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Comments by

Joost Hiltermann

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4. Devolution to Three Regions, entire page
January 10, 2007, 3:05 pm

Modern Iraq may be an articifial creation, but it never was neatly divided between (1) Kurds, (2) Sunni Arabs, and (3) Shiites. There were 3 Ottoman vilayets: Mosul, Baghdad and Basra, but these were just that, provinces, not independent states, and economically they were totally intertwined, with the Tigris and Euphrates serving as the principal unifying trade routes. In any case, none of these three provinces had homegeneous populations. Vilayet Mosul had Arabs, Kurds and Turkomans, as well Christians (Chaldeans, Assyrians, Syriacs, Armenians) and other, smaller groups (Jews, Shabak, Yazidis, etc.). What today is the Kurdish region was a part of Vilayet Mosul.

This whole notion of somehow dividing Iraq into three parts is an ahistoric, Kurdocentric concoction peddled in the US that was subsequently adopted by SCIRI for local opportunist political reasons. Of course, you could (and perhaps should) have a separate Kurdish entity, even one that declares its independence. But the boudaries between it and Arab Iraq will be bloodily contested, as we will soon see in Kirkuk, mostly because the Kurds now claim as theirs large territories that have historically been mixed and never were exclusively Kurdish or belonging to a non-existing Kurdistan.

But the additional idea that you somehow could divide (non-Kurdish) Sunnis from Shiites is absurd, given the high degree of inter-habitation and inter-marriage. Most of Iraq, measured in demograhic rather than geographic terms, is thoroughly inter-mixed. If you want to draw geographic boundaries between people following different branches of Islam, you will have to draw these through the middle of marriages and living rooms.

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2. Politics, paragraph 25
January 9, 2007, 12:07 pm

Here the ISG spurns the opportunity to say what it could have said about the Iraqi constitution — that instead of the national compact it was meant to be, it became a blueprint for Iraq’s dissolution because of the odd, unprecedented nature of the federalal system it encourages. The ISG claims that this “highly decentralized structure” (that’s to put it mildly) is favored by the Kurds (true) and by “many Shia (particularly supporters of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim).”

Well, Abd-al-Aziz al-Hakim does not at all appear to have many supporters, even if he has a well-oiled political machine (see my separate comment on SCIRI), and those Shiites who do support al-Hakim’s “southern federalism” scheme seem to be limited precisely to his followers. In a parliamentary vote on a draft federalism law that sets up a mechanism for creating regions this past October, the draft squeaked by on the combined votes of SCIRI and their Kurdish partners (the Kurds want to get Kirkuk in exchange for their help) and a few secular Shiite defectors who favor the principle of federalism but don’t care too much about its nature or the mechanisms by which regions are to be established.

My bet: the law will never be implemented, because aside from Sunni Arabs, most Shiites (the Sadrists, Fadhila, the Da’wa splinters, Sistani followers, and many seculars) are dead-set against it. But the debate alone has inflamed sectarian tensions, and will continue to do so as long as SCIRI continues to talk about setting up a “Shia-stan”.

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2. Politics, paragraph 10
January 9, 2007, 11:54 am

This is a common error in the media as well, the notion that SCIRI would be the largest Shiite political party. It’s nothing of the sort. Most powerful, yes, precisely because of the fact that it’s well organized, as well as well trained and well funded. It was created in 1982 in Iran by the Iranian security services, essentially to destroy Da’wa (an effort that, with additional help from Saddam, has largely succeeded). SCIRI has an armed milita, the Badr Corps, that heavily recruited from among Iraqi prisoners of war and refugees. The Badr Corps fought alongside Iranian forces against Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war, and SCIRI was therefore long considered a collaborator group. It has tried to shed that baggage since its return in April 2003, but it still lacks popularity. Nor does it have a majority in parliament; the Sadrists do (and they do have a genuine mass base). My bet is that in free elections in which SCIRI were to stand alone, it would fade as a politically significant factor. To avoid such a scenario, SCIRI clutches the Sistani-sanctioned United Iraqi Alliance, and has also launched a scheme to establish a southern majority-Shiite region that it would rule (with heavy hand), much like the Kurds have their own region. At least one Iraqi commentator thus referred to Abd-al-Aziz al-Hakim as a would-be “Barzani of the south.” The “largest political party” in Iraq SCIRI will never be.

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Executive Summary, paragraph 7
January 7, 2007, 3:03 pm

“No country in the region will benefit in the long term from a chaotic Iraq.” If there is any reason for hope for Iraq and the region, it lies in this observation, tucked away in the middle of the executive summary and qualified by the disparaging remark that the neighbors are not doing their assigned jobs. These neighbors are divided on most issues, but they have one crucial thing in common: none has an interest in Iraq’s break-up. The challenge is to bring them together to work from this common foundation. So far, we have seen little more than the imperious conveyance of instructions to Iran and Syria — not the most sensible way of convincing these influential regional players that they might actually have something in common with the US.

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Executive Summary, paragraph 3
January 7, 2007, 2:29 pm

This is one of those distressing ironies of Iraq’s reconstruction. Yes, there were elections that saw mass participation, especially the second set in December 2005. But an important truth is elided here: by organizing elections so early after the regime’s ouster, when no indigenous (let’s call them “inside”) politicians had yet had the chance to emerge and challenge those who had come back from abroad, the American administration offered these former exiles and expatriates a head start. They had superior resources, organizational skills, and international backing, and they used these assets to great advantage. Apart from the two main Kurdish parties, which enjoy a measure of popular support in Kurdistan, the Shiite Islamist parties (SCIRI, the Da’wa splinters, Fadhila, etc.) could only ride on the coattails of famous clerics assassinated by the regime, not on any achievements, or popularity otherwise earned. If they won, it is because the Shiite electorate, eager to vote for the first time in free elections and encouraged by the foremost Shiite religious authority Ayatollah Sistani to “vote Shiite”, had no alternatives. The Shiite retreat into religious politics triggered a Sunni reaction: the big winner there was also an Islamist coalition. In the end, the biggest losers were the secular middle, perhaps Iraq’s silent majority. Thus the elections spawned a “democratically elected government,” one that has wasted no opportunity to further polarize the country, as it demonstrated so painfully with its rushed, botched execution of Saddam Hussein.

