Sunday, November 12, 2006

Two new Iraqi-nationalist proposals that you might not hear much about (with additional information from the comments)

There have been a couple of potentially important political developments in Iraq in the last few days, which, since they don't fit any of the prevailing media or academic themes or hobby-horses, stand a good chance of passing completely unnoticed in the mainstream.

First, there was a report in Al-Quds al-Arabi in its weekend edition on the formation by nine local political parties and/or movements in Basra of a coalition called "National Movement in Basra" (Tayyar al-Watanii fii al-Basra) to do what the official city council (provincial council actually) has, it says, been unable to do, namely face up to the deteriorating security and public-services conditions in the city. The initial statement says the parties that control council, hampered by internal bickering, have been unable or unwilling to get together and reach out for help from the wide range of groups that you would need in orcer to be effective.

The names of the participating parties and/or movements: National Accord Movement; National Movement of Intifada Insurgents; Popular Democratic Gathering; National Democratic Party; Gathering for Democracy; Iraqi Communist Party; Socialist Arab Movement; Movement for Iraqi National Unity; Gathering of those Committed to Democracy. (A shorter and less-informative piece on this in the Sunday Asharq al-Awsat says there are eight parties in this group, but it doesn't list them).

Not a religious or a separatist or a federalist party among them. Instead this appears to be a group of secular Iraqi nationalists. There is a long tradition of secular Iraqi nationalism in Basra, but it is not a trend that has found favor with the North American political science community, as Reidar Visser notes in his book "Basra, the Failed Gulf State: Separatism and Nationalism in Southern Iraq (Berlin, 2005). If you can't get the book you could take a look at the review in the Al-Ahram Weekly earlier this year.

The other important thing to note about the initial statement by this group is that its immediate concerns have to do with local conditions in Basra. Although the orientation of the participating groups is clearly Iraqi-nationalist, this is not a manifesto relating to national politics. There is enough to do in Basra. But the theme, overcoming sectarian in-fighting, is a nationalist one.

(From the Comments: Reidar Visser says the biggest weight in this local Basra alliance is the Iraqi National Accord ("Wifaq"), the secular group which is also present on the national level. Together with another four of the component groups, they got around 75,000 out of the 700,000 votes cast in the latest provincial-council election. Which might not be terribly impressive as an electoral result, but Visser notes these are mostly militia-less groups, so considering the intimidating environment, real popular support could be higher).

Separately, there has been another new-coalition proposal made recently, this one on the national level, initiated by something called the "organization of proponents of the Call" (Tanziim al-Ansar al-Dawa), clearly a relative of some kind of the Dawa Party which is a major component of the governing UIA coalition. The new coalition it is proposing is called the National Iraqi Gathering. A fairly detailed report about this proposal is published in Asharq al-Awsat this morning (Sunday November 12).

We are a little late to this proposal, which the paper says was first made a few days ago, the big news today being that one of the Najaf religious authorities the ayatollah Yaqubi, spiritual authority of the Fadhila Party (also a UIA member, with 15 seats in parliament), has endorsed the plan. Mazan Makiya, Dawa spokesman for this project, said the Yaqubi endorsement is their first from any of the Najaf authorities, but he said they already have cross-group support from various members of the Sadrist movement, the [Iraqi National] Accord, the [National] Dialogue [Front], along with some from the Iraqi List (Allawi's group). In other words, this appears to be an attempt to formalize the relationship between the main "nationalist" (in practical political terms, opponents of federalism) groups on the national political scene.

Makiya said: The Iraqi experience since the American attack in 2003 has demonstrated the inability of the existing political parties to go beyond their "narrow special interests, and their ideological sacraments" in a way that could save Iraq from the fate that appears to be awaiting it. To make a long story short, he says the elected political parties have ended up abdicating their responsibility to the nation as a whole, and giving in to the temptation sectarian in-fighting.

Of particular interest to American readers should be his analysis of the "the new American strategy" in Iraq, which he describes as focused on extricating America from a situation that is "distressing [to America] both domestically and globally, even if that [extrication] is at the expense of the democratic experiment in Iraq, which has cost us so many victims." The appeal, which is not only to political parties, but to other groups and tribes and so on as well, refers to the risk currently facing Iraq of being "dispersed and [the various parts] snatched up".

The first and most obvious points to make about these two proposals are (1) that they are two different proposals, not the same proposal. (Juan Cole today, depressingly, thinks they are the same proposal); and (2) although one is focused on the local level, and the other on the national level, both have a common theme, namely the overcoming of sectarian in-fighting in order to avoid the fate that American policy seems to have in store for the country, namely an exit without consideration for the Iraqi national welfare.


Blogger JHM said...

(1) I did not know this was here and I'm happy to find it.

(2) As to missing the links, in the New York Times today, Mr. Burns wrote at the end of his "strongman" analysis piece:

From his cloistered existence in the holy city of Najaf, [Sistani] has told the Shiites that they must hang together at all costs. So far, they have, and little now on the horizon suggests that is likely to change.,

unaware (I presume) that Ayatollah Ya‘qubi has very recently decided to jump ship.

(3) The two proposed groupings are clearly quite distinct (now that you've explained it), and so is my evaluation of them:

(A) For everybody "secular" or "nationalist" at Basra to get together and not split twenty or thirty percent of the total vote (at a very generous estimate) among eight or nine tiny little parties is elementary common sense. The worst you can complain about these folks is that they should have figured that out sooner.

