli and Cyrenaica. Ultimately, the Italians opted to organise the entire country in four perfetturas dependent upon Tripoli, meaning that centripetal forces once more came to the fore.

Exactly as in the case of Iraq, Libyan historiography does include a trend that has been dismissive about the whole idea of continuity from the old mameluke days to the era of the modern state. But whereas constructivist narratives of Iraqi history mostly consist of the unempirical musings of armchair commentators who have never held an actual Ottoman document in their hands, when it comes to Libya there are a number of eloquent, well-researched and indigenous accounts of the creation of the modern state that in various ways question the paradigm of Tripoli as the natural focus of a centralised state incorporating Fezzan and Cyrenaica. By way of example, Ali Abdullatif Ahmida has written a largely constructivist version of the emergence of the modern Libyan state in which he goes far in embracing an “artificiality” paradigm. In particular, in order to counterbalance Tripoli-centric narratives, Ahmida accords prominence to a small political entity in the far south of the country around Fezzan: The state of Awlad Muhammad which existed between the sixteenth and the eighteenth centuries. A similar revisionist take can be seen in the work of Muhammad Mustafa Bazamah, which focuses on Cyrenaica or Barqa as it is usually called in Arabic.

Ahmida’s and Bazamah’s contributions come across as fresh challenges against teleological versions of Libya’s modern history. Nonetheless, they can perhaps themselves be challenged for magnifying the importance of the south and the east, which after all were dwarfed by Tripoli in terms of population numbers: Around the time of formal unification, Tripolitania had around 700,000 inhabitants; Cyrenaica, 300,000; Fezzan, 60,000. In accounts from the early 1950s it is actually French protestations against the amalgamation of the three occupation zones into a single state that loom largest in the sources. “Libya is an artificial and sterile country”, declared pro-imperial forces in Paris in December 1949, exactly at the juncture when the idea of formal Libyan unification was beginning to gain traction in international circles.

This point in turn relates to what is perhaps the greatest contrast between Iraq and Libya as far as territorial stability is concerned: Whereas both Tripoli and Baghdad presented a certain degree of continuity as proto-capitals for greater Libyan and Iraqi regions between the 1700s and the 1900s, Libya experienced a unique degree of both informal and formal territorial fragmentation during the first half of the twentieth century – above all as the result of different legacies of interaction with foreign, imperial powers in different regions of the country. Firstly, Sanusi resistance against the Italians provided for anti-colonial sentiment that translated into regional patterns: Cyrenaica, anti-Italian; Tripolitania, less so. Later, as the result of developments in the Second World War, formal fragmentation ensued in the shape of three different zones of occupation: Fezzan (French), Tripolitania (British), and Cyrenaica (separated from Tripoli and reconstituted as a single entity under the British, with special guarantees for future independence).

For a few years after 1945 – an interlude caused first and foremost by procrastination in the international community regarding the disposal of the Italian colonies generally – it seemed likely that Fezzan would become attached to other French colonial possessions in North Africa; that Cyrenaica might come under some kind of British tutelage; and that Tripolitania might possibly even revert to Italian overlordship. Despite growing agitation in favour of unity among the Libyans themselves, it was probably only a certain anti-imperialist surge in the newly founded United Nations as well as a general preference in London for more informal and economic forms of empire that eventually consecrated the formula that would prevail: The unification of all three zones of occupation in the single kingdom of Libya.

During this process, what happened to the Sanusiyya-dominated Cyrenaica presents certain interesting parallels – and non-parallels as well – to the fate of Kurdish independence dreams after the First World War, which were basically crushed between the treaties of Sevres in 1920 and Lausanne in 1923. In the 1940s, despite some common cooperation against the Italians in the 1920s, there was much to suggest that a degree of apartness had developed between Cyrenaica and Tripolitania as the result of different trajectories during the years of Italian rule, and with the Cyrenaicans in particular increasingly warming up to the prospect of having some kind of separate political entity with a privileged connection to the British Empire. For example, a representation by Umar Mansur in 1945 called for Cyrenaica to become “an independent country” under Sayyid Idris, the Sanusi leader. Unlike the Kurds in Iraq, however – and despite the preferences of the numerically dominant Tripolitanians for some kind of more tightly integrated state – the Cyrenaicans managed to provide national leadership (King Idris) once the idea of a unified Libya gained international support. They went on to dominate the federation that was subsequently formed and provided their own input to the terms of that federation, even though there were also external influences at work including UN “experts” (in a parallel to post-2003 Iraq, one of them was a Dutchman, Adrian Pelt). Of course, in the case of Iraq after the First World War, the monarch – Faisal I – was imported from Hijaz and a centralist formula of government adopted.

