Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Archive for the ‘Sectarian master narrative’ Category

Bremerian Miscalculations at the End of a Long War

Posted by Reidar Visser on Saturday, 31 December 2011 16:20

It would have been tempting to do a year-end summary of Iraqi politics. However, in terms of achievements on the part of Iraqi politicians, there really isn’t that much to write about. In late January, Maliki moved a little on exports from the northern oilfields, thereby strengthening his alliance with the Kurds. The Arab Spring came and went but Iraq just did not seem to care: Much of the first part of 2011 was actually spent quarrelling about the exact number of deputies to the largely ceremonial presidential office. Eventually, three deputies were agreed and approved by parliament; one of them promptly resigned. In July, in a positive move, most ministers of state were dismissed from the cabinet, at least theoretically enabling a better consolidation of the sprawling cabinet. By August, the potential for a more compact coalition with an interest in extending the US presence beyond 2011 actually seemed to exist. But it fell apart again as soon as it had come into existence as Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and the Kurds began quarrelling about the oil law, with the secular Iraqiyya party somewhat surprisingly opting to support the confederalist position of the Kurds. By late October it was clear that there would be no prolonged US military presence; simultaneously, some Sunni-majority governorates became so exasperated with Maliki and his renewed anti-Baathism campaign that they began demanding federalism for their own areas on the Kurdish pattern. The US forces finally withdrew in December; this was followed by further steps on the part of Maliki to legally pursue Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi and sack Vice Premier Saleh al-Mutlak (both from the Iraqiyya party), plunging the country into a more serious political crisis than at any point since he first came to power in 2006. Anything else? The word count is at no more than 350. 

Paul Bremer to the rescue. Yes, Ambassador L. Paul Bremer. After having reportedly repostured to painting landscapes in 2004, Bremer is now talking again. And writing as well, specifically in The Wall Street Journal.

At the beginning of his op-ed, Bremer declares, “For millennia, leaders in Mesopotamia have survived by making fine calculations about power.” Presumably Bremer sees himself as part of that tradition, because “fine calculations” certainly appeared to be one of his favourite pastimes during his tenure as viceroy of Iraq. In his memoirs, he recounts how at one point he dismissed a gathering of seven Iraqis as “unrepresentative” because it contained only one Sunni Arab. According to Bremer, “representativeness” would have meant a perfect proportional reflection of the ethno-sectarian demographic balance of the population (i.e. around 1.4 Sunni Arabs in this case). In another instance, Bremer nixed the inclusion of an able Christian leader in his governing council because the Christian quota would have thereby become too big according to his own mathematics.

Eight years later, Bremer still does not seem to realise how his fine calculations actually had a detrimental effect on Iraqi politics and society.  He bombastically declares, “the year after the American-led coalition overthrew Saddam’s dictatorship in 2003, al Qaeda in Iraq revealed a cynical plan to kill and maim Shiites to spark a sectarian war. It almost worked. Only President George W. Bush’s courageous decision to surge additional troops in early 2007 saved the country.” Many Iraqis would say it was Bremer’s own focus on sectarian identities when he put together the governing council in 2003 that was the real culprit. They would also add that the “saviour” was not Bush’s surge but Iraqis themselves who began working together across sectarian lines as they discovered just how flawed the constitution they had adopted with American support in 2005 was.

At times, Bremer just cannot seem to make up his mind whether we should cry or be happy about the new Iraq. It is almost touching how he enlists modernisation theory methodology that was in the vogue in the 1950s to count telephones as an indicator of how wonderful everything is in the post-2003 democratic era! But eventually he does find an answer: Everything is fine, except “al Qaeda and Iranian terrorists still active in Iraq”.

Perhaps the most substantially interesting piece of information in the Bremer op-ed is the suggestion that “quiet diplomacy had secured the agreement of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani not to oppose a continued American presence [beyond 2011]”. Back in 2008, National Security Council types would tell us the same thing: Sistani supposedly wanted a long-term military pact with the Americans; only the evil Sadrists opposed it. As is well known, Maliki crushed the Sadrists that year and went on to dictate strict time limits for the SOFA concluded with the Americans. In other words, the Sistani factor never seemed to come into play. Perhaps because it was never based on anything more than some ambiguous statement by his son, Muhammad Rida?

More fundamentally, Bremer’s musings on these topics are typical of a prevalent trend in US policy-making circles in which Iraqi Shiites are seen as profoundly anti-Iranian across the board. That thesis is based on good scholarship by Yitzhak Nakash which rightly identifies anti-Iranian trends in parts of the Iraqi Shiite community. But it also contains unfortunate generalisations in which the Shiites are posited as a monolithic community. In fact, the Shiites that were propelled to political prominence by Bremer and other Americans after 2003 happened to be the minority with particularly close ties to Iran.

