Al-Ahram Weekly Online   7 - 13 April 2005
Issue No. 737
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

This week two years ago, while Allied tanks rumbled into Baghdad, the collapse of Saddam's infamous statue symbolised the fall of a dictatorship. But have the two intervening years brought Iraqis freedom? Ploughing through political, social and economic territory, analysts and first-hand witnesses provide Al-Ahram Weekly with a balance sheet of the occupation

Identity politics

Collapse of the state, revival of ethnic and sectarian affiliations and the fragmentation of authority are but some of the characteristics of the new Iraq, writes Hussein Shabaan*

9 April marks the second anniversary of the occupation of Iraq. The war, the results of which were a foregone conclusion, lasted only three weeks. It opened on 20 March with an intensive aerial bombardment and ended with the American occupation of Baghdad. This invasion not only toppled the regime that had ruled Iraq for the past 35 years, it toppled the entire edifice of the Iraqi state as it dismantled its military and security apparatuses and destroyed its vital urban and economic infrastructure. Even cultural institutions, such as museums, libraries and universities, were not spared destruction.

With the elimination of the state, traditional bonds founded upon sectarian, kinship, regional and ethnic affiliations reasserted themselves more forcefully than ever. Indeed, the fragmentation of authority in the absence of an overarching unifying authority perhaps best sums up the pitiful condition to which Iraq has been reduced. As certain sectarian and ethnic forces stake their place in "the new composition" they are not about to relinquish their newly found powers and privileges, all the more so as the dictatorship and the post-occupation situation have left them few alternatives. This dynamic defines the foggy contours of an Iraq that is no more and a new Iraq that has yet to take shape.

Over the past two years Iraq has passed through three stages. Whereas in the first the occupation ruled directly through its military governor, Jay Garner; in the second the occupation attempted to reduce its profile through the token participation of some Iraqi elements. During this latter phase, which lasted about a year, the occupation authorities defined the shape of the model Iraq that had been on the drawing boards of American and Western political strategists for more than a decade.

The third phase brought the command of the notorious American civil governor, Paul Bremer, whose fits of temper became fodder for Iraqi jokes. The primary features of this phase were financial and administrative corruption and the weakness and submissiveness on the part of those Iraqi parties that had dealings with the occupation. The description of the first and second interim councils as "a government that doesn't govern" was neither hyperbole nor an accusation but rather a bold statement of fact, made all the more palpable by the prevalent chaos, the total breakdown in security, the rise of terrorist activities and the mounting scope and impetus of the resistance. Paul Bremer came to lay the foundations of the future Iraq, echoing Bush's promises of the advent of the blessings of democracy and the springtime of liberty. What he did was to sew the seeds for sectarian and ethnic strife by instituting a demographic quota system for the distribution of seats on the interim council.

Political sectarianism existed in Iraq since the establishment of the modern state in 1921. After all, to ruling authorities sectarian and ethnic divisions were a useful instrument for consolidating and perpetuating their control. The device was given legal expression in the Nationality Law 42 of 1924, which came into effect even before the promulgation of Iraq's first Constitution, or basic law, in 1925, in the Nationality Law 43 of 1963 and then in the discriminatory decrees issued by the Revolutionary Command Council from 1968 onwards. The most salient repercussions of these laws and decrees was the expulsion of some half a million Iraqis, a phenomenon which reached its peak at the outset of the Iraq-Iran war and the RCC Decree 666 of 7 May 1980. Bremer however elevated sectarianism to an official denominational ordering of society, which is perhaps more potentially dangerous or at best a sanctification of the ugly side of the face of sectarianism.

Sectarian and ethnic tensions mounted considerably under Bremer's rule. Across the religious Shia-Sunni, Kurdish-Turkoman, Arab-Kurdish- Christian-Chaldean divides, barricades have been erected. One is reminded of the observation of the eminent Iraqi sociologist, the late Ali Al-Wardi, who described this phenomenon as sectarianism without religion. What he meant was that the truly pious individual cannot be sectarian because Islam like other religions abhors sectarianism. The existence of diverse sects and denominations is a healthy phenomenon so long as it is a manifestation of constructive plurality and diversity rather than narrow partisanship and mutual hatred.

The second phase of US rule, as I said, attempted to advance the American idea of a new Iraq. The product of dozens of studies and articles produced by research centres and strategic studies institutions in the US, this concept was founded on the premise of an eminently divisible Iraq. This premise had its roots in the Iran-Iraq war, which was recast as a Muslim-Muslim (Shia-Sunni) war, after having been portrayed as an Arab-Persian one, so as to substantiate the claim that Israel is not the real source of conflict and evil in the region. One study went so far as to assert that the past quarter of a century was the best proof that not only were there wars and disputes in the region in which Israel was not a part: the Iran- Iraq war (1980-1988), the second Gulf War triggered by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 and the allied coalition war against Iraq of 2003 on the grounds of Iraq's alleged possession of WMD and sponsoring of international terrorism. The point, of course, was that gentle peace-loving Israel was not the threat to the region but rather dictatorial regimes such as that in Iraq and those in Iran and Syria and, of course, the resistance movements these regimes foster and support against the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the American occupation of Iraq.

Following the defeat of Iraq in 1991 Baghdad was forced to submit to a series of UN resolutions that enforced a cruel, debilitating and inhumane stranglehold on the country that lasted 12 years. During this period, Iraq was portrayed as a collection of diverse ethnic and religious groups bound together not by some notion of common citizenship in a single unified national entity but by the coercive force of one of these "minorities." Soon Western policy-makers were talking of a "safe haven" for the Kurds and a similar form of protection for the Shia below the 36 parallel. The Sunni Arabs meanwhile were doomed to be held guilty by association with the former regime and all its evils. But the fragmentation of the image of Iraq did not stop with the Shias, Sunnis and Kurds. Increasingly we began to hear of the plights of other religious and ethnic communities, such as the Turkomans, the Chaldeans, the Yazidis and the Sabaeans.

That the Iraqi mosaic has always been a source of enrichment and strength throughout Iraq's ancient and contemporary history is all the more reason that the rights of the various communities should be guaranteed in accordance with universal principles and laws of human rights. However, the Western portrait of Iraq had an ulterior motive which was to plunge Iraq into a free-for-all over privileges, power and material advantage even if the occupier stood to gain the most.

The architects of the Iraqi society of the future had a curious approach to its component elements. The Kurds, for example, are regarded as an ethnic national entity -- not that this is wrong, for they are a distinct yet fundamental component of the Iraqi people and there can be no stability or progress in Iraq without a peaceful, democratic, humane