Monday, November 12, 2007

The other Iraq

Our friend the historian Reidar Visser has a post on his website at that includes lengthy excerpts from the new book--An Iraq of its Regions: Cornerstones of a Federal Democracy?--co-edited by him and UK historian Gareth Stansfield. And when I say our friend, I am talking about those of us who are trying to understand Iraq from a perspective outside the vortex of Washington-beltway politics and the narrow sectarian narrative.

The theme of the book is first: that there are many regions on Iraq with deep historical roots and abiding local loyalties--and not necessarily uni-sectarian either--quite different in character from the artificial three big race- and sect-based divisions of the south the center and the north, famous as the centerpiece of the "Biden plan"; and secondly, there are many conceivable ways in which these regional loyalties could manifest themselves if the federalism legislation is actually implemented. And in connection with the second point, they stress that the actual legislation favors in several important ways the idea of smaller or medium-sized regions comprised of one or only a few existing provinces, and significant obstacles in the way of the creation of mega-regions. The process is scheduled to begin in April 2008, when the existing moratorium on the creation of new federal regions runs out.

They start with three illustrative examples of regionalism in contexts quite different from the Sunni-Shia-Kurd mentality. The introductory paragraph reads like this:

A closer look at the politics of Iraq since 2003 reveals the fascinating pervasiveness of regional identities in Iraq, even in the face of an increasingly hostile environment where foreign forces such as al-Qaida have sought to maximise the drive towards sectarianism. Among the Shiites, for instance, the first tentative pro-federal efforts followed precisely a regionalist formula – not a sectarian one. Based in the triangle of Basra, Maysan and Dhi Qar in the extreme south of Iraq, a project was launched in 2004 to amalgamate these three (mainly Shiite) provinces into an oil-rich federal entity that would have left the vast majority of Iraq’s Shiites (who live to the north) without much oil. The project continued to flourish in 2006, and formed an important but often overlooked dimension of the internal Shiite struggle that prompted Iraqi premier Nuri al-Maliki (himself a Shiite from central Iraq) to send troops to Basra as one of his first ministerial actions in May 2006. Similarly, in the area often described by Westerners as the ‘Sunni heartland’, attempts by US think tanks and advisers to encourage a territorial ‘Sunni’ entity have met with marked resistance. The mediocre local response to this federalism propaganda drive has almost universally been explained (again, by outsiders) with reference to the absence of energy resources in this region and the supposed lack of incentives for pro-federal attitudes. But elsewhere in the world, areas that are far poorer than the Iraqi north-west have produced vibrant secessionist and pro-federal movements. There is much to suggest that one factor impeding the crystallisation of a ‘Sunni’ region is territorial attachment to smaller units – often towns rather than whole regions as such. (Lately, foreign Islamists have become another advocacy group for a ‘Sunni’ region, but they too have met with resistance by their native brethren.) As for Kurdistan, many analysts argue that what was formerly often described as ‘internal regional tensions’ between eastern and western parts of Kurdistan are now a thing of the past. Nevertheless, the process of establishing a Kurdistan region within a federated Iraq is in itself an act of regionalism: Kurdish leaders thereby seek a pragmatic role for themselves as Kurds within an Iraqi federation, separate from the much wider Kurdish world, and at least partially in opposition to pan-Kurdish nationalist sentiment that calls for Kurdish unification on a far larger scale.
What about the current would-be Democratic Party programs represented so far by Kahl and Katulis? What do they have to say about these issues? The answer is in two parts: First, it appears some combination of common sense and having perhaps listened to Visser's consistent dissent from the Biden mantra, both of these proposals agree that a decentralized Iraq will not have the famous Biden shape or character. But the second part of the answer is that they don't say anything else about how federalism will or might affect American plans. They talk about "local" power structures, and they debate in the abstract whether or not it makes sense in terms of inter-sect stability to arm some Sunni tribes. But the conceptual framework is still Sunni versus Shia and the implementation ideas are primarily military. You can slog through this literature all you want (including the Kahl reply to Katulis and other related essays accessible by following the links), and I don't think you will find one single word on the potential importance of respecting bona fide regional ambitions as opposed to the sect- and race-based three-part idea. Which isn't surprising, given the fact that the very existence of these regional loyalties has been driven out of the discussion by the double megaphone of American divide-and-conquer ambitions, and the AlQaeda takfiiri depredations.

So to put it in a nutshell, what the Visser/Stansfield book tells us is that perhaps a "strategic reset" (Katulis' phrase) isn't going to be enough, and we could also use a "conceptual reset" (my expression). How likely is that, you ask?

To put the matter another way, this suggests a followup to my point in the prior post about the ultimately racist implications of nonchalant and off-hand blurring and smearing of what people stand for ("AQ=Sunni insurgent"; or "Shiia resistance=internal power-struggle"; and so on), and the crackpot "science" that goes with it. Namely that the aggressive sidelining of history and geography is another vice that, if the Democrats are going to be serious, ought to be corrected. How likely is that, you ask?


Anonymous Reidar said...

I think you are spot on with your call for a “conceptual reset”. In fact, any Iraq policy that does not include programmatic measures to move away from sectarianism (and from the Western obsession with it) will be bound to fail. To enshrine sectarianism in the Iraqi political system through the creation of a tripartite federation would only worsen the US relationship with Iraq, the Arabs, and the Muslim community worldwide.

7:59 AM  

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