As for the current situation, Bremer correctly diagnoses a state of crisis in Iraqi politics.“Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, issued an arrest warrant for the country’s vice president, a Sunni, who then fled to the northern Kurdish area.”  And unsurprisingly, the cure prescribed by Bremer is more US intelligence and military intervention: “We should also seek ways to extend our contacts with the Iraqi military, with the eventual goal of returning at least a cadre of U.S. forces to Iraq. Training Iraqi forces outside Iraq, in the U.S. or elsewhere, could be a useful step.”

“Sunnis” and “Shiites”. Clearly, Bremer is at it again. His op-ed is an unspoken mea culpa second only to that of another former Iraq ambassador, Chris Hill and constitutes a much less effective neo-conservative criticism of the Iraq policies of the Obama administration than that previously put forward by Charles Krauthammer. Put simply, Mr. Bremer, you’ve got the wrong calculator: With analytical tools like that, there really is no point in going back.

Let’s settle for the more modest new year’s wish that one year from now there actually exists a recognisable Iraq to write about.

Posted in Sectarian master narrative, US policy in Iraq: Leverage issues | 28 Comments »

Thoughts, More Than Actions, Shaped the Iraq War Legacy

Posted by Reidar Visser on Friday, 16 December 2011 18:38

When the last remaining American forces withdraw from Iraq at the end of this month, they will be leaving behind a country that is politically unstable, increasingly volatile, and at risk of descending into the sort of sectarian fighting that killed thousands in 2006 and 2007… Full story here (New York Times op-ed on the formal end of the Iraq War).

Comments section open as usual below.

Posted in Sectarian master narrative, US policy in Iraq: Leverage issues | 14 Comments »

VP Biden and the Great American Reposture in the Middle East

Posted by Reidar Visser on Friday, 2 December 2011 19:35

So, it’s over, or mostly so. The visit to Iraq by US vice-president Joe Biden this week marked the symbolic end of the US-led Iraq War and the beginning of a new era in which a so-called Strategic Framework Agreement will govern US-Iraq relations.

First, don’t get fooled by that impressive framework term (yes, it’s called the SFA in US government parlance). This may sound fancy, but to Iraq it means simply a normal bilateral relationship between two independent countries. Other countries may have their own SFAs with Iraq as well, formal or informal, and in the long run it’s the realities on the ground – not how US government media advisors choose to spin it – that will count.

But the vice-presidential visit this week was of course mostly about spin. Basically, it was the usual Biden menu of gaffe, humour and pomposity delivered with unmistakable self-confidence and no particular regard for the facts on the ground. Biden even referred to US hospital-building in the great Iraqi city of Baku!  (The Transparent White House© was courageous enough to publish the little hiccup as delivered, with a tiny sic inserted not so gently within the flowery prose of the VP).

More substantially, the remarkable feature of Biden’s speeches was that he is finally beginning to talk about Iraq as a nation, instead of the compulsive references to Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds that characterised the public Iraq diplomacy of the Obama administration in 2009–2010. Instead of references to the sub-categories of Iraqis, Biden now talked about “this great nation”. Those who talk about civil war and fragmentation, according to Biden, “not only misunderstand the Iraqi politics, but they underestimate the Iraqi people”! Apparently, this time around Biden even forgot to visit his old favourite, Ammar al-Hakim of ISCI, a Shiite sectarian party that for a long time enjoyed access to most areas in Washington.

Too bad it’s too late to talk like that now. Biden’s remarks come at a time when Iraq as a nation appears to be in far greater danger than back in 2006 when Biden himself prophesised disintegration and advocated controlled devolution. Biden would have realised this had he focused on qualitative instead of quantitative indicators in his speech: The number of violent incidents may be down, but Sunni-majority areas of Iraq are showing an unprecedented interest in self-rule and even separatism from what they see as a Shiite Islamist monopoly in Baghdad. When Biden says, “we were able to turn lemons into lemonade”, refers to “a political culture based on free elections and the rule of law” and even highlights “Iraq’s emerging, inclusive political culture… (as) the ultimate guarantor of stability”, he is simply making things up.

It is perhaps symptomatic that Biden’s exit from Iraq – probably the last top Washington official to leave the country prior to the full withdrawal – should take place via Arbil, the Kurdish regional capital. Even though rhetorically, the Obama administration has moved away from Biden’s erstwhile predilection for sects and ethnicities, it has never backed this up consistently in its own policies. Nothing symbolises the contradiction in US policy better than the tension between a rhetorical focus on the national whole and the constant pandering to centrifugal forces: US state visits to Spain do not always include Catalonia and the Basque Country as separate ports of call, so why should Iraq – another federal country – be any different?

