The New Iraq
By Pepe Escobar
09 April, 2005
took more than nine weeks, fiery haggling and backroom deals for Iraq's
politicians to compose a new government.
The president is Kurdish warlord Jalal Talabani of the Patriotic Union
of Kurdistan, who enjoys close ties with both Washington and Tehran.
The two vice presidents are: Adel Abdel Mahdi of the United Iraqi Alliance
(UIA), a senior Shi'ite leader of the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution
(SCIRI) in Iraq and the interim finance minister, and a former Maoist
turned free-marketer who last December promised in Washington to privatize
the Iraqi oil industry; and the previous president, Ghazi al-Yawer,
a former exile and influential Sunni sheikh of the Sammar tribe. Talabani
is finally set to appoint Da'wa Party senior leader Ibrahim Jaafari
of the UIA as prime minister.
It's about time. Iraqis have grown increasingly exasperated with the
political haggling since the elections on January 30 - on the lines
of "how could we have elected those people?" It got so bad
that the four grand ayatollahs in the now de facto shadow capital Najaf
were about to call a massive street protest to bring the politicians
to their senses. This was compounded by the fact that many Iraqis repudiate
political life reduced to religious sectarianism, a legacy of the United
States' Coalition Provisional Authority, which imposed the current institutional
It's emerging that the real meaty matters in Iraq - federalism, who
gets oil-rich Kirkuk, and, crucially, what happens to the oil industry
overall - will be settled by the constituent assembly. But two developments
are ominous. The attribution of ministries for the "new" government
once again will be sectarian. And every faction will remain armed to
their teeth. The Kurds keep their independent peshmerga militia, and
financed by Baghdad. The SCIRI keeps its Badr Brigades. The Da'wa Party
also keeps its own militia. None of these will answer to Baghdad - which
mobilizes its own, US-trained Iraqi security forces. Cynically, one
might add that outside the political process, the Sunni resistance will
also keep its thousands of fighters.
It's too soon to perceive the substantial details of the Shi'ite-Kurd
deal - between them they hold more than two-thirds of the 275 seats
in parliament. But what's happened since January 30 is definitely not
a good omen.
Among the 275 parliamentary players involved in the nine-week political
football, there were only 17 Sunni Arabs, as the majority of Sunni Arabs
boycotted the elections. Clearly, these Sunnis are unlikely to be representative
of the Sunni Arabs, who make up 20% of the population. The crucial Sunni
Arab grievance is that because they are a demographic minority - although
nobody really knows for sure, there is no census and there may be more
Sunni Arabs than Kurds - this does not mean they have to accept their
political marginalization as a fait accompli. The fact that Sunni Arabs
involved in the political process are viewed by many Sunni Arabs as
illegitimate explains why former president Yawer didn't want to become
Indeed, the manner in which the new Sunni Arab parliament Speaker, Hajim
al-Hasani, was picked upset the Sunnis. Of the 17 Sunnis in parliament,
three contested the elections on the UIA list - so they were unacceptable
to the Sunnis themselves. Of the remaining 14, 12 were parliamentarians
under Saddam Hussein or had some kind of Ba'athist credentials, so they
were unacceptable to the Shi'ites and the Kurds.
So there were only two Sunnis with standing: Yawer and Hasani. Both
are non-Ba'athist former exiles. Hasani, a native of Kirkuk and a former
member of the Iraqi Islamic Party, a successor of the Iraqi Muslim Brotherhood,
studied and lived for years in the US. And that goes to the heart of
why he was not the Sunni first choice for Speaker: he had been an exile
for too long; and to make matters worse, during the leveling of Fallujah
- when he was one of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's ministers - he refused
to resign, unlike the leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party, Muhsin Abdul
Hamid (the party later expelled Hasani).
So why was he elected Speaker? Because he's one of only two Sunnis who
did not contest the elections for the UIA who is acceptable to the Shi'ites;
the other, Yawer, wisely refused the hot potato.
The ramifications are ominous. Shi'ites understandably would be resentful
of any Sunnis who were connected to the Ba'ath Party. Yet Iraqis know
that during Saddam's era this was the only way to get things done, and
in many cases survive with some dignity. To make matters worse, the
new deputy Speaker, Hussein Shahristani, an engineer very close to Grand
Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has labeled 12 of the 17 Sunni parliamentarians
as Ba'athists. So the Shi'ites are caught in a see-saw of wanting Sunni
Arabs to become involved in the political process - with the objective
of weakening the guerrilla war - just as they are falling over themselves
to alienate them.
Most Sunni Arabs can be expected to view the story as one of falling
from total control of government and society in Iraq to the point of
being represented in a dodgy parliament by a former exile with negligible
local support and connections and who was discarded by his own political
party. To compound the climate of untrustworthiness, the Kurds suspect
Hasani of being a fundamentalist Sunni Arab from Kirkuk.
If the Sunni Arabs inside the political process are not recognized as
legitimate, the ones who are remain outside the process: the Association
of Muslim Scholars (AMS), under its leader Harith al-Dari, and what
we have described as the Sinn Fein strand of the Sunni Arab resistance.
The minority secular Sunni Arabs, inside the political process, are
concerned that the AMS may be configuring itself as a religious, pro-resistance
Sunni counterpower: they fear this would represent a certified Lebanonization
of Iraq. But the fact is the AMS has been cleverly filling a Sunni political
vacuum: it has even admitted publicly it would condemn the resistance
in Islamic terms, as long as the new Iraqi government came up with a
definitive timetable for a complete US military withdrawal. You can't
get more popular than that in Iraq. The AMS already makes a clear distinction
between "noble" guerrillas - who attack the occupying forces
- and the murderers who attack Iraqi civilians.
The big question now is how the Shi'ites and Kurds will deal with marginalized
Sunni Arabs - paying close attention to their political grievances or
clobbering them with peshmergas, Badr Brigades and Iraqi security forces.
It's politics or civil war.
(Copyright 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved..)