On January 13 an emerging Sunni-Shiite nationalist bloc in Iraq signed a groundbreaking agreement aimed at ending Iraq’s civil war, blocking the privatization of Iraq’s oil industry and checkmating the breakaway Kurdish state. It’s a big step forward, and it could change the face of Iraqi politics in 2008.
For the past two years, Iraqi nationalists–opposed to the US occupation, opposed to Al Qaeda and opposed to Iran’s heavyhanded influence in Iraqi affairs–have struggled to assert themselves. The nascent coalition contains the seeds of true national reconciliation in Iraq, but it has emerged independently of the United States. Unrelated to the constant American pressure on the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to meet various reconciliation “benchmarks,” the new coalition is designed either to sweep Maliki out of office or force him to join it.
Enormous obstacles stand in the way of the Sunni-Shiite coalition, and Iraq is just as likely to descend into a new round of intense civil war as it is to stabilize under a new ruling bloc. Still, it could work, but there’s a big if–if the United States steps back and gets out of the way.
Since the rigged Iraqi elections of 2005, the United States has supported a shaky and now utterly discredited four-party coalition in Iraq. Two of those parties are the ultra-religious Shiite parties, the Islamic Dawa Party and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), both strongly supported by Iran. The other two are the Kurdish warlord parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). During that time, Iraq’s two prime ministers, Ibrahim Jaafari (2005-06) and Maliki (2006-2008)–both from Dawa–have staunchly refused to open the door to increased Sunni Arab participation in the government. But now that coalition is falling apart, and its partners are increasingly at odds with one another.
The potential collapse of the Shiite-Kurdish pact that has ruled Iraq under the American occupation has created a freewheeling search for competing alliances among the myriad political factions that have emerged since Saddam Hussein’s overthrow.
Partners in the new, twelve-party alliance include nearly all of the Sunni Arab parties, including the Sunni religious parties and the secular National Dialogue Front; the secular Iraqi National List of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite; two big Shiite parties, including Muqtada al-Sadr’s bloc and the Fadhila (Virtue) Party; a faction of the Dawa Party; and assorted smaller groups, including independents in Iraq’s Parliament. Among its goals, say its leaders, are to ensure that Iraq’s “oil, natural gas, and other treasures [remain the] property of all the Iraqi people,” opposing both the proposed new oil law that would open the door to privatization of the oil industry and the illegal oil deals signed by the Kurdish regional government. Another goal, they say, is to block the Kurdish takeover of the oil-rich region around Kirkuk in Iraq’s north. And, they say, the new coalition will “overcome the narrow circle of sectarianism” by uniting Sunnis and Shiites.
What’s more, there are reports of talks involving the remaining Sunni resistance groups–those that have not joined the American-sponsored Awakening movement and the so-called Concerned Local Citizens groups–in a broad-based national reconciliation effort. According to the Arab press, six Sunni resistance factions have been meeting in England in preparation for a proposed conference in Cairo with representatives of the Iraqi government and political parties. A parallel effort is under way at meetings in Beirut. And French President Nicolas Sarkozy, currently touring the Middle East, has renewed his country’s offer to bring Iraq’s warring political factions together. Sarkozy suggested “hosting in France, far from the heat of passions and on neutral ground, inter-Iraqi roundtable talks that are as large as possible.” It’s unclear whether Sarkozy’s proposed conference would include representatives of the armed resistance, but it’s possible. (An earlier offer by France to host similar talks got the cold shoulder from Maliki and no encouragement from the United States.)