(B) The proposed "Iraqi Patriotic Assembly" for the whole country strikes me as a very questionable business. Isn't every faction or coalition that its spokesman, M. Makiya, claims to be taking individual members away from already committed as a whole to oppose partition and favor centralization, viz., both Sunni fronts and the Sadr tendency and Fadila and Dr. ‘Allawi's people? What does it achieve to have six compartments to slosh the same amount of water back and forth between rather than only five? Pursuing Prof. Cole's link I noticed the reference to tribes and to those mysterious "political centers of gravity" that seem to be different from ordinary parties and factions and alliances and fronts and blocs and lists, but if the object of the exercise is to bring new anti-partition and pro-centralization players into the Green Zone game -- even some supposed "silent majority," perhaps? -- well, that may be an excellent idea, but the Patriotic Assemblers don't seem to be marketing it right.

(4) Finally your own concluding comment:

"Both [these new groupings] have a common theme, namely the overcoming of sectarian in-fighting in order to avoid the fate that American policy seems to have in store for the country, namely an exit without consideration for the Iraqi national welfare."

The Basra people would have an excellent idea even if Uncle Sam didn't exist. Indeed, if the Arabic press down there tells them as little of US as correspondents of the obvious American newspapers tell me in Massachusetts about them, I might even wonder if the Basrans do realize that Uncle Sam exists. But no doubt al-Jazeera or somebody clues them in.

The Patriotic Assemblers of M. Makiya, on the other hand, may actually be framing their plans with special reference to US. But that is on a par with supposing that they might be framing their plans with special reference to drawing new players into the game: nobody can prove that they don't think of either the one or the other -- "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence," as we've heard a thousand times lately -- but we'd be on much firmer analytical ground if they'd positively say so themselves.

Meanwhile has not the other 90% of Iraq, the part that is unashamedly communitarian or "sectarian," been thinking about what they'll do after the Republican Party invaders finally go away since about ten minutes after the Republicans first arrived? Perhaps the Kurds haven't, but they should have been. Clearly the Sunni resisters/insurgents/guerrilas/terrorists have (unrealistic and unrealizable) plans of their own for Afterwards. And so does SCIRI/Badr. Muqtada may think he doesn't need to plan, but undoubtedly he has high expectations about Afterwards, when he'll pretend never to have yielded even an inch of collaboration to the invasionites.

It is certainly high time, not to say "very late in the day," for Patriotic Assemblers who want a centralized Iraq that is yet not simply the traditional Sunni Ascendancy racket to think of their own preferred sort of Afterwards. Bremer didn't hand it to them on a platter, although he perhaps might have been able to. Khalilzad can't hand it to them on a platter, although perhaps he would like to. It's a cold, cruel political world out there, and even Patriotic Assemblers would do well to worry about a suitable Afterwards and try to get to it mostly on their own, if possible. High time for that.

7:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How big and influential can the National Movement in Basra be? My guess is that they are all very minor parties, but it's so damn hard to keep the billions of parties in Iraq straight. Some are just 2 guys while some big parties like SCIRI go by dozens of names and have dozens of wings. Basra is Fadhila country at the local level, however, so perhaps they might follow the lead of their national leadership and work towards nationalism in Basra.

As for the National Iraqi Gathering, have the various lists restored enough party discipline to maintain this sort of front after the federalism vote debacle to ensure something like that doesn't happen again? Whatever happened to Allawi's inquiry into his party members who went along with the vote, or is he too busy furnishing his new Lebanese escape villa?

I still don't see the nationalists prevailing until there is enough of a backlash against the civil war that has been brought on by the secessionists. Until then, it seems simple game theory: since regionalism is now a given, you might as well push for as much of the pie as you can carve out by force. Urging nationalism in this environment is like trying to save a sinking ship while all the other passengers are busy loading up the ship's cargo onto their lifeboats; not only does your boat sink, but you also miss out on your chance to swipe some booty.

8:35 PM  
Blogger badger said...

You're both right to be skeptical about the effectiveness of any of this, but on the other hand coverage in the West has been so skewed in the direction of inevitable breakup that I figure it doesn't hurt to lean the other way a little. My biggest additional question is why the Patriotic Assembly thing seems to be reported only in Assharq al Awsat so far, suggesting the possibility of a touch of Saudi wishful thinking ? But we don't know.

By the way jhm, thank you for pointing out the "other centers of gravity" idea which I completely skipped over. I criticize myself. I hope I don't catch an early case of Cole-itis.

5:02 AM  
Blogger Reidar Visser said...

Badger, I think the weightiest component in the new Basra alliance is the Wifaq movement, which has four seats on the provincial council. They got some 50,000 votes in the January 2005 local elections. The others are smaller fry although not entirely insignificant: four of them together account for a further 25,000 votes. I think you are very right to highlight this important trend. Perhaps the numbers as such may not be terribly impressive (700,000 votes were cast in those local elections), but one should remember that these are mostly militia-less groups and their real level of popular support may be higher than that achieved in a context of severe voter intimidation. I also agree that it is important to highlight the “anti-emirate” initiatives by native forces in the Sunni areas, as you have done in some of your other postings.

4:08 AM  
Blogger badger said...

Thank you, I was going to ask you that very question. (I transfered the your Basra observations to the body of the post)

12:07 PM  

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