My view: US opposition to Iraqi nationalism bears its grotesque fruit
The Kurds have their traditional claim to the north, with potential for elbowing the Arabs out of oil-rich Kirkuk. That was what the academics call a "given". Then SCIRI in the person of Abdulaziz al-Hakim staked its claim to the south, winning a bitterly disputed vote in parliament on Wednesday, and effectively pushing aside other Shiite groups including the Sadrists and the Fadhila, which have their own power bases in the south and don't like the idea of a SCIRI empire in the whole southern region, and pushing aside also the Sunni parties and other nationalists focused on the need for a strong central government as the obvious priority. That was really the key event. And now, in what you could call the logical outcome, four days after the federalism vote, AlQaeda stakes its claim to the center, from Anbar in the west to the Iranian border in the east, and from the southern outskirts of Baghdad up to Kirkuk in the north.
The dream of the nationalists for unity around the re-establishment of a strong central government has increasingly become just that: a dream. That's because the Sadrists and Fadhila in the south now have the territorial ambitions of SCIRI to contend with; and the Sunni parties based in the center will have the impossible task of differentiating themselves from the Islamic Nation pretensions of AlQaeda. How did it happen?
Not long ago, it was still possible to imagine the nationalist aims of the Sadrists and those of the Sunni and secular parties coming together as the core of the new Iraq. That possibility has now been blown apart, and not just through violence, but also through politics. How exactly?
The simple answer is that the nationalists were effectively sidelined. If anyone ever has a chance to write the history of this period, they will undoubtedly point to a lot of things we currently have no inkling of, but that history will surely include at least the following three cornerstones (actually "missing links" as far as the Western media is concerned):
(1) US support for SCIRI. There was aggressive US support for the SCIRI candidate in the long-drawn-out dispute over appointment of a Prime Minister during the winter and spring of 2006.The question-mark that hung over this issue is still there: Why would the US support the candidate of the party generally recognized as closest to Iran? And the answer will turn out to be: It is because he supported federalism and opposed the nationalist trend of the Sadrists and others. (Eventually there was a compromise in the person of Nuri al-Maliki, who, as it is now clear to see, was just the person to stand aside and let the federalism campaign take its course under the guidance of SCIRI leader Hakim).
(2) Willful blindness in Washington. Lack of support for the nationalists in the US Congress. History will award at least a cameo appearance to Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, senior Democrat in the Senate Foreign Affairs committee, for his federalism proposal. You don't actually need to know anything about the proposal, except that it was wrapped in a thick blanket of generalities, and also this: When he was asked how he proposed to go about convincing the other side in the Iraqi debate (the nationalists) to switch to his proposal, his response was in effect to deny that there are any nationalists. Here's the exchange with a reporter at Biden's press conference:
The second question is, what’s your message to the people on the other side who are resisting that proposal? Why should they buy into your plan?Translation: "Nationalists = militia, jihadis and former Saddamists". Biden is actually a Democrat, but his approach seems to owe a lot to the Karl Rove wing of the Republican Party, where the procedure is this: Opponents of the president = validators of terrorism, pre-9/11 anachronists. (Here's the link to the Biden q&a. The above text is toward the bottom, the questioner is Jeff Morley of Wapo.com).
BIDEN: Well, I don’t think the militia—some of the militia, I don’t think the jihadis, and I don’t think the—a lot of the former Saddamists are going to buy into it under any circumstance. The question is how do you buy away their support? How do you undermine their ability to continue to have the kind of sway and impact they have? And that’s the answer to your second question.
(3) Adamant US opposition to a withdrawal-timetable. Sadr and the Sunni parties continued to demand a firm timetable for US withdrawal from Iraq. For the Sunni parties, this was a condition for helping to bring the armed Sunni national-resistance groups into the political process. The US priority has been to not commit to a US withdrawal timetable, and this was a major reason why the National Reconciliation process has stalled, and why the process has become one of increasing splits and divisions, culminating in the events of the last week.
(4) The skulduggery of October. Washington favorite and former CIA asset Iyad Allawi heads a group called the Iraqi List, with 25 members in parliament, and Allawi's ostensible position was to oppose this federalism bill and join in the boycott. But the federalism forces were having a problem assembling a quorum, and inexplicably eight of Allawi's people showed up and voted for the bill, something Azzaman and al-Hayat both agreed "tipped the balance" in favor of the bill. Embarassed, Allawi's group has now promised an internal "investigation" to see why this happened. This is what they call "sloppy execution". Washington ally Allawi ended up being centered out.
Consistent US support for the dismemberment of Iraq seems counterintuitive given the concerns about Iran. On the other hand there is no evidence of any US support for the nationalists, and there are at least the above four indicators of US support for the SCIRI federalism project.
Until recently, the predominant political debate in Iraq has been between two priorities: (1) Reconstituting a strong central government, keeping a sense of national identity, fighting the foreign agenda of dismemberment, and (importantly) ensuring the prompt removal of the foreign occupation forces; and (2) legalizing, via federalism, the formation of spheres of influence, where separation would calm violence because it is a form of apartheit, prioritizing local and sectarian aims. The nationalists and the federalists. It was at least a debate that stayed within the bounds of common human decency; it was a rational debate.
Now, in the circumstances that have come about, the predominant debate is a different one. The federalist position is the same. But imperceptibly, the nationalist position has been drowned out, and the alternative to Kurdish and Shiite federalism is a new one. It is the AlQueda position: Fighting the Kurds with their Jewish support in the north, and the "rejectionists" with their Safavid support in the south. The US position has been that legitimate nationalism doesn't exist, and that those calling for a withdrawal timetable were the terrorists and their supporters. Now the US policy-makers have significant support from AlQaeda, which also agrees that legitimate nationalism doesn't exist.
The lesson is that if you succeed, as the Bush administration has succeeded in doing on so many fronts, in squeezing out and demonizing the rational argument on the other side, the result will eventually be that your own position loses any connection to common sense (the Bush administration has already gotten that far), and eventually you could find yourself in a symbiotic relationship with groups that are just as crazy and just as atavistic as you are (this is the situation that is dawning in Iraq).