In February 2009 the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs released a report entitled “More than ‘Shiites and ‘Sunnis,’ How a Post-Sectarian Strategy Can Change the Logic and Facilitate Sustainable Political Reform In Iraq.” The paper was written by members of the Norwegian Institute, including Reidar Visser, who is a research fellow there and runs the blog Historiae. It also included input from a group of Iraqi academics and professionals. The paper is a policy proposal for the U.S. government on how to overcome Iraq’s problems before it withdraws. Overall, the report believes that the Surge brought about dramatic security improvements, but no real political change. The Norwegian Institute argues that unless the U.S. reforms its policy before it leaves, Iraq will be plagued by long-term problems. What the paper advocates is that the U.S. move away from supporting Iraq’s current political system, and support revising the constitution to strengthen the central government. The Institute believes that the 2009 parliamentary election should be the center of this new policy. It argues that this will unite Iraqis and push nationalism to the fore.
“More than ‘Shiites’ and ‘Sunnis’” argues that the root of Iraq’s current problems is sectarianism. They believe that this is enshrined in the 2005 Constitution. Although 80% of voters ratified the document, the Institute thinks that it was rushed through with few Iraqis actually knowing what it was about. When it was passed it included a clause promising that it would be revised in the future, but this has never happened. The constitutional review committee is just as sectarian and deadlocked as the rest of the government. The effect of the Constitution was to empower a small group of mostly exile politicians who claimed they spoke for their sect or ethnic group. These leaders oppose any change to the system because it would endanger their positions. The result, the Institute writes is that a majority of Iraqis do not believe in this system and feel that it is illegitimate as a result.
The Institute believes that the main opponents of Iraq’s sectarian system come from parties in parliament that are loosely called the July 22 movement. They successfully pushed through the provincial election law despite the opposition of the Kurds and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. Reidar Visser has been arguing that this bloc represents the true Iraqi nationalists as it includes a variety of parties such as the Sadrists, Ilyad Allawi’s Iraqi National List, Fadhila, and others that cuts across sect.
The problem is that the U.S. perpetuates Iraq’s sectarian system, and supports those that are currently in power. The Institute writes that this has led to a series of misplaced policies such as calling for a national compact between the major sects, the Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds, rather than pushing for Iraqi unity. This began with the Coalition Provisional Authority who created an Iraqi governing council based upon a sectarian quota system. The Americans have also pushed for an oil law that is supposed to ensure a share for Sunnis. The U.S. then allowed the ascendancy of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and the Kurds that pushed for decentralization. When the Surge started, the Bush White House gave unconditional support to the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. As Bush left office he signed the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which included no clauses to encourage Iraq to move towards political change. Maliki and other leaders have taken advantage of this to stay in office. The U.S. has therefore caused rather than solved the divisions within Iraq.
The differences between the U.S. and Iran have also perpetuated Iraq’s problems. Some Americans have argued that Iraqi leaders secretly want the U.S. to stay to protect their positions. This ignores the fact that Iraq could turn to Iran instead of relying upon the U.S. As long as Iran and the U.S. are opposing each other in Iraq, that will lead Teheran to support Iraq’s current political system. After all, sectarianism means that Shiites will always be in the lead, which gives Iran the most influence.
The Institute argues that sectarianism is a foreign idea throughout most of Iraq’s history. They count only three times before, in 1508, 1623, and 1801 when sectarian differences were in the forefront in the country. This leads the Institute to believe that the sectarian war of 2006-2007 was the exception not the rule. From their point of view, Iraqi nationalism and the belief in a strong central government are much stronger beliefs in Iraq’s past.
Because the U.S. helped create this system, they should be the ones to try to fix it before they leave. The paper includes a long list of proposals to accomplish this. By couching these moves in nationalist rhetoric, the Institute believes that it could be a unifying policy that will assist with the American withdrawal, and create long-lasting stability. The suggestions are to place a limit on federalism. Kurdistan should be the only area where an autonomous region should be allowed. Instead, power should be centered in Baghdad. This should be enshrined in revisions to the Constitution. As part of this the Oil Ministry should control the development of Iraq’s oil and gas resources. Revenues from these should be distributed solely on a per capita basis, not by sect. Instead of federalism, ministries could be decentralized with oil being based in Basra for example. All sectarian quotas in the government should be ended with officials appointed according to their competency and professionalism. While the Institute was open to negotiating over the future of Kirkuk, it emphasized that it should be Iraqi. Finally, political influence over the security forces should be ended.
“More than ‘Shiites’ and ‘Sunnis’” also argues that the U.S. should clearly state its mistakes and long-term plans in Iraq. This means announcing that it stands for the unity of Iraq, that it supports a strong central government, that it rejects the partition of the country, and will oppose undue influence by regional powers in the country. The Institute also believes that the Americans need to admit that they were wrong in creating a sectarian system, and that it has not worked. The U.S. also should publicly state that it does not want permanent bases in Iraq, and that it is committed to withdrawing even if Iraq’s government runs into problems.
