25 October 2006

Progress In Iraq, Sort Of

On Monday a week and a half ago, the Denver Daily News included an Associated Press story on Iraq that represents perhaps the most important development in months in Iraq. A group of Sunni insurgents announced that it had established an Islamic state in Iraq.

The Mujahedeed Sura Council -- an umbrella organization of insurgent groups in Iraq -- said the new state was made up of six provinces including Baghdad that have large Sunni populations, along with parts of two other central provinces that are predominantly Shiite.

Why does this matter? Because every negotiation must start with an opening offer. Until you have someone to talk to and something to talk about, you can't end the conflict.

The Kurds were first to put their bid on the table, asking for an autonomous Kurdistan even before the Iraq War began. The Shiites made their bid for an autonomous region of Sumer in the Southeast, this August. Now, all major political forces in Iraq have made a statement about what they want from a future Iraq and those bids, while not perfectly harmonous, are also not irreconcilable with a bit of good old fashion Middle Eastern haggling.

Notably, U.S. military involvement is virtually irrelevant to the discussion.

Making A Deal

The war in Iraq has been trudging along for about three and a half years now. There has been an orgy of violence. Actions have made clear that the U.S. led coalition is unwelcome in the eyes of the insurgents. But, while the Shiite forces have had some high profile visible leaders, and the Kurds have had their act together all along, there has been no high profile leader of the Sunni insurgency, no sense that it had gelled into a dominant movement, and most importantly no demands that anyone who wanted the violence to end could fulfill.

International wars end when the leaders of the countries involved cut a deal. The can stop very quickly and with very little on going violence. You can't do this when you have a disorganized insurgency. There is nobody to negotiate with to end the conflict.

The Current State of Affairs

Juan Cole reveals on an entry on his site for that date that the Sunni insurgents aren't the only parties to this discussion:

The radical Salafis in Iraq, led by the Holy Warriors' Consultative Council (Mujahidin Shura Council), appear to have endorsed the goal of a Islamic Republic in the Sunni Arab heartland of the country "after the Kurds establish their own state in the north and after the Shiite rejectionists have established their confederacy of the middle and the south, with the help of the Jews of the north [Israel] and the Safavids of the south [the Iranians]." The proposal therefore seems to be a direct response to the parliamentary vote last week wherein the Shiite majority and its Kurdish allies rammed through a law allowing the formation of further provincial confederacies. Sunni Arab parties mostly oppose such confederacies, favoring instead a strong central government, but the Shiites voted while they were boycotting parliament and so they were denied even a chance to debate the issue.

The internet video said that the new state should "encompass the governates of Baghdad, Anbar, Diyala, Kirkuk, Salahedddin, Nineveh and parts of Babel and Wasit," and called for Sunnis to pledge allegiance to Shaikh Abu Omar al-Baghdadi as the leader of the proposed fundamentalist republic.

Oh, wonderful. Now the Sunni Arab fundamentalists want oil-rich Kirkuk to be part of their state. The Kurds also want it, as do the Turkmen. That is going to be a pretty picture.

The videotape affirmed, "Our ancestors built the Baghdad of [Harun] al-Rashid and the Caliphate, and they will never go out of our hands save over our dead bodies."

This internet video is rhetorically extremely sophisticated, according to al-Hayat's transcription of key passages. The glory days of Baghdad under the Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid, when it was perhaps the most advanced center of world civilization, are a powerful symbol for Iraqis. Baghdad was the center for centuries of the Abbasid Caliphate, a church-state that ruled a vast empire that stretched from Morocco to Afghanistan. Many Sunni revivalists wish to see the caliphate restored and to subsume under it the nation-states of the Middle East. [This is a pipe dream; people in the region may not like their regimes, but they love their countries and value their independence.]

The Sunni fundamentalist Iraqi Accord Front challenged the new law on the formation of provicial confederacies in Iraq's constitutional court.

The secular National Iraqi List led by Iyad Allawi opened an investigation of 8 of its Shiite members, who participated in last Wednesday's parliamentary session and helped establish a quorum and pass the measure, which was rejected by Allawi. Those 8 are likely to go over to the Shiite fundamentalist United Iraqi Alliance. Leaders of the UIA denied rumors that the party might split over the issue of centralized state versus regional confederacies, saying that the Shiites will stick together. The confederacies were rejected by the Sadr Movement and the Fadhila Party.

What They Want

The six provinces the Sunni insurgents are claiming are the most violent in Iraq. The Kurdish North is comparatively violence free and has been talking seriously about either independence or an autonomous Kurdish confederacy. The Shiite Southeast has experienced moderate violence and also has expressed interest in forming an autonomous Shiite confederacy.

The latest announcement puts many power brokers in all three of the biggest ethnic groups in Iraq pushing for the same goal, a partition of the country into a Kurdish North, a Shiite Southeast, and everything else. It essentially concedes Sunni willingness to give up claims to Kurdish areas and the Southeast.

Sticking Points

Of course, like any set of opening offers, it isn't a complete deal. Oil rich Kirkut is, as Juan Cole notes, still very much an object of negotiation, as is a little piece of Wasit province. And, the AP understates the issues associated with the fact that several of the six provinces claimed by the Sunni insurgent group are very ethnically mixed.

The cynical side in me thinks that the Sunni insurgents are making claims on Wasit and the ruins of Babylon mostly so that they can give up that chit to the dominant Sunni forces in exchange for Kirkut. The Kurds want Kirkut, but thanks to Saddam Hussein's machinations while in power, this is the one part of the territory that they want which is not a fait accompli. They have managed so far without its oil wealth, and while they would certainly like it, it is hardly beyond the realm of possibility that they might be willing to give it up in exchange for other things that they would like, such as international recognition of their independence, as opposed to mere regional autonomy within Iraq. A swift resolution that gives them a nation state might be worth giving up a stream of oil money.

