An article in The Nation describes how the U.S. may have stumbled near a solution to the civil war in Iraq. How? By doing everything wrong. We have, completely unintentionally, sparked nationalism among various Iraqi factions, thus begetting a unity among them which could conceivably lead to our withdrawal. Three American actions helped spawn the newfound alliances among erstwhile enemies in Iraq.
The first was Joe Biden’s senate resolution to partition Iraq into three mini-states. That passed the senate 75-23 on September 26th. The second factor was the killing of seventeen Iraqis in a crowded Baghdad square by trigger-happy Blackwater security forces. Third has been the continuing American pressure to partially privatize Iraq’s oil. This last element was too vividly illustrated for Iraqis when a Texas pal of Bush’s, Ray Hunt, obtained an illegal contract with Kurds giving him rights to much of their oil. Any one of these factors would have sparked Iraqi outrage, but taken together they have sparked more than outrage: they have sparked collective action.
The Biden resolution sparked near-apoplectic outrage among vast swaths of Iraqis. The Cabinet declared, “The Iraqi government categorically rejects the resolution.” The Iraqi Parliament voted to condemn it. “Iraq is not a US property,” said a spokesman for the Sunni-led National Dialogue Front.
Meanwhile, the Blackwater massacre brought into sharp focus what, for Iraqis, has been one of the ugliest parts of the occupation: the arrogant behavior of the US diplomatic and military convoys in the streets of the capital. At best, these cowboy convoys are a painful reminder that the country is occupied, as they set up arbitrary roadblocks, speed through oncoming traffic in the wrong lanes and routinely smash through stopped or parked vehicles. At worst, they engage in criminal assaults against civilians. The most recent Blackwater incident crystallized a long-simmering resentment that has touched off a showdown between the Iraqi government and US authorities. Even subservient Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki declared that Blackwater is “unfit to stay in Iraq.”
The Hunt Oil deal with the Kurds, one of several pending oil contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars, may have put the last nail in the coffin of the US effort to force Iraq to rewrite its oil laws. Like the Biden resolution and the Blackwater shooting, the Hunt deal unleashed pent-up anger among Iraqi Arab leaders, who called the deal illegal, since under current Iraqi law only the central government in Baghdad, not the Kurds, can approve oil deals. The nationalization of Iraq’s oil in 1972 by Saddam Hussein, after a decades-long struggle between Iraq and the Anglo-American oil cartel, was a landmark event, the first major oil nationalization in the region since the Iranian government of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh took over the British oil interests there and, for his efforts, was toppled in 1953 by a CIA-engineered coup inspired by that cartel. In Arab Iraq, if not in Kurdistan, the national oil industry is sacrosanct. If the United States intended to confirm Iraqis’ belief that the invasion was about grabbing their country’s oil, the US effort to open up the industry to foreign investors is perfectly designed to do so.
Not that uniting Iraqis to expel the U.S. will be any easy task. The Iraqis who currently control Parliament are a coalition of Kurds and Shiite separatists. They control the Iraqi army and police as well as the Interior ministry. Perhaps even more daunting than facing down these forces is the necessity of overcoming entrenched Sunni-Shiite hatreds in this new alliance.
On the upside, though, this new bloc could likely get enough votes in Parliament to topple el-Maliki. The alliance consists of two major Shiite factions (Muqtada el-Sadr and the Fadhila Party), the entire Sunni bloc, and secular Shiites led by former prime minister Allawi. Furthermore, al Jaafari, a Maliki rival, is negotiating to join the alliance. The votes he controls would put the alliance over the top, in control of Parliament.
Tariq al-Hashimi, the Sunni vice-president, after announcing the formation of the group, traveled to Najaf to get Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s blessing for their efforts. Did that register? A high ranking Sunni asked for the blessing of the highest Shiite cleric. That is bridge building.
What the group wants is an end to sectarian violence, an end to foreign interference (including dates certain for the departure of U.S. troops and taking back control of their own oil assets), and an end to al-Qaeda presence in Iraq.
Outside parliamentary politics, other important changes are afoot. Sunni tribal leaders and former Baathists have formed their own coalition. These groups, who were the instigators of armed resistance against U.S. troops, are abandoning violence in favor of political alliances. They’re holding political talks with former prime minister, Allawi, a secular Shiite. While such an alliance is less of a tectonic shift than a Sunni vice-president asking Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani’s blessing, it is still remarkable.
Among the Shiites, a major shift has taken place in dominance. Muqtada el-Sadr and the Fadhila party have become the powers in Baghdad and southern Iraq.
If elections were held today, Sadr and Fadhila would likely sweep the Shiite-dominated parts of Iraq, reducing SIIC and Dawa to mini-parties. Sadr has sent envoys to Sunni Arab countries, proposed a joint Sunni-Shiite effort to rebuild the Samarra mosque damaged by Al Qaeda bombers, taken part in a Saudi-backed effort in Mecca to create a Sunni-Shiite clerical dialogue in Iraq and quietly engaged in talks with Sunni and secular factions in Baghdad.
Six months ago, Sadr ordered his forces to stand down. Just at a time when U.S. forces have decided to join with Sunni tribal leaders in getting rid of al-Qaeda, they also have a chance to cooperate with Sadr. But the ironic part is that all these groups–including the ones we have been making some common cause with–are united most of all in wanting us out.
Even el-Maliki, installed by us and committed to keeping religious Shiites as the ruling coalition, has spoken up brazenly about getting Blackwater out of the country immediately and made it clear that U.S. control of Iraqi oil is not in the cards. He has threatend to cut us out in favor of Iran if we continue to insist on privatization. Furthermore, the current government has announced that Iraqis want us to leave. They are petitioning the U.N., asking that:
the next annual renewal of the United Nations Security Council mandate for a multinational force in Iraq — the only legal basis for a continuation of the American occupation — will be the last.
The Nation sums up the situation we find ourselves in:
The Catch-22 of the American occupation is this: Iraqi nationalism is the only political force capable of uniting Sunni and Shiite Arabs and thus putting an end to the sectarian civil war, but for the past four years the United States has systematically worked to suppress nationalism.
We’ve worked to divide and conquer Iraq, but many Iraqis are apparently deciding to unite in unexpected ways. It will be interesting to see whether they can hang together.