Last week, a fierce critic of the Bush Administration’s war in Iraq went, perhaps, a bridge too far. Pauline Baker, president of the Fund for Peace, flatly predicted that there is no hope for Iraq, other than its collapse and fragmentation. Upon issuing a report that described Iraq as the second most unstable “failed state” after Sudan, Baker told the Washington Post, “We have recommended…that the administration face up to the reality that the only choices for Iraq are how and how violently it will break up.”
And she’s not the only one. Many opponents of Bush’s adventure in Iraq, from left to center-right, have thrown up their hands. Most notorious, Senator Joe Biden, Leslie Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations and former Ambassador Peter Galbraith have written off Iraq, either predicting or encouraging its breakup into mini-states. Countless others have concluded that ethnic and sectarian divisions in Iraq have hardened into permanent hatreds. And there are those who–sadly or gleefully, depending on their point of view–declare definitively that Iraq was never really a nation. Instead, they say, it is an artificial creation that never existed except in the minds of British imperialists like Winston Churchill and Gertrude Bell.
Such sentiments are being challenged by a nascent bloc of Iraqi nationalists who, against all odds, are working to put together a pan-Iraqi coalition that would topple the US-backed government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Maliki’s ruling alliance includes separatist Kurdish warlords and Iranian-backed Shiite fundamentalists, both of whom want to carve out semi or wholly independent statelets. Although it has not yet jelled, Maliki’s opposition–which includes Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, as well as Christians, Turkmen and others–is within striking distance of creating a functioning parliamentary majority.
More important, outside Parliament the nationalists represent an overwhelming majority of rank-and-file Iraqis. Among the Sunnis, who have fifty-five seats in the 275-member Parliament, there is broad support for maintaining Iraq’s territorial integrity not only among its deputies but throughout the armed Iraqi resistance, a diverse group that includes Baathists, Sunni tribal leaders, former military officers and the Association of Muslim Scholars, a Sunni religious organization that claims to be the political arm of the resistance.
Among the Shiites, most Iraqi observers believe that if new elections were held, the big winners would be Muqtada al-Sadr‘s party, which controls much of eastern Baghdad and wields great power in the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, and the Fadhila party, a quasi-Sadrist party with great strength in Iraq’s south, particularly Basra. The big losers would be the ruling Dawa party, which has little or no remaining support, and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), an Iranian-backed paramilitary party that now calls itself the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq (SICI).
Add to those forces the dwindling but still significant influence of secular nonsectarian Iraqis, whose titular leader is Iyad Allawi. Allawi’s party, which has friends in the Arab Gulf and good connections to the CIA and MI-6, controls twenty-five deputies in Parliament. Its strength is ebbing as Iraq’s middle class flees the civil war at an accelerating rate. But Allawi, who also has strong ties to Iraq’s military officer class, could be a power broker in the emerging nationalist coalition.