Guest opinion: Iraq's slide toward separation

Recent events and persisting conditions in Iraq have lowered the probability that the country will become a strong centralized nation-state after its transition.
The United States has abandoned any serious attempts to transform Iraq into a market democracy. Having withdrawn to a posture of force protection, back-up support for local forces and concentration on rooting out international Islamic revolutionaries, Washington has little street-level influence on the shaping of Iraqi political forces. Those forces are moving rapidly in the opposite direction from American plans and interests.

The direction that Iraq's transition is currently taking is toward the destination that the former Yugoslavia reached when it split into mini-states based on ethnicity. In both cases, the fall of a one-party socialist dictatorship that had imposed a coercive unity on a diverse society has led to people taking shelter in sub-national ethnic groups. In Yugoslavia, the contending groups became increasingly jealous of their perceived interests and unwilling to compromise them. In Iraq today, the same pattern is emerging, as the major ethnic groups become more insular.

Contenders for Power

Iraq is currently a contested space with no unifying political formula to focus a common identity. The three major contenders for power - the Shi'a Arabs, Sunni Arabs and Sunni Kurds - have embraced overall strategies that lead them toward confrontation. Shi'a Arabs seek to dominate a single Iraqi state; Sunni Arabs seek to recover the dominance that they once had or at least parity with the Shi'a; Kurds seek to retain the autonomy - amounting to independence - that they had before the occupation, and extend their rule to oil-rich regions with large Kurdish populations that were outside their protected zone. Shi'a aims are opposed by Sunni Arabs and Kurds; Kurdish aims are opposed by Sunni and Shi'a Arabs; Sunni aims are opposed by Shi'a Arabs and Kurds.

With approximately 60 percent of the population, the Shi'a have mainly fallen into line with the strategy of their major spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani of waiting for the results of free elections before they use extra-legal means to pursue their interests; if elections yield Shi'a dominance, then their aims will be met without resort to force. Similarly, the Kurds are waiting to see how they fare in the constitutional structure of the new Iraq before they turn their militia to defensive warfare. Segments of the Sunni Arab community are already engaged in military insurgency, having the lowest expectations that the transition will benefit them. There is little room in this scenario for alliances between the major groups or for cross-ethnic alliances among factions within them. At most, there will be shifting coalitions of convenience, as the groups thrust and parry, and leaders vie for supremacy within them.

Weakness of Forces Mitigating Conflict

Many analysts and commentators argue that understanding Iraqi politics through the perceived interests of its major ethnic groups oversimplifies the actual situation. They are correct that Iraq is a diverse and complex society with a panoply of political tensions, but they miss the point that the occupation has brought a hardening of group identities that dissolves other allegiances, partly because of the communal representation system imposed by the occupation authority that carried over to the transitional government, and partly because insecurity drives people under the protective cover of their ethnic groups. It would be a mistake to believe that the basic ethnic divide was not the formative structure of Iraqi society before the occupation - the deep fissures that had been barely covered by dictatorship have simply become wider.

The intensification of rivalries between Iraq's three major ethnic groups diminishes the mitigating effects of cross-cutting interests and loyalties. There is a genuine Iraqi nationalism, but it was concentrated in the Sunni Arab middle class of experts and apparatchiks, which has now been displaced and tends more and more to be driven by de-Ba'athification, unemployment and fears of persecution into narrow group loyalty. The Kurds were never Iraqi nationalists and the Shi'a are divided, with sub-national affiliation dominant in the lower classes and loosening in the middle class. Having suffered persecution and discrimination at the hands of Sunni Arab elites under the monarchy and the Ba'athist regime, Shi'a Arabs and Kurds never developed as strong an Iraqi identity as did the Sunni Arabs.

Similarly, secularism is rooted in the urban middle classes of all the groups, especially the Sunni Arabs, and sectors of the working class in the oil industry. For the Kurds, sub-nationalism overrides any commitment to secularism that would forge bonds across ethnic lines. The secularist strata of the Shi'a Arabs have not been able to gain a popular following - the effective leadership of the Shi'a community is clerical. The Sunni Arabs are split between secular sub-nationalism and a growing religious identification based on clerical power.