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General Comments on the ISG Report, entire page
January 6, 2007, 4:12 pm

In the policy of the Bush administration, the publication of the ISG report, and the contours of this very debate, what is happening in Iraq is an American project and an American tragedy.

It is, of course, so. But the moment US forces unleashed their bombs and punched across the border, the tragedy has been mostly Iraq’s and Iraqis’. In every step along the way, from April 2003 onward, the fundamental interests of Iraq and Iraqis have not been taken into account in Iraq’s reconstruction, except piecemeal by the hand of well-intending US officials. The overall policy, when there was one, has been consistently driven by overriding US concerns that were mostly linked to domestic interests, or more narrowly, the Bush administration’s need for self-perpetuation.

And so the debate today is about preserving US interests in Iraq and the region, not about saving Iraq from civil war, chaos and disintegration. For those of us who live in the region, who love the region, who do not wish to see it go to hell, this is the most frightening aspect of all the patter in Washington and beyond. It’s fine and well to talk about halting imperialism, restoring Iraqi sovereignty and bringing the boys home. But the crisis Iraq faces today is real and threatens the entire region. Packing one’s bags and leaving, regardless of what one leaves behind, is adding insult to the injury of serial fuck-up. It is also irresponsible from the perspective of US self-interest: the disintegration of Iraq, which seems likely as neighboring states see their proxies wobble and go in to preserve their vital interests, can only redound upon US strategic interests in the Gulf, imperial as these may be.

And so I find myself in the uncomfortable position of having opposed the US invasion but now advocating a withdrawal that must be contingent on leaving behind viable Iraqi structures that will ensure the country’s survival. It may well be too late for this, but as long as there is even a glimmer of hope, we must try. This will require a gradual withdrawal of US and other foreign forces, somewhat along the lines proposed by Baker-Hamilton. But while the ISG’s diagnosis of what ails Iraq is sober and honest, if rather incomplete, its prescription is seriously deficient in several respects, most importantly in linking the withdrawal of the main military force to the start of the election year in the US rather than to actual benchmarks reached.

The report’s strong points are the following:

**It recognizes the importance of Middle East peace in stabilizing Iraq.

**It advocates constructive engagement with Iran and Syria as indispensable for Iraq’s stability.

**It recognizes the strategic US need for Iraq to stay united.

**It recognizes the grave dangers to US intersts should the US fail in Iraq.

**It recognizes that there is no military solution to the Iraq crisis.

**It recognizes the need for internal Iraqi reconciliation as the only way to deal with the violence.

**It calls on the Bush administration to make clear its intention not to retain permanent bases in Iraq or seek to control its oil.

**It recognizes that the principal Iraqi political actors are not seeking reconciliation and are not working toward a united Iraq.

**It implicitly recognizes that the constitution failed to be the national compact it was meant to be, but has served instead to further polarize society.

**It recognizes the key issues of tension and the need to address these urgently (constitutional review, oil, de-Baathification, etc.)

**It criticizes the International Compact for Iraq as econo-centric and, as such, insufficient.

**It recognizes the urgent need for governance and delivery of essential services to all Iraqis.

**It contains sensible recommendations on oil and revenue sharing, as well as on Kirkuk.

**It places emphasis on the need to hold provincial elections in 2007, which could, inter alia, redress the dangerous imbalance on the Baghdad provincial council.

**It recommends opening channels of communication with Ayatollah Sistani, as well as Muqtada al-Sadr.

**It derides the notion that Iraq somehow can be devolved into three semi-autonomous pronvinces without the country’s break-up.

The report’s failings lie in the following, inter alia:

##It vests the solution to the crisis in the Iraqi government, which has proven it cannot solve it, in part because it is one of the principal parties to a very nasty vendetta-based and sectarian conflict.

##It imposes yet another timetable on Iraq that appears driven by domestic US concerns (the 2008 presidential elections; Baker will be Baker!!). Such timetables have done great damage in the past.

##It does not offer any real mechanisms for obtaining the objectives it sets, nor a package of incentives and disincentives linked to given milestones.

##It posits the need for Iraqis to contemplate the constitutional review before national reconciliation. This wrongly assumes that serious progress on the constitution can be made in the absence of a new national compact through a process of reconciliation. The parties that control the review process are intent on allowing no substantive changes to the text.

##While seeking to reverse de-Baathification, it uses the wrong criteria: “senior leadership,” rather than persons who have committed serious crimes.

##It fails to recommend establishment of a transitional justice program (including an all-important truth-telling component), or at least a mechanism for screening out those who have committed crimes from positions in the new political order.

##It fails to propose that the federal structure in Iraq should be asymmetrical (a broadly autonomous Kurdish region, and the rest of Iraq decentralized according to existing provincial boundaries) as a way of keeping the country from disintegrating.

##While it recommends steps designed to entice the Sunni Arab community and others who feel cut out from the new order, it fails to propose constructive engagement with insurgent groups or community leaders.

The views of my colleagues and myself on what ought (but is unlikely) to happen in Iraq can be found in the latest report of the International Crisis Group, “After Baker-Hamilton: What To Do in Iraq” (December 19), available here: