Perversely, and entirely unintentionally,
recent US-caused events in Iraq have sparked the one thing capable of both forcing an end to the American occupation and uniting the people of Iraq around a common purpose: Iraqi nationalism. Last seen, briefly, during the summer, when the Iraqi soccer team’s victory brought its countrymen out in the streets in all shades of ethnic and sectarian variety, nationalism in Iraq has been revived recently as a result of three simultaneous US actions.
Those events are, first, the misguided effort, led by Senator Joe Biden, to partition Iraq into three mini-states, which passed the Senate 75 to 23 September 26; second, the September 16 killing of seventeen Iraqis by trigger-happy Blackwater security forces in a traffic-clogged Baghdad square; and third, the continuing American pressure to force the partial privatization of Iraq’s oil, part of which, in Kurdistan, was illegally gobbled up in September by Ray Hunt of Hunt Oil, one of George W. Bush’s Texas chums. Any one of these events would have been guaranteed to spark outrage among most Iraqis, but taken together they have galvanized nationalism to a degree unprecedented since the 2003 invasion. All three have been seized on as leverage by Iraqi political forces that oppose the fifty-four-month occupation of Iraq.
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. The Association of Muslim Scholars, which calls itself the political arm of the Iraqi armed resistance, stated, “The Senate’s adoption of [the] resolution…is not shocking, because [partitioning the country] was one of the objectives behind the invasion of Iraq.” Indeed, from Richard Perle to David Wurmser, who recently resigned as Vice President Cheney’s chief Middle East adviser, the neoconservatives who pushed for the war eagerly embraced the notion of redrawing the map of the region, and it didn’t stop at Iraq’s borders.
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.
All of this is roiling Iraqi politics. Across the political spectrum, on both the Sunni and Shiite sides of the divide, a nationalist bloc is emerging to challenge the alliance of Kurdish and Shiite separatists that has governed Iraq for three years under American tutelage. To be sure, such a coalition faces enormous obstacles that could stifle it in the cradle. First, it would have to overcome the staunch opposition of US occupation forces, still aligned in support of the Maliki government and the Shiite-Kurdish alliance that underpins it. Second, thanks to four years of US support, that alliance controls the Iraqi armed forces, the Iraqi police, the Interior Ministry and several powerful private armies–including the Badr Organization and the Kurdish pesh merga–which will oppose the new coalition. And the leaders who are trying to build cross-sectarian ties will have to overcome the entrenched Sunni-Shiite hatreds.
Still, the emerging nationalist bloc could get enough votes in Parliament to topple Maliki’s shaky coalition. Its components include two major Shiite factions, Muqtada al-Sadr’s bloc and the Fadhila (Virtue) Party, which together hold forty-seven seats in Parliament; the entire Sunni bloc, led by the Iraqi Accord and the National Dialogue Front, which have fifty-five seats; and the secular bloc led by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, which controls twenty-five seats. In addition, say well-placed Iraqi sources, former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Maliki rival in the ruling Islamic Dawa Party, has upward of twenty Shiite deputies in his camp, and Jaafari is negotiating to be part of the new alliance. The addition of Jaafari’s bloc would give the alliance at least 147 votes, a clear majority in the 275-member assembly. On September 26 Tariq al-Hashimi, the Sunni vice president, announced the formation of a National Pact project intended to unify the emerging bloc, and he promptly traveled to Najaf to get Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s blessing for the effort. Hashimi’s twenty-five-point plan, similar to one launched earlier by Allawi, calls for equality for all Iraqis, an end to sectarian killing, opposition to foreign interference in Iraq, support for the legitimate right of armed resistance and a declaration (aimed at Al Qaeda) that “terror is not considered resistance.”
Outside parliamentary politics, there is much more happening. On the Sunni side, the emergence of the Awakening, a bloc of Sunni tribal leaders, has brought a large portion of the former armed resistance into Iraqi politics, and they are nearly all fierce nationalists. At the same time, a group of twenty-two Iraqi resistance groups announced in early October that they had formed a coalition led by a former top Baath Party official from the Saddam era, Izzat al-Douri, widely recognized as the leader of the resistance. Allawi, the former prime minister and a secular Shiite, declared that he had opened political talks with Douri’s resistance faction. For the first time since 2003, both major parts of the resistance–the tribal militias and the former Baathists and ex-military officers–are directly engaged in politics in the new Iraq. The Douri faction declared its willingness to negotiate a cease-fire with the United States, on the condition that Washington declare its timetable for leaving Iraq.
On the Shiite side, meanwhile, the Sadr faction and Fadhila have emerged as the dominant powers in eastern Baghdad and south Iraq, eclipsing the supremacy of the Badr Organization, the militia of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), backed by both Iran and the United States (a strange irony, given that SIIC, of all the Shiite factions, is closest to Iran). Sadr and Fadhila have pulled out of the United Iraqi Alliance, the ruling Shiite coalition. 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. Not only that, in late August Sadr declared a unilateral six-month truce, ordering his forces to stand down, and, according to the Los Angeles Times, he is secretly involved in talks with US military officials. It may be too much to hope for, but just as the United States finally decided to join the Sunni tribal resistance forces rather than fight them, it’s possible that farsighted US officials would be willing to work with Sadr rather than confront him, too.
If so, the United States will have potential partners in both the Sunni and Shiite parts of Iraq who can assume control of Iraq when the United States leaves and who, so far at least, seem more than willing to talk to each other about an arrangement to halt sectarian killing and ethnic cleansing. The problem is, both America’s newfound Sunni allies and the powerful Sadr-Fadhila bloc are united most of all by their opposition to the US occupation. (Both the Sunni bloc and Sadr are also united by their opposition to Al Qaeda and to Iran’s heavy-handed influence in the country.) Earlier this year, they united in Parliament on two nationalist bills: the first called for the United States to set a timetable for leaving Iraq, and the second demanded that the Iraqi government submit for parliamentary debate any plan to extend the United Nations mandate for the US occupation beyond December, when it expires.
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. Instead, beginning with Paul Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority in 2003, the United States deliberately apportioned political posts using an ethnic- and sectarian-based formula. Since then, US occupation authorities have favored separatists, such as SIIC, which wants a separate Shiite enclave in the south, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which are angling for an independent state in Iraq’s north. It’s no mystery why: nationalists would be the least willing to accommodate the preferred American goal of an Iraq that is at once docile, neutral in the Arab-Israeli conflict, tolerant of a long-term US presence, willing to serve as a base for US military operations in the region and ready to hand over their oil wealth to Western investors.