Biden closed by saying that “oil’s the glue that’s going to hold this country together”. That’s an optimistic forecast at a time when Biden’s own Kurdish hosts are considering using oil as a weapon to dismantle Iraq as a country, and increasingly enlist US oil companies as part of their efforts.

Posted in Iraq and soft partition, Sectarian master narrative, US policy in Iraq: Leverage issues | 12 Comments »

Christopher Hill and the Iraq War Legacy

Posted by Reidar Visser on Sunday, 30 October 2011 19:42

In a recent opinion piece for CNN, Christopher Hill, the former US ambassador to Iraq who served there from April 2009 to August 2010, discusses the legacy of the Iraq War in light of the recent US decision to not seek a continued military presence beyond 2011. Among his key points is that it would be wrong to plunge into a discussion about “who lost Iraq”… Full story here.

Posted in Sectarian master narrative, US policy in Iraq: Leverage issues | 22 Comments »

Maliki, the Fayli Kurds, and the Return to an Ethno-Sectarian Political Discourse in Iraq

Posted by Reidar Visser on Sunday, 2 October 2011 19:34

Ever since he came to power in 2006, a key issue for Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki has been the tension between, on the one hand, a majoritarian, all-Iraqi politicial discourse, and, on the other, a discourse that instead emphasises the identity of separate ethnicities and sects.

In a speech to a gathering of Fayli Kurds yesterday, Maliki certainly emphasised ethno-sectarian identity. Firstly, Maliki stressed that the Faylis had suffered more than any other Iraqi community because they are “both Kurds and Shiites”. But not only that. Maliki advised the Faylis to seek “unity” within the component (mukawwin), meaning he demanded political conformity across the imagined “Fayli Kurd community”. He went on to suggest that the census to be carried out in Iraq in the future would make clear how many Fayli Kurds there are in Iraq! This would effectively transform the census to a questionnaire about more than mother tongue (Arabic, Kurdish or Turkish) and main religion (Muslim versus Christian): It is mainly their Shiite sectarian identity that sets the Faylis apart from other Kurds.

Seen in isolation, one could wonder whether Maliki perhaps was simply following a strategy of reinforcing sub-divisions among the Kurds, as seen before in Iraqi history and perhaps most prominently in the case of the Shabak around Mosul. But Maliki’s tendency to focus more on the components than the whole has been a consistent trend since the disappointing result for his State of Law coalition in the 7 March 2010 parliamentary elections. Back then, Maliki expressed disappointment that his hope of building a political-majority government had been crushed, and that the alternative of an ethno-sectarian power-sharing formula would likely lead to ineffective government. However, Maliki soon seemed to adapt to the new realities. Already in August 2010, people in his alliance (and the US ambassador to Iraq, Christopher Hill) expressed the view that the prime minister “had to be a Shiite”. This year, Maliki and his State of Law allies have increasingly expressed the view that certain posts should be given to sects, as seen especially in the call for the defence ministry to go to a Sunni. These are all important steps towards the permanent Lebanonisation of Iraq.

There are of course examples of brave resistance and cases where Iraqi national sentiment clearly does survive. When Turkmens in Kirkuk recently demanded an ethnic Turkmen militia to protect them, Sunni Arabs from the same area instead called for central government intervention, notwithstanding the fact that the Iraqi army is now Shiite-dominated. Similarly, those Sunni Arabs were among the first to reject the idea of a Sunni federal region when it hit the political agenda this summer.

Away from political elites, many ordinary Faylis continue to express unhappiness about being labelled as anything other than Iraqis. However, it seems Prime Minister Maliki is now giving them pretty little choice.

Posted in Sectarian master narrative, UIA dynamics | 13 Comments »

Washington Heads Buried in Middle Eastern Sand

Posted by Reidar Visser on Wednesday, 28 September 2011 19:57

Here is what Leon Panetta, the US defence secretary, had to say about Iranian influence in Iraq during the recent Senate Armed Services Committee hearing:

“I think Prime Minister Maliki – I think he understands that he – his country cannot allow Iran to be able to conduct that kind of influence within his country, provide those kinds of weapons and basically undermine his government.

That’s what’s happening and I think he gets that message. But we’re going to have to continue to make sure that – that they take the right steps and I think Iran needs to understand that we’re going to be around awhile here, making very clear to them that we’re not – we’re not simply going to ignore what Iran is doing in – in Iraq.”

Once more, it seems, the United States government is pre-occupied with so-called “special groups” as the prime instrument of malign Iranian influence in Iraq. Kataib Hizbollah, Asaib Ahl al-Haqq and the Promised Day Brigades are reckoned as the most dangerous pro-Iranian challenges to political stability in Iraq and have even been elevated to the status of an acronym (SG) in American military terminology – probably the safest possible indication that you are taken seriously in DC. Of course, some US analysts also include the mainline Sadrist movement on their lists of potential Iraqi troublemakers.

The problem with this approach to the subject of Iranian influence in Iraq is its myopic, one-sided character. It ignores at least two other key aspects of Iranian strategy: Maintaining a sectarian definition of politics and keeping de-Baathification as a key issue on the political agenda in Iraq. We can probably add a third aspect: A touch of “divide and rule” once a sectarian Shiite governing coalition had been safely put in place again in December 2010. This could include encouraging general state fragmentation, be it through federalism or consociational “power-sharing” with merely symbolic value.

The problem in Iraq is not so much that these aspects of Iranian grand strategy go undetected by Washington. The problem in Iraq is that Washington actively abets Iranian strategy in these areas. In 2010, during the run-up to the parliamentary elections, Ambassador Christopher Hill basically extended support to the process of ad hoc, illegal pre-election de-Baathification. Once the elections had been done with, Hill went on to endorse the sectarian idea that the next Iraqi premier “had to be a Shiite”.  With this kind US support for most of its strategy in Iraq, Iran can afford to use the “special groups” as an auxiliary to its general approach, adjusting its force in a secondary cat and mouse game with what remains of US military forces there.

Alas, in the Middle Eastern region more broadly, there are worrying signs that the Americans are unable to comprehend what went so seriously wrong in Iraq. In a recent (20 September) New York Times article on Syria, an unnamed US official declared that “nobody wants another Iraq”. But the whole article suggested that precisely those same epistemological mistakes that derailed US policy in Iraq are still thriving in Washington. Here were quotes from Vali Nasr, talking as before about “Sunnis” and “Shiites” as if these constituted coherent monolithic  communities. And the article author, Helene Cooper, remarked, “the United States has been exploring how to deal with the possibility of a civil war among the Allawite, Druse, Christian and Sunni sects in Syria” before adding that the US ambassador remains in the country “so he can maintain contact with opposition leaders and the leaders of Syria’s myriad sects and religious groups.”

In Iraq it was “mosaic”; maybe in Syria it will be “myriad”. It is a good thing that the US cannot seem to have the courage to intervene in Syria. Maybe it would be even better if Washington and the US mainstream media at large would simply shut up before they talk Syria to pieces exactly like they did with Iraq?

This is a companion article to a more analytical piece published in the Combating Terrorism Center Sentinel, titled “Religious Allegiances among Pro-Iranian Special Groups in Iraq”. The comments section is open for both articles below.

Posted in Sectarian master narrative, UIA dynamics | 23 Comments »

The Political-Majority Alternative to the Current Iraqi Government: Conceptual Confusion among Iraqi Politicians

Posted by Reidar Visser on Saturday, 3 September 2011 20:09

Several Iraqi politicians have used the last days of the Eid to send public messages about their political visions. Unfortunately, these statements contain few grounds for optimism – whether related to completion of the current Maliki government or the formation of a new government.

One of these voices is that of Ammar al-Hakim, the current leader of ISCI and a returned exile, who spent more than two years from 2005 to 2008 in a futile bid to convince the population of the Shiite-majority governorates south of Baghdad to join together in a new, all-Shiite federal entity. ISCI subsequently lost much of its influence thanks to poor performances in the January 2009 local elections and the March 2010 parliamentary ones.

Most recently, in his Eid address, Hakim once more proved his limited ability to grasp new currents in Iraqi politics. Hakim reportedly said he would “welcome a political-majority government” if it meant “deepening the representation of the social components in Iraq”!

The whole point of the concept of the political-majority government – as it emerged mainly in the rhetoric of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki following his successful performance in the local elections of January 2009 – is to create an antithesis to the concept of power-sharing based on ethno-sectarian quotas. A political-majority government would ignore any considerations related to “the components of the Iraqi people”, and would instead focus on issue-based political agreement. Such a government would probably include Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds and Turkmens because Iraq is a mixed society, but this would not be the primary consideration governing its composition. Rather, political views, ability and competence would be the main criteria in the selection of ministers. This in turn might produce patterns of ethno-sectarian participation in the government that diverged somewhat from a proportional model, but such a result would result from historical accident rather than from a systematic attempt at excluding anyone on the basis of ethnicity or sect. For example, throughout the monarchy era there was systematic under-representation of Shiites, but at least in some periods this had to do with the legacy of poor Shiite education during the late Ottoman period. Similarly, Shiites are over-represented on the Iraqi national soccer team, thanks not least to the fact that Shiites did very well in sports during the days of the Saddam Hussein regime.