The diminishedpower of nationalist, secular and even moderate religious forces leaves each group with a more rigid definition of identity fusing religion with language for Shi'a and Sunni Arabs, and intensifying linguistic and cultural identity for the Kurds. The stage is set for the kinds of aggressive intolerance that marked the breakup of Yugoslavia.

Emerging Insular Tendencies

The most important indicator of a tendency toward group insularity in Iraq is the appearance of movements with wide support among Shi'a and Sunni Arabs that are based upon rejection of the occupation and the transitional government. Both Moqtada al-Sadr's rise to legitimacy in the Shi'a community after leading a rebellion against the occupation and Sheikh Hareth al-Dhari's rise to legitimacy in the Sunni Arab community through his Association of Islamic Scholars make similar forms of Islamism permanent and significant components of Iraqi politics that are above ground. Al-Sadr's and al-Dhari's movements pull their respective communities towards confrontational stands against the other groups and make it more politically risky for more moderate factions to compromise across ethnic lines.

Cities in the Shi'a heartland and the Sunni Triangle are now under partial control of the insular Islamists, giving them a foothold to influence the direction of the transition. The alternatives to the Islamists are the exile parties that have collaborated with the occupation and hold positions in the transitional government. The collaborators are currently on the defensive, seeking to hold on to power, but are increasingly pushed to compromise with the hardliners. No significant movements comprised of people who stayed in Iraq under Saddam's regime and are disposed to compromise have emerged. Those who do not affiliate with the exile parties and have not gone over to Islamism seek protection in tribal networks that have no national scope.

A symptom of the inability to achieve political coherence on a national level in Iraq is the delay of a conference to choose a National Council to function as a quasi-legislative authority during the transition. Scheduled for July 30, the conference has been moved to August 15 under pressure from United Nations representative Lakhtar Brahimi on the grounds that it was not sufficiently representative of Iraqi political forces outside the transitional government. Complaints about the selection process were rampant in the Shi'a and Sunni Arab communities. Some factions seeking representation were excluded or not informed of the conference, and others refused to participate. Most telling was the withdrawal from the process of the major Sunni Arab party collaborating in the transition -- the Islamic Party -- on the grounds that the conference could not be legitimate in the context of the occupation.

That a conference can gain legitimacy or even be held after renewed efforts by Brahimi to augment participation remains in doubt. Indeed, whether general elections will take place as scheduled in January 2005 is problematic. The failure to hold the conference on time has revealed the incoherence of the Iraqi political situation -- the lack of interests in unity with sufficient power to mobilize even the most rudimentary consensus. That failure has also shown the weakness of transitional Prime Minister Iyad Allawi as a presumptive strongman. Given Allawi's limited resources, the divisions among competing groups and factions within groups are too deep and manifold for him to be able to bridge them with deals or suppress them through mobilizing popular support. The prospects that Allawi will become Iraq's Mubarak have diminished considerably, and there is no one waiting in the wings to replace him as a national figure.

If a centralized result for Iraq's transition is becoming less probable, the alternatives are a weak federation or a breakup into three mini-states. Separatist sentiment among the Shi'a was manifest at a mini-congress held in Basra at the end of July that recommended the creation of a "south province" with broad local powers under a decentralized Iraqi federation, essentially following the Kurdish paradigm. Adel al-Abadi, an organizer of the mini-congress, claimed that its call for autonomy was endorsed by al-Sistani. The Shi'a are already mapping out a contingency plan if they fail to dominate Iraq as a whole.


Behind the recent developments that cast doubts on a centralized future for Iraq is the eruption of permanently organized insular tendencies within the Shi'a and Sunni Arab communities, and the persistence of such tendencies among the Kurds who continue to exert pressure on Arabs - mostly Shi'a - who had migrated to the north under Saddam Hussein's "Arabization" program. As outside powers remain unwilling and unable to impose centralization, Iraq slides toward eventual separation, preceded by intensified insurgency and, perhaps, civil war.

Dr. Michael A. Weinstein,

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Author`s name Evgeniya Petrova