In Libya, there generally seem to have been more cross-cutting cleavages than in Iraq. Maybe some Cyrenaicans appeared parochial at times, but after all much of their Sanusi heritage was pan-Islamist rather than regionalist, stretching into Sudan and parts of the Sahara. Historically and geographically, Cyrenaica was actually closest to the heart of the Arab world and centres like Cairo, with some authorities even claiming that the grand division line between the eastern and western parts of the Arab world – Machrek and Maghreb – cut Libya in two, with Cyrenaica belonging to the Machrek and Tripoli to the Maghreb. Also , it seems that Cairo-educated young men of Cyrenaica played a key role in converting Sayyid Idris from a narrow Cyrenaica-oriented approach to a broader one focused on all of Libya, and may have played a role when the king first began considering a move from a federal to a unitary formula of government in the mid-1950s (this was eventually achieved in 1963, subsequent to the discovery of oil in 1959). These are all factors that would seem to put the Cyrenaicans in a different position in Libya than what the Kurds experienced in Iraq, the superficial similarities of the size of the communities and the degree of territorial concentration notwithstanding.

On the balance, then, one senses that despite the upheavals of the twentieth century – and the efforts of erudite and articulate scholars in the constructivist tradition – the vision of a centralised state with Tripoli as its capital eventually prevailed in twentieth-century Libya, much like what happened to Baghdad in Iraq. Today, the regionally entrenched opposition in Benghazi appears to be going out of its way to emphasise its adherence to the idea of Tripoli as the undisputed capital of Libya, although it should perhaps be remembered that the monarchy flag used by these opponents of Gadhafi is also originally a federalism flag. But, as the Second World War showed, too much external intervention can easily disturb local equilibriums and propel artificial schemes to the forefront. Left to its own, Libya might well eventually gravitate towards Tripoli in one way or another, but with foreign intervention, the question is a lot more open. It should be remembered that the UN Security Council adopted for Libya provides international powers with a much bigger toolbox than what Western powers had in Iraq in the 1990s, when the no-fly-zone had no legal basis (except a fictional exegesis of UNSC 688) and when suggestions of a no-drive-zone was never on the table in a serious way (even though the Clinton administration seemed to be trying to create one in 1996). Accordingly, as happened during the Second World War, Libya may in the future once more come to experience formal territorial fragmentation and the emergence of enclaves of the kind one would otherwise only expect in settings where there are more enduring legacies of truly indigenous separatist schemes, like Yemen.

Posted in Federalism in the Middle East, Iraq - regionalism - general, Iraqi nationalism, Sectarian master narrative | 31 Comments »

Shiite–Kurdish Relations Get Strained over Talabani Statement on Kirkuk

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 10 March 2011 14:11

There are basically two ways of looking at the relationship between the dominant Shiite and Kurdish political parties in Iraq since 2003. One view emphasises converging interests – such as constructing a black and white narrative of the country’s past as “Sunni Arab discrimination” against everyone else; systematically playing up ethno-sectarian identities in politics; distributing leadership posts not on the basis of merit but according to ethno-sectarian quotas; and generally keeping any tendencies of the re-emergence of a strongman ruler in Baghdad in check. The contrarian position is to emphasise differences between the two, such as the tendency of many Shiites to maintain at least a façade and rhetoric of Iraqi nationalism (even if recruitment patterns may well be sectarian in practice), hold on to the vision of a mostly centralised state ruled by a strong prime minister in Baghdad, and reject the multiplication of new federal entities south of Kurdistan as well as Kurdish moves to annex additional territories outside the ones recognised as part of the Kurdistan Regional Government in the Transitional Administrative Law of 2004.