Of course, Maliki himself has travelled a long way from the principles he professed in 2009. Lately, his attempt at defining the defence ministry as a “Sunni” prerogative that could be held by any Sunni (and preferably one with no links to his rivals in the secular Iraqiyya) has taken him quite far in the direction of contradictions reminiscent of those of Hakim. In 2011 Maliki has been trying to build an alternative rainbow coalition of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, except that the numbers simply do not add up. Basically, Maliki’s strategy seems based on an unrealistic take on what sort of “Sunni” support he can drum up from dissenters in Iraqiyya. Much like Saddam Hussein, Maliki is paying lip service to the concept of Iraqi nationalism and “political majorities”, but in practice he is continuing to recruit from a very narrow ideological and sectarian platform. Thus, when a Maliki ally recently stated that the concept of “balance” (tawazun, a concept used mostly by the Kurds but recently also sometimes by Iraqiyya to demand ethno-sectarian quotas) would “consecrate sectarian divisions and harm the political process”, he was right and wrong at the same time: True, it would be better to ignore quotas if an ideological alternative that could achieve a majority really existed, but the State of Law bloc seems singularly incapable of increasing its number of deputies beyond its Shiite Islamist core to the point where this kind of lofty ideal might be turned into reality.

For their part, Iraqiyya have perhaps been the loudest advocates of withdrawing confidence in the existing government or calling new elections. Lately, Talal al-Zubawi envisioned a coalition of 180 deputies from Iraqiyya, “some of the Kurds”, ISCI and the Sadrists that would withdraw confidence from Maliki. That would be a real “political-majority” alternative. If it existed in the real world, that is. The trouble is that few things other than their hatred of Maliki bring these groups together. In the case of the Sadrists, in particular, one can easily get the impression that their participation in the “political-majority” alternative to Maliki is mainly a smokescreen designed to obtain further concessions from Maliki in the current government – which in turn might further emphasise sectarian antagonisms within it. Zubawi’s allusion to a Kurdish split on what to do with Maliki is nonetheless interesting in itself.

Constitutionally, there are two possible ways to forming a new Iraqi government: Withdrawal of confidence in the current government and the formation of a new one based on the presidential prerogative of identifying the “biggest bloc” in parliament, or new elections altogether. Since Iraqiyya appear somewhat distrustful of President Jalal Talabani – still considered a Maliki ally – their most likely preference would be new elections. But in a recent op-ed in The Washington Post, Iraqiyya leader Ayyad Allawi hinted at another problem: Those elections would have to be conducted with an impartial judiciary. That in turn illustrates the dilemma of Iraqiyya in deciding whether to participate in the current government in order to bring about reform from within, or opting for a more radical course such as new elections.

Posted in Iraq's 2010 parliamentary election, Iraqi constitutional issues, Sectarian master narrative, UIA dynamics | 36 Comments »

The Last Straw? Maliki Appoints Dulaymi as Acting Minister of Defence

Posted by Reidar Visser on Wednesday, 17 August 2011 20:26

The newswires began reporting this item yesterday and today it has been generally confirmed: Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has appointed the culture minister, Sadun al-Dulaymi, as acting minister of defence. Dulaymi held the same portfolio in the Ibrahim al-Jaafari government in 2005-2006.

The significance of the appointment relates to two levels. Firstly, in terms of the architecture of the second Maliki government, it means Maliki could be seen as moving towards consolidating a situation in which no regular parliament appointments may take place for some time with respect to the security ministries: In early June he appointed Falih al-Fayyad of the Jaafari wing of the Daawa movement as acting minister of state for national security, whereas Maliki himself continues as acting interior minister. This is a different scenario from what happened in 2006, at which time it was precisely the security ministries that held up the completion of the government after the first posts had been allocated in May, but a solution was subsequently found and the full cabinet was approved by parliament in June.

Secondly, at the political level, the latest move is a clear rebuke to the secular Iraqiyya, which has lately signalled unhappiness about the direction in which  the second Maliki government is evolving. Whereas Dulaymi may technically belong to the Unity of Iraq faction (which has technically been enrolled in Iraqiyya recently), it is very clear that Dulaymi is not the candidate of the leadership of Iraqiyya. In other words, he is what Maliki sometimes describes as a “Sunni candidate” rather than an Iraqiyya candidate. The more this kind of sectarian logic gets reified in the Iraqi government, the more we get back to the political atmosphere of 2006 when sectarian violence was at its height.

The problem with what Maliki is doing is that he continues to act as a strongman with a parliamentary majority in a context where it has been proved time and again that he doesn’t. Firstly, he seems to think White Iraqiyya (a small breakaway faction of Iraqiyya) can provide him with a “secular” cover and Dulaymi can do the same thing in terms of “integrating Sunnis”, but the numbers just don’t add up. Secondly, he keeps forgetting that the all-Shiite National Alliance rarely exists as a true united force in parliament, with the Sadrists, ISCI and other elements frequently disagreeing with Maliki. Indeed, many of Maliki’s own moves to maintain focus on his own, smaller State of Law bloc undermine the idea of a unified Shiite alliance. It indicates a complete lack of realism when Daawa members call the Dulaymi nomination a “move to stop regional influences in the defence ministry question”, which effectively means they dismiss all the 9 named Iraqiyya candidates for defence as stooges of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.

