Iraq's Resurgent Nationalism | The Nation


Iraq's Resurgent Nationalism

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Robert Dreyfuss
Bob Dreyfuss
Robert Dreyfuss, a Nation contributing editor, is an investigative journalist specializing in politics and national...

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For the first time in six years, it's possible to see the light at the end of the tunnel in Iraq. Despite all their flaws--and there were many--the January 31 elections in fourteen of Iraq's eighteen provinces ratified the resurgence of secular nationalism. A large majority of voters repudiated the Shiite and Sunni religious parties and the Kurdish separatists. And in so doing, they broke free of the rigid confines of the ethno-sectarian politics that has dominated the Iraqi scene since 2003. The results mean that the Obama administration may soon have to deal with a vastly different cast of characters in Iraq--politicians less willing to tolerate a long-term US presence and firmly opposed to a special relationship between Baghdad and Washington.

Voters ousted unpopular governors and provincial councils controlled by the ruling US-backed alliance in a sweeping throw-the-bums-out election, raising the possibility of a fundamental reordering of politics. Though the elections were limited to the provinces, the results suggest that the national elections scheduled for December may usher in a government that will differ radically from the ruling alliance, many of whose leaders are or represent former exiles installed by US occupation authorities in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion.

Not that Iraq has suddenly become an oasis of democracy. Key political actors on all sides remain bolstered by paramilitary armies. Unemployment is vast, and basic services--electricity, water, trash collection, healthcare--are intermittent or nonexistent. The army and police are infiltrated by militias, and their loyalty is suspect. Baghdad is a bewildering maze of blast walls and sealed-off enclaves surrounding the fortress-like Green Zone, and the city is reeling from years of brutal ethnic cleansing. The provincial capitals are rife with intrigue, and many of them--Kirkuk, Mosul, Baquba and Basra, for instance--are perched at the brink of civil strife. And the elections themselves, in which millions of voters were disenfranchised, were deeply flawed.

But the results show that a new Iraq is struggling to emerge. The United Iraqi Alliance, the all-powerful bloc of Shiite religious parties, is dead and buried, and the key party within the alliance--the Iran-backed, clergy-based Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI)--was blown off the electoral map. Another component of the alliance, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki's Islamic Dawa Party, has all but disappeared, while Maliki has morphed into a would-be nationalist, cloaking his fundamentalist sectarian leanings in the guise of a benevolent strongman. The nationalist Sunnis, having boycotted or been shut out of the political process since 2003, came roaring back in four northern provinces. In the process, Sunni-led nationalists, tribal parties, former Baathists and ex-military leaders, the Awakening movement (the anti-Al Qaeda, tribal-based militia movement that emerged in late 2006 in the Sunni heartland and formed a tactical alliance with the US Army) and various secular parties nearly obliterated the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP), a branch of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, which had opted to join the ruling Shiite-Kurdish alliance in the government. And the Kurds, who chose not to hold elections in their separatist region in Iraq's north and who blocked a vote in the disputed Kirkuk region, suffered devastating losses in ethnically mixed border provinces where they'd wielded power until now. Separatists who supported the virtual partition of Iraq, such as ISCI and the Kurds, were resoundingly defeated.

"The Iraqi political map has been redrawn," says Raed Jarrar, the Iraq consultant to the American Friends Service Committee. "There's been a significant shift from the sectarian-based politics of 2005 to an electoral map based on people's politics and not their ethnic or religious identity."

The emergence of Iraq's nationalist movement has been a long time coming. Built around parties opposed to the influence of both Iran and the United States, it began to take shape in the fall of 2007 after a series of US actions: a Senate vote in favor of a proposal from then-Senator Joe Biden to partition Iraq into three mini-states; the brutal killing of seventeen Iraqis in Baghdad by Blackwater security forces; and US support for a law that would have opened the door to privatization of Iraq's oil industry. This helped galvanize a twelve-party alliance, including Sunni and Shiite nationalists, secular parties, ex-Baathists, former Iraqi resistance groups and various independents, that worked to preserve the country's state-owned oil companies and to combat efforts by the Kurds and ISCI to carve Iraq into regional fiefdoms. By mid-July of last year, they'd united in a bloc called the July 22 Gathering.

The July 22 group was a reaction to five years of ethnic and sectarian politicking initiated by US blunders in the wake of the invasion. From the start, the occupation authorities parceled out power according to sectarian and ethnic quotas. They first handed power, in the form of the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC), to ISCI (which at that time went by the name Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq); Maliki's Islamic Dawa Party; and the two Kurdish parties. The United States then pushed hard for elections. Held in January 2005, they were a fiasco, widely seen as rigged in favor of the Shiite religious parties and the Kurds, and thus boycotted by virtually the entire Sunni Arab population. Those elections brought to power the current Shiite-Kurdish alliance. It was, says the International Crisis Group, "a victory by parties that, while popularly elected, lacked deep popular legitimacy."

The utter failure of that government to provide jobs and basic services turned millions of voters against the ruling bloc, especially the religious parties. "Over the last four years, the religious parties tried everything and proved that they are not successful leaders," says Aiham Alsammarae, Iraq's former minister of electricity, who is now working with the party of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite. "Even in the south, the religious leaders are losing their influence. People are asking, What have they done for us? There are no jobs. There is no electricity or water. The schools and hospitals are terrible. And there is so much corruption."

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