Key developments since 2005 present a mixed scorecard as far as these two competing perspectives are concerned. The new constitution of 2005 itself was of course basically the creation of the Shiite and the Kurdish parties, but there are two trends within that constitution. Some clauses favour the Kurdish view of unlimited decentralisation, which at the time resonated with the views of at least one Shiite party (SCIRI). The very limited powers of the central government and the award of residual powers to both governorates and federal regions in article 115 point in this direction, as do the provisions for creating new federal regions south of Kurdistan in what could theoretically turn in to a cycle of perpetual federalisation. On the other hand, other constitutional articles such as 121–122 point towards a more centralised form of government south of Kurdistan. Similarly, the constitutional arrangements for the end of the transitional veto-wielding presidency after the first five-year parliamentary cycle foreshadowed a potentially strong prime minister with a centralist and Iraqi nationalist language emerging in the future. Later on, the failure of the Shiite and Kurdish parties in 2007 – arguably at the point of their greatest influence – to amicably agree between themselves on an oil law and the disposition of the disputed city of Kirkuk highlighted the extent to which centralist ideals continued to make themselves felt in the Shiite camp, at the expense of Kurdish interests.

At one point between 2008 and 2009 it looked as if Nuri al-Maliki was making decisive moves towards establishing himself as the nationalist centralist enabled by the 2005 constitution, again to the detriment of the Kurds. But with the re-emergence of sectarian politics in the autumn of 2009, the Shiites refrained from re-entering into conflict with the Kurds over Kirkuk during the debate of the elections law. More recently, as Maliki emerged with a poorer result than he had hoped for in the March 2010 parliamentary elections, he saw no other option but to turn to the Kurds for support and has recently made conciliatory moves regarding Kurdish oil exports.

It is interesting, therefore, that the latest statement on Kirkuk by Iraq’s president, Jalal Talabani, a prominent Kurdish leader, seems to have once more created strains in the Shiite–Kurdish relationship. Talabani said Kirkuk was the “Jerusalem of Kurdistan”. This prompted strong reactions from Iraqis south of Kurdistan – Sunnis and Shiites alike – who objected to the connotations of “occupation” assigned by Talabani to the current situation (in which Kirkuk at least formally remains part of the central-government domain) and the concomitant discourse of an ethnic “liberation campaign” that would appeal to ethno-racial Kurdish sentiment to annex the area to Kurdistan.

Significantly, today there is a strong condemnation of Talabani’s statement by Maha al-Duri, a Sadrist leader. In a press statement also published on her website, she says that Talabani’s statement was “irresponsible”. Moreover, she went on to escalate the issue by saying that if Talabani considered Kirkuk his Jerusalem, it would “force Iraqis to consider Kurdistan their Jerusalem”. She seemed to modify that perspective somewhat when she went on to say that all of Iraq should be considered “occupied” (by the Americans) and that Talabani should understand the need for US forces to leave.

It is significant that this statement is not coming from the usual suspects. On Kirkuk and Kurdish issues more broadly, certain people close to Maliki are in the habit of making strong statements apparently without being able to influence the overall direction of policy to a significant extent. This includes Turkmen leaders like Abbas al-Bayati. Duri, on the other hand, is considered a high-ranking politician among the Sadrists who unexpectedly fell silent during the debate (or, more correctly, the non-debate) on Kirkuk during the passage of the revised election law in parliament in autumn 2009. A 38 year-old mother from Baghdad who graduated top of her class from Baghdad’s leading veterinary college in the late 1990s, Duri stands out as one the few female deputies who has asserted herself beyond women’s affairs.

Duri’s statements are not an isolated case either. Today in parliament, an interesting echo was produced by Mansur al-Tamimi, a Basra deputy from State of Law, who called for expanded powers for the governorates, but “with a strong supervisory role for the prime minister”. This prompted a Kurdish outburst and charges that Tamimi had failed to recognise the “federal” character of Iraq. Parliament speaker Usama al-Nujayfi of Iraqiyya duly sustained the objection and confirmed the standard ittihadi (“federal”) adjective for describing Iraq. But among the Shiites, those who vocally protest against “excessive centralisation in Iraq” now mostly seem to belong to ISCI, which after all is a small minority. A more immediate and material dimension to the whole affair has been provided by the recent influx of Kurdish peshmerga troops into Kirkuk, presumably to deal with potential disturbances, but a breach of past protocol according to which they have stayed away from the city.

Prime Minister Maliki himself was present  in parliament to give an update on the progress of the government and its programme. He sounded somewhat exhausted when he finally uttered the mandatory “federal” word towards the end of his speech. The Kurds may remain his best friend in troubled times, but at a juncture when the nationalist Iraqiyya is remarkably silent on Kirkuk (they are still seeking the good offices of the Kurds in their dealings with Maliki and have not said much except from some criticism from members who are themselves from Kirkuk), he is probably increasingly aware of the challenge from Iraqi Shiites who prefer to speak in the name of the centralist state.