Shiites might be willing to pressure their momentary Kurdish allies to give in, in order to take Wasit, Babel, and the rest of the Southeast confederation that will likely be called Sumer without anyone else making claims to it. And, like the Kurds, the Shiites might be willing to give up any claim to Kirkut's oil wealth that might might have if a centralized Iraqi government continued to exist. Indeed, they have more to gain, because in return they would receive Southern oil fields free of national government claims. Indeed, they might even be able to give up some thinly inhabited parts of Wasit and Babel if they could get independence for the rest in the deal.

The Turkmens would also like Kirkut, as Juan Cole notes, but they lack the clout to get it. They are going to end up as a minority in someone else's turf no matter what happens in this situation.

The hard part of this arrangement, and the reason that the Baghdad based Shiite Sadr movement are opposed to it, is that people fear that in Sumer and Kurdistan leave, that the Sunni Islamic State that the Sunni insurgents have proclaimed will really happen. They would like to look after their own in places besides their autonomous region.

Allowing Anbar and Ninevah provinces (two Sunni dominanted provinces in the West) to be controlled by Sunnis easy enough, and giving autonomy to Anbar would remove the most violent of all of the provinces in Iraq from the equation. But, Baghdad and Babylon have great symbolic value. Settling for Anbar and Ninevah would indeed be half a loaf, particularly without Kirkut, which would leave the provinces without any oil wealth.


A cleaner split would be to give the Kurds and Shiites in the Southeast complete independence, and then to set up Swiss style cantons with a weak central government in the remaining six provinces with cantons having autonomy considerably greater than say U.S. states. It might even be helpful to put in place a Caliph with the powers of a moderately strong constitutional monarch, to reassure Sunnis and others skeptical of the regime that it had broken with Western tradition and was no longer a mere puppet government of the U.S. coalition.

Bringing back the monarchary's remaining representatives to endorse the constitution making process in Afghanistan was quite helpful in making the regime established there by the Loyola Jerga more legitimate, which is one reason why Afghanistan, while hardly peaceful, is managing to maintain more order than Iraq has with 10% as many foreign troops, despite having a similiar population and geographic area.

Also, the right Caliph, if he had lifetime tenure (if not actually dynastic rights, whatever tradition from the Caliphate period demands), could be a stablizing force that could smooth over many of the muddy steps of trying to build civilian rule from fragile mutli-ethnic coalitions distrustful after so much blood has already been spilled. Constitutional monarchs in Spain, Thailand and Cambodia, while hardly perfect or all powerful, have served similar helpful purposes.


Giving up your arms for political rights is only a rational choice when you aren't guaranteed to always loose in the political realm, as Sunnis are now with the Kurds and Shiites having the power to secure 80% of the seats in parliament even if Sunnis fully participate in the process (and more if they don't, as has been the case so far). In smaller cantons where Sunnis are a larger share of the population, in contrast, political power might actually be valuable enough to give up arms.

This would create a strong incentive for genuine multi-ethnic coalition building in the four multi-ethnic provinces in the East, would give Sunni fundamentalists free reign in Anbar and Ninevah in the West, and would give the Sunni populations that now back the Sunni insurgents the comfort of knowing that they were part of a nation that retained Baghdad and Kirkut. If Kirkut's oil wealth were divided fairly by the central government, the Sunni insurgent incentives to actually control Kurkut politically or militarily would be greatly reduced. If that rump federal Iraqi state were able to acquire the ruins of Babylon in Babel province from departing Sumer, a symbolic crowned jewel for Sunnis seeking to revive the vision of the Caliphate, the grass roots support for the Sunni insurgency might wane.

Sunnis in the West, with residual loyalties to Saddam, would also have a backup plan. If they found being part of a rump Iraq intolerable, they could easily enough unilaterally leave Iraq and cast in their lot with Baathist Syria, leaving the four multi-ethnic cantons in the East to muddle through the nightmare that it will likely be to govern those provinces democratically.

The real prize in central Iraq is Baghdad, which prior to the U.S. led invasion was one of the more urbane, secular, and modern places in the Middle East. Without the oil wealth relative to its population of many of its neighbors, the people of Iraq had to develop a post-agrarian economy and a middle class. Under Saddam, Baghdad was a far cry from Kabul and Beruit in the 1960s, which were genuinely vibrant and relatively free intellectually, but compared to Saudi Arabia or Iran, for example, it was progressive. Baghdad wealth is the collection of educated and skilled people it holds. But, that value can't be realized until order returns and the city begins to function again. When the lights are on only a few hours a day, it is hard to run a 21st century computerized economy.

What Will Be Good Enough To Get A Deal?

The most committed insurgents may want a return to Saudi Arabian/Taliban style Islamic law, a true dictatorship of a Caliph, and a regime in which Sunnis are superior to Shiites and other ethnic minorities by law. But, I seriously doubt that this is the majority view of Sunnis, even now.

The Sunni man on the street might be quite happy with the less draconian formal recognition of Islam as the official state religion already found in the existing Afghan and Iraqi constitutions, a Caliph with some real political power, a share of Kirkut's oil wealth, citizenship in a nation that includes Baghdad and the ruins of Babylon (but doesn't leave him grossly outnumbered in the central government by Kurds and Shiites), and real political power as a result of being able to vote for representatives in a cantonal government where Sunnis have a politically meaningful share of the elected officials that makes most important policy decisions that impact him.

Those hoping for a more purely Sunni controlled regime and a more strict application of Islamic law could move West where an Anbar canton would look like that.

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