By circumventing a parliamentary vote, Maliki is trying to consolidate his own power despite his narrow parliamentary support base. The question is how long the other parties will tolerate this. Iraqiyya has already been talking about new elections for a while, though mainly with reference to the stalling process to establish a national council for high policies. Arguably, the defence ministry is a far better issue on which to bring matters to a head: A defence minister from Iraqiyya would deepen its integration into the government, whereas the strategic council is likely to remain a paper tiger. As usual, the swing vote will rest with the Kurds, who have been unhappy about lack of progress on their many demands to Maliki for joining the government, but who at the same time support the conceptual framework of ethno-sectarian quota arrangements that lies behind the Dulaymi appointment.

One potentially positive outcome of the appointment of Dulaymi would be the incentive to get rid of the useless culture ministry altogether and maybe merge the three education-related ministries into one: That at least would be in line with the latest signals from the Iraqi public who want an effective government fast.

Posted in Iraq's 2010 parliamentary election, Sectarian master narrative | 38 Comments »

Bulani-Mania in Iraq

Posted by Reidar Visser on Saturday, 13 August 2011 16:42

After he formed his own electoral coalition known as Unity of Iraq in summer 2009, former interior minister Jawad al-Bulani has largely disappeared from the limelight in Iraq. His new coalition, which in many ways resembled an Iraqiyya in miniature with a secular ideology, a Shiite leader and a largely Sunni support base, performed poorly in the parliamentary elections of March 2010 and played no significant role in the formation of the second Maliki government in December 2010. But for the past month or so, Bulani has once more attracted the interest of Iraqi media.

The first occasion on which Bulani came to the fore again was in July after the merger of his Unity of Iraq bloc with Iraqiyya. Unity of Iraq had originally emerged with only 4 deputies after the parliamentary elections and had first moved to form a post-election alliance known as Wasat with the equally unsuccessful Tawafuq coalition (6 deputies) with which it had few ideological commonalities. After the merger of Iraqiyya and Unity of Iraq, the rump of Wasat – basically the old Tawafuq – for a short while remained independent in parliament. However, recently Tawafuq moved to join Iraqiyya as well. Inevitably, in isolation these moves left a sense of greater sectarian polarisation in Iraqi politics, not least since the only branch of Iraqiyya that defected after the elections – White Iraqiyya – is Shiite-dominated and has recently been strengthened by yet another ex-Iraqiyya deputy from Karbala. For its part, despite Bulani being a Shiite and Unity of Iraq having a certain cross-sectarian appeal, Iraqiyya is certainly looking somewhat more Sunni-leaning after the latest co-option of Tawafuq, which in many ways was the quintessential “Sunni party” in the previous parliament.

Soon after the merger with Iraqiyya, some of Bulani’s troubles came to the fore. In an embarrassing development, the leader of Unity of Iraq had failed to win a seat for himself in the March 2010 election. Nonetheless, he was given a replacement seat earlier this year after a member of his coalition, Ali al-Sajri, was promoted  as minister of state in the new Maliki government. However, the problem was that Sajri had been a candidate in Salahaddin whereas Bulani had been a candidate in Baghdad, making his replacement distinctly at variance with the law on the replacement of candidates as well as the constitutionally stipulated balance of deputies between the governorates. Finally, in a much-overlooked development, on 10 August the Iraqi federal supreme court  announced that it had overruled the Iraqi parliament’s decision on replacement seats and deprived Bulani of the seat that he had been awarded earlier. There are several problems related to the ruling, including the question of why the same principles were not used against several other deputies (including individuals from the Sadrists, Fadila and Tawafuq) whose replacement of other deputies had featured exactly the same problems as those highlighted in the case of Bulani. So far, however, the only lingering protests considering the replacement seats seem to concern the seat given to a member of Iraqiyya after a White Iraqiyya member was given a ministry of state in February, as well as rather implausible protests by ministers affected by the recent downsizing of the government to the effect that they should get their parliamentary seats back (instead, those ministers should have protested the modalities of the downsizing procedure). 

Just to make matters worse, Bulani recently offered a press statement which left considerable doubt about his ability to read the Iraqi constitution properly: On 26 July, he told media that the Iraqi parliament should be reduced to 163 members, supposedly to reflect the correct proportion of deputies per voter!  In fact, what Bulani cited was the old elections law of 2005 and not the constitution. One of the reasons the election law was amended in 2009 was precisely that it was in conflict with the constitution in this regard.