Posted in Iraqi constitutional issues, Iraqi nationalism, Kirkuk and Disputed Territories | 25 Comments »

A Day of Protest in Iraq

Posted by Reidar Visser on Friday, 25 February 2011 14:58

This was not what Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki had wanted to happen. Yesterday he announced that the big demonstrations across Iraq that had been scheduled for today should not go ahead since they were “suspicious”. For more than a week, Maliki partisans in government (Amir al-Khuzai, the “national reconciliation minister), parliament and in places like Dhi Qar have made references to neo-Baathism and even al-Qaida in order to cast a slur on today’s planned events.

But the protests went ahead across Iraq today, and, frankly, if the protestors were all “suspicious Baathists” then Maliki is in for a challenge. True, there were protests in some areas that have sometimes been accused of being hotbeds of supporters of the former regime of Saddam Hussein, like Bayji near Kirkuk. For sure, there were expressions of support for the demonstration by politicians who have been branded Baathists by Maliki and his allies, like Zafir al-Ani of Iraqiyya. But the protests today – and indeed the growing wave of discontent in Iraq over the past few weeks – were spread across the entire country, from Sulaymaniyya in the Kurdistan Regional Government area to Basra in the south.

Indeed, the striking aspect of today’s demonstrations was their national character. For one thing, we have seen Kurds rise up against the dominant Kurdish parties, Shiites challenging the hegemony of Maliki’s own “all-Shiite” alliance, and Sunnis complaining against their Sunni local politicians. The cries for better services and employment conform to a universal pattern that has been in emergence over the past few weeks. But more importantly, in terms of slogans and demands, there are signs of a true synthesis of genuine nationwide opposition to the supposed “government of national partnership” that was formed, tentatively at least, in December 2010.

The signs were there already some weeks ago, when Shiites in places like Hamza (Qadisiyya), Kut (Wasit), Dhi Qar and more recently Rumaytha (Muthanna) rose up against governors closely allied with Maliki and the other leading Shiite Islamist parties, in some cases even burning down government offices. Today’s reported resignation of Shiltagh Abbud, Maliki’s ally and governor of Basra, just highlights the descent of Maliki’s State of Law since they won an outright majority in the local council there in the January 2009 governorate elections. Not that leaders described by some as solid “Sunni” leaders escaped censure by the protestors either: Today, Mosul is in revolt despite having been something of a political fiefdom for parliament speaker of Iraqiyya, Usama al-Nujayfi, and his brother Athil, the local governor, for the past couple of years.

But there is more to this than that. In Dhi Qar, demonstrators demanded better services, an end to corruption, and, importantly, criticised the system of ethno-sectarian quota-sharing that forms the basis for all of Iraq’s post-2003 government and that is supported by the United States and Iran alike. In Baghdad, protestors are trying to destroy the concrete blast walls put up by the United States since 2007 in its own attempt to engineer “sectarian” reconciliation, American-style, and are calling for a unified Sunni–Shiite political project, with echoes from the uprising against the British in 1920. Again, this seems to indicate a desire for more profound reforms and system change. Some of the activists are highlighting the absence of properly elected local councils at the sub-governorate level across Iraq as one very immediate grievance.

What this all shows is that the internationally sponsored “consensus” and “power-sharing” project in post-2003 Iraq is in crisis. Power-sharing between leaders is of limited value if assumed “community leaders” do not enjoy support in the constituencies they are supposed to represent, and indeed if those constituencies begin attacking the ethno-sectarian quota-sharing concept as such. Ironically, part of the problem with the new Maliki government could be that there are simply too many on the inside and no healthy opposition on the outside.

As of today, the only true opposition party to speak of in parliament is the Kurdish Gorran as well as some independent deputies. Perhaps today’s protests could induce more Iraqi politicians to think carefully about the virtues of taking part in a government that seems to care more for itself than the Iraqi people. Today’s demonstrations appear to have involved thousands rather than tens of thousands in the affected areas, so there is still some way to go before we reach Tunisian and Egyptian proportions. Still, after the initial protests in Baghdad in early February seemed somewhat quixotic and marginal with their Che Guevara posters, today buildings were burnt and shots were fired. The Iraqi government and its international supporters should understand that what we saw today is an attack on some of the very principles underlying the deal-making that led to the formation of the current government, despite its so-called “democratic” façade.