The first step in this restructuring of Iraq can begin with the 2009 parliamentary elections, which are scheduled for the end of the year. The U.S. should stress constitutional reform as the main issue, and America’s commitment to democracy in Iraq. The U.S. also needs to work towards ensuring that they are free and fair, and organize a massive international effort to monitor the voting. Iraq refugees should also be allowed to vote, something that happened in the 2005 vote, but not in the recent provincial elections.
To prepare the environment for the vote, the paper has another list of suggestions. First the U.S. should encourage a freeze on all major work by parliament so that laws will be held off until a new, hopefully improved group of legislators takes office. The U.S. should also threaten sanctions on Baghdad if it takes any authoritarian measures before the election. America should also stop encouraging Iraq’s neighbors from opening up embassies, freeze working with the international compact on Iraq’s debt because it sets no conditions on Iraq, deter investment in Iraq’s oil sector, and open negotiations with Iran in an attempt to offer them deals on other areas so they will not focus on Iraq. Oddly the Institute also advocates giving aid to parties that stress the constitution. The thrust of the paper is that the U.S. needs to push Iraqi nationalism to the fore, but then giving direct aid to Iraq parties could undermine their chances because they could be seen as being American puppets.
Selecting a new parliament should then be followed by a revision of the Constitution. To encourage that the U.S. should offer debt relief, withdrawing its troops, and guarantee Kurdish autonomy as rewards for a successful constitutional process, but also continue to deter foreign investment, including in Kurdistan, hold off any regional conferences, and try to end the United Nations work on disputed territories to apply pressure on Iraqis to finish the task.
Holding successful elections and revising the Iraqi Constitution have been long sought after goals by a wide variety of groups ranging from the U.S., and other governments, to various think tanks. Iraqi nationalism is also an important ingredient, especially after the country fractured after the U.S. invasion. The Norwegian Institute’s paper however has some major flaws, which undermine its argument. First, it gives undue influence to the July 22 bloc. While the opposition parties were able to pass an election law before the Supreme Council and the Kurds wanted, it was something supported by the Prime Minister. That was actually one of its only major accomplishments. The provincial election law for example maintained the status quo in Kirkuk by setting up a committee to figure out how to conduct elections there, but all that did was maintain the status quo, something that suited the Kurds who control the province. The Institute claims this was a victory for the July 22 bloc, but it was actually a defeat of their earlier proposal that would have forced the Kurds to share power before the vote. Second, it believes that the parliamentary elections will lead to a new set of nationalist politicians that will want fundamental changes in Iraq’s government and constitution. That’s not guaranteed. Nationalist parties did do well in the 2009 provincial elections, but it was still mostly the ruling parties that came out on top, the very ones the Institute is advocating against. Also Shiites tended to vote for Shiite parties, Sunnis for Sunnis, and Kurds for Kurds. More importantly, Prime Minister Maliki could champion most of the paper’s main points such as a strong central government and constitutional reform, yet Maliki is also the type of exile politician that the paper condemns. More importantly his moves are meant to ensure his power over the country. Another point is that in all political systems, the ruling parties want their people to take up positions of power in the government after they win. That would make non-political appointments to the bureaucracy and military nearly impossible. Fourth, the paper believes that the Americans are the major perpetrators of Iraqi sectarianism. That overlooks the fact that rule under Saddam, which lasted for decades, was also sectarian as he went after the Shiites and Kurds. The report says that the U.S. supported the ascendancy of the Supreme Council and the Kurds who pushed for decentralization. The U.S. also supported Ilyad Allawi of the Iraqi National List and currently backs Nouri al-Maliki of the Islamic Dawa party, both of which were nationalists who wanted a strong central government. Finally, “More than ‘Shiites’ and ‘Sunnis’” also largely ignores the current major divide in Iraq, that between Arabs and Kurds. Iraqi nationalism is being created on the basis of opposition to the Kurds. This stretches from the Prime Minister to the July 22 bloc. While the report says that the U.S. should ensure Kurdistan’s autonomy that overlooks the fact that the Kurds would oppose almost every other proposal made by the Institute. That includes revising the constitution, shoring up a strong central government, empowering the Oil Ministry, ending work on the disputed territories, stressing that Kirkuk should be Iraqi, etc. The Institute argues that their proposals will unite Iraqis and are ideas shared across sectarian lines, but that’s probably mostly true of Iraqi Arabs. “More than ‘Shiites’ and ‘Sunnis’” is good at pointing out the levers the U.S. can still use to influence Iraqi politics before it withdraws, but ironically if the paper’s plans were followed it could actually increase the new divisions in the country as it attempts to solve an old one.
Associated Press, “Iraqi parliament passes election law,” 7/22/08
Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, “More than “Shiites” and “Sunnis,” How a Post-Sectarian Strategy Can Change the Logic and Facilitate Sustainable Political Reform in Iraq,” February 2009
Visser, Reidar, “A Litmus Test for Iraq,” Middle East Report Online, 1/30/09
- “Debating Devolution in Iraq,” Middle East Report Online, 3/10/08
- “The Law on the Powers of Governorates Not Organised in a Region: Washington’s ‘Moderate’ Allies Show Some Not-So-Moderate Tendencies,” Historiae.org, 2/11/08