At any rate (and possibly not entirely unrelated to the loss of his parliamentary seat and/or the recent merger with Iraqiyya), Bulani is now on the offensive again: He has suddenly become Iraqiyya’s candidate to head the defence ministry. This is an interesting move for numerous reasons. Firstly, back in 2006, Bulani had of course been the “Shiite compromise candidate” for interior (when the formation of the government was also held up for many months precisely due to bickering about who should hold the sensitive security ministries). Secondly, as a secular Shiite promoted by a coalition seen by some of its detractors as “too Sunni”, Bulani creates trouble for anyone who wants to adopt a neat sectarian perspective on Iraqi politics. In this respect, it is noteworthy that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki himself has lately tried to label the defence post as a “Sunni prerogative” (rather than the rightful share of Iraqyya) in a sectarian and not too subtle move to circumvent the preferences of the Iraqiyya leaders for this post.

Bulani’s re-emergence as a candidate for defence in Iraq is potentially fruitful in the way it makes a mess of sectarian expectations that the defence post should go to a Sunni and interior to a Shiite. But by continuing to push for the strategic policy council, Bulani’s Iraqiyya is clinging to an oversized power-sharing formula for the Iraqi government which remains antithetical to recent public demands for a smaller, more effective cabinet. If Maliki is smart, he will accept Bulani and then see how this move influences internal politics in Iraqiyya, which in terms of numbers of important ministries will then be reasonably and comparatively speaking well integrated into his government after the recent downsizing. Unless Maliki is able to obtain allies outside his own core coalition that are prepared to challenge the strategic policy council favoured by Iraqiyya, an acrimonious debate about the council may well continue to dominate Iraqi politics for weeks and months at a time when focus on a new bilateral arrangement between Iraq and the United States is needed. Conversely, if Maliki is unwise and unrealistic, he will continue the futile search for “Sunnis outside Iraqiyya” to fill the defence ministry post.

Bulani, incidentally, is reasonably well liked in the United States for the work he did during his tenure at interior.

Posted in Iraq's 2010 parliamentary election, Iraqi constitutional issues, Iraqi nationalism, Sectarian master narrative, UIA dynamics | 36 Comments »

The Terror Attacks in Oslo: Anders Behring Breivik on the Middle East and Islam

Posted by Reidar Visser on Sunday, 24 July 2011 15:07

[The subject is on the margins of the topics covered here at Iraq and Gulf Analysis, but in response to requests for commentary on the 22 July Oslo terrorist attacks, a few notes on the internet writings of the alleged suspect in the case are presented below as far as they relate to the Middle East and the Islamic world more generally.]

In his postings on the website document.no, Anders Behring Breivik comes across as an articulate and intellectual commenter. However, his writings also reveal an extreme leitmotif of an alleged grand conspiracy between most of the political establishments in Europe (often referred to as ”Marxists”, but also as “multi-culturalists”) and Muslims that are aiming to change Europe in the name of multi-culturalism. In their most pitched versions, Breivik’s postings merge these two concepts and refer to “multiculturalists” as the “facilitators of the jihadists”. It is clear from at least some of his comments that in the Norwegian context, Breivik sees the ruling Labour party (which was targeted in the Utoya attacks) as an important vector of that dreadful “multi-culturalism”.

Central to Breivik’s analysis is the concept of “dhimmitude”, which he has apparently picked up from one of his main inspirations, the Norwegian blogger Fjordland, who is a long-standing critic of Islam and political Islam. Fjordland in turn borrowed the concept from Israeli writer Bet Yaor. Dhimmitude is a reference to the status of non-Muslims in the Ottoman Empire, where they were protected but also lived as second-class citizens without the same rights as Muslims. Breivik uses this concept to make sense of his own teenage experiences in Oslo’s East End, where immigrants dominate several neighbourhoods and are increasing their demographic share. In Breivik’s view, this involves a process of growing “dhimmitude” or second-class citizenship for the remaining inhabitants of non-immigrant background.  People in these areas, according to Breivik, must increasingly conform to Islamic ways of life and norms rather than to Norwegian law.

Another distinguishing feature in Breivik’s writings is his rather implausible attempts to establish parallels from Middle Eastern to European history. In a typical example from document.no, Breivik at least three times tries to create such a parallel between the demographic development in Lebanon in the twentieth century and coming trends in Europe. Supposedly, according to Behring, Lebanon had 80% Christians in 1911, before a process of collaboration set in:

“We all know, by the way, what happened to the Christians of Lebanon. Lebanon was once a Christian country (80% in 1911). When the Muslims became a majority in 1970 (an increase of 40% in only 60 years) they declared war. The reason for the demographic growth [of the Muslims] was the appeasement policy of the Marxists (they allowed demographic warfare). The Marxists had anticipated that they would obtain a special dhimmi status, which of course failed to materialise. Today, there are less than 25% Christians in Lebanon and even the Christian Marxists live in difficult circumstances. Do you really believe that you [leftists, “Marxists”] will obtain special dhimmi status in Western Europe some decades down the line when ALL historical examples indicate that Christian Marxists have been back-stabbed time and again?”