Posted in Iraqi nationalism, Sectarian master narrative | 15 Comments »

In Parliament Today: A Healthy Revulsion against Presidential Inflation

Posted by Reidar Visser on Wednesday, 16 February 2011 14:53

Popular revolt in Kut, as reported on Iraqi state television today

Finally, there are at least some limited signs that also Iraqi parliamentary deputies are reacting against the attempt to solve problems between politicians by making the government ever bigger, at the expense of the Iraqi citizens: Today, a proposal from President Jalal Tabalani to expand the number of vice-presidential deputies from three to four was rejected by a big majority in parliament; some say by as many as 80 percent of the deputies present.

Not all of the opposition to the proposal is equally interesting from the point of view of Iraq’s uneasy journey from an identity-oriented form of politics towards a more issues-based one. Indeed, some of the opponents are simply personal opponents of the all-Shiite National Alliance nominee to one of the vice-presidencies, Khudayr al-Khuzai. Similarly, some Iraqiyya deputies indicate they intend to freeze out Khuzai by having a vote on only three deputies individually, adding however that they want to have a Turkmen to fill the third position, thereby reiterating Talabani’s original ethno-sectarian quota logic, just in a slightly different format. The same pretty much holds true for a proposal by the Iraqiyya deputy Kazim al-Shammari to further expand the number of deputies to five in order to accommodate a Christian representative.

However, some of the protests against today’s proposed amendments are couched in more interesting terms. Shammari’s proposal for five deputies was in fact accompanied by a demand for lowering the salaries of the president and his deputies since the positions are “ceremonial” (tashrifi) only. Others have gone further. Mustafa al-Hiti, also of Iraqiyya, has claimed that a fourth vice president would be a waste of public money, and also added that the president himself holds only ceremonial powers so it would be better to spend the money on schools and hospitals than on unnecessary deputy positions. Zuhayr al-Aaraji, another Iraqiyya deputy, said positions should not be created for the purpose of satisfying individuals unless there was a real need for them. Sabah al-Saadi, an independent ex-Fadila member of the National Alliance, and the Kurdish Goran party also joined the criticism.

Perhaps the strongest condemnation of Talabani’s proposal came from Jawad al-Hasanawi, a Sadrist. He expressed his opposition to the current law of three deputy presidents and said there should be one only (the constitution demands only one), emphasising budgetary constraints. He also indicated the potential for ridicule if the logic of vice-presidential inflation is taken to its logical conclusion, with one deputy president for each of the 18 governorates, and later the whole people becoming vice-presidents: “We’re all vice presidents!!”

This tentative constellation of deputies who finally try to put the demands of the people for services higher than the demands of the politicians for jobs for themselves is a healthy trend in a parliament which has just experienced a government-formation process based on the well-known, retrograde quota-sharing principle, and whose pressing budget process again failed to move forward today.  They are, unsurprisingly, to a large extent people who are shunned by Western and Iranian diplomats, who both systematically reiterate and strengthen the ethno-sectarian quota system through their choice of conversation partners. It deserves mention that in early 2009, Mustafa al-Hiti was the parliament speaker candidate for the 22 July front, the previous promising trend in parliament that was largely undermined by Iranian efforts to recreate a broad Shiite alliance and American efforts to keep Kirkuk off the agenda during 2010. Today, Qusay Abbadi from Basra, another Iraqiyya deputy, is talking about constructing a broad opposition alliance instead of focusing on ministerial positions for their own party. That would be a welcome addition since the Kurdish Gorran is the only real opposition to speak of today, and a timely one as well, since governorate buildings are already burning in Kut in Wasit governorate in the most serious manifestation of Egypt-style protests so far – indicating to Maliki and his allies the extent to which he may be mistaken when he says “the system” in Iraq is immune to challenges from the people. Could it be that the system is indeed part of the problem?

Posted in Iraqi constitutional issues, Iraqi nationalism | 3 Comments »

In Egypt, a Popular Revolution; in Iraq, a Struggle about a Fourth Vice President

Posted by Reidar Visser on Saturday, 12 February 2011 17:25

In one of the least glorious acts of his presidency, Jalal Talabani has asked the Iraqi parliament to amend tomorrow the newly passed law on “one or more deputies for the president” so that the number of deputies can be expanded from three to four. Some reports even say Talabani has specifically requested that the law reserve the fourth seat for a Turkmen (the three persons already nominated are two Shiites and one Sunni Arab).