Of course, Breivik’s estimate of “80% Christians” in Lebanon in 1911 is as problematic as its identification on a map one decade before it came into existence as a country. Or as those growth figures of the Muslims – truly remarkable as Breivik says, but might that have something to do with underestimates of Muslims in early accounts, different growth rates and emigration patterns rather than with “demographic warfare” as Breivik alleges? And who are those omnipotent Christian Marxists of Lebanon anyway?  But Breivik keeps going back to his Lebanon argument again and again (and its main source: Mark K. Tomass, whose 1997 journal article on the subject has not been quoted a lot by others), also when posting on mainstream websites like that of the Norwegian newspaper VG using a shorter form of his name.

Nor does Breivik shy away from commenting on Sunni-Shiite issues and the geopolitical tug-of-war in the region:

“I have never understood why the West focuses so disproportionately on Iran compared to Saudi Arabia, which after all is the most powerful and most dangerous Muslim great power. True, we should bomb those suspect installations [in Iran] but other than that we need to focus far more on Saudi Arabia. Could this have to do with the fact that Iran is not a big oil exporter?

Shiites make up a relatively small proportion of all Muslims and exercise no influence whatsoever on Sunnis. To be honest, I’d say we undermine our own interests by attacking the sole existing, relatively weak alternative to Sunni Islam. If Iran falls, the position of the Wahhabis will be strengthened quite significantly since they will have no competition. We should not forget that Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Muslim countries want to crush Iran. It is not Iran that is behind some 300 to 500 Wahhabi centres across Europe, and they finance only two out of 30 Jihad fronts worldwide.”

In other words, Breivik is somewhat clueless about the Middle East, but not more clueless than, say, an average US politician. Many of the sources he quotes copiously, including Daniel Pipes, are well-respected in the US public debate about the region, and the idea of Shiism as “the good Islam” and a potential ally for the United States circulated among many think tankers in the early days of the Iraq War. Like many respectable politicians, Breivik voices support for Christian separatism projects worldwide, including southern Sudan. He expresses sympathy with Lou Dobbs with reference to the way in which he was forced to leave the CNN. Also, contrary to what many newspaper reports claim, he explicitly criticises Nazism, both for its genocidal actions as well as its state-centred economic theories.

Rather, it is in his postings on Norwegian affairs that Breivik’s one-sided, black and white and extreme master narrative becomes most evident. He complains, “100 Norwegians have been killed in racist/Jihadi murders during the past 15 years without getting attention, but a single murder committed by a Norwegian racist prompted a vigil of 50,000 participants and the establishment of a commemorative fund”. To most Norwegians other than Breivik, it is difficult to see the “jihadi” motive in those murders, which may well have no other aspect in common that they were committed by people with an immigrant background. But with his conspiracy theory, Breivik sees a jihadi plot and externally imposes a motive of jihadism in every action by immigrants and their supposed native collaborators. Similarly, in a pun which perhaps should have made alarm clocks go off, Breivik describes former Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland as “murderer of the Norwegian people”.

By the time Breivik posted his last comment on Document.no in late October 2010, he still seemed focused on a practical action plan for furthering his political views. Some of his posts feature calls to like-minded people for winning control over newspapers and NGOs as part of a long-term strategy.  Some of his sources of inspiration, such as Fjordland, have previously been explicitly anti-terrorist, and he himself highlights the Tea Party movement in the United States as a hopeful model to follow for European right-wingers (to some of whom he appears to have established links).  However, Breivik’s take on Middle Eastern issues at document.no are strikingly similar to a far more radical English-language manifesto, “2083: A European Declaration of Independence”, that was released on the day of the Oslo bombings and has since been attributed to him, although parts of it are clearly lifted from other sources. The document repeats many of the themes of Breivik’s postings at document.no, including a paranoid fear of the Mediterranean initiatives of the EU as a door-opener for an Islamic conquest of Europe. There is also more detailed commentary on the Middle East, with quotes supportive of the idea of a Christian federal region in Iraq as well as the Syrian Baathist, Allawite-led regime, because of its protection of Christians! But the action plan in this second document is far more chilling and foreshadows the violence that was unleashed in Oslo on 22 July.

Whether today’s alleged mass murder already coexisted with the armchair generalist who wrote far-fetched but moderately eloquent postings on document.no in October 2010 or whether Breivik was subject to a subsequent  process of radicalisation that concluded with his violent attempt at declaring “European independence” remains to be seen.

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