The realpolitik behind this move is as follows. The two biggest Kurdish parties promote a vision of Iraqi politics in which ethno-sectarian collective groups rather than the individual citizens are centre stage. In accordance with this policy, the Kurdish parties ask for ethno-sectarian quotas in government (percentages of jobs that will go to Kurds), identify “disputed territories” (where a majority of people defining themselves as “Kurds” live) and have introduced the general concept of “racial entitlement” (istihqaq qawmi) as a means of justifying these demands. Another facet of this strategy is to make as many non-Kurdish Iraqis as possible think of themselves as members of ethno-sectarian communities too, as seen particularly in the way the Kurds have been building relationships with Iraq’s Christian communities.

The latest step, then, is to reach out to the Turkmen community through the promotion of a separate Turkmen vice-presidency. This strategy makes sense for the Kurds, firstly since they need to win over Turkmens in order to advance their aim of territorial annexation of the disputed city of Kirkuk, and secondly since they are much less worried about the Turkmen as a minority community than the prospect of Turkmens and other non-Kurds joining a strong Iraqi nationalist party. Briefly put, to the Kurdish strategy, it is a good thing when the Turkmens emulate their calls for “racial entitlements” – a concept that does not occur in the constitution – instead of joining other Iraqis in cross-sectarian parties. At the same time, it is a move that will pay off nicely for Talabani, since his deputies according to the law has no other powers than what he himself delegates to them from his own, largely ceremonial prerogatives. Nonetheless, Talabani has succeeded in prompting Turkmen politicians to fight among themselves for a deputy president position that has only symbolic value, while at the same time sacrificing opportunities to obtain ministries where they could have played a more national role.

Tomorrow’s other main scheduled event in parliament, the second reading of the budget before it goes to a vote later in the month, exemplifies the potential benefits to the Kurds of promoting an ethno-sectarian paradigm in Iraqi politics. If ethno-sectarian identities were of limited significance, then one could expect many nationalists in the Iraqiyya movement to support the deputy prime minister, Hussein al-Shahristani, in his persistent reservations against recognising the contracts of the foreign companies operating in Kurdistan without adjustments. Conversely, if Iraqiyya and State of Law are unable to cooperate due to differences in which sectarian sentiments play a part, then the position of the Kurds is looking a lot stronger. Lately, of course, there are indeed signs that that appears to be the case, with Iraqiyya reportedly seeking assistance from the Kurds to achieve progress on legislation for the strategic policy council, another institution that just like the deputy presidencies will help enshrine a sectarian architecture in Iraq’s political institutions. Reports that Iraqiyya have accepted the directorship of the Sunni religious endowment authority (awqaf) would just seem to emphasise this trend towards a Sunnification of Iraqiyya; as do statements by Haydar al-Mulla of Iraqiyya that they are happy with a Turkmen president to fill the third seat as long as there is not a fourth one for a second Shiite! It is increasingly unclear whether the budget text will actually clarify the exact government position on oil exports, but the debate surrounding it will no doubt be influenced by the degree to which an ethno-sectarian quota logic continues to prevail among Iraqi politicians.

Some in the international community will no doubt laud Talabani for his latest move. (“Expanding the number from three to four – how did he think of that?”) Critics will point to the instrument of ever more vice presidents and deputy ministers as the cardinal symptom of a political system in great crisis, where quotas for imagined collective identities matter more than talent in providing services for individual citizens. Why stop at four vice presidents? Why not add some for the Christians and Sabaeans? There are plenty of sects and tribes that need recognition; in the end “Every Iraqi Is a Vice President” will be a suitable slogan.

With hopeful signs of a no-nonsense democracy in the making in Egypt, perhaps Iraq, too, will one day get a democracy that is less characterised by exogenous forces than the current system and political culture, still rooted in the days of Paul Bremer in the years from 2003 to 2004. There are signs that Iraqis are already calling for “better services” but until they also start calling for “fewer vice-presidents” their revolution is likely to remain a frustrated one.

Posted in Iraqi constitutional issues, Iraqi nationalism, Sectarian master narrative | 6 Comments »

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.

Posted in Iraqi nationalism, Sectarian master narrative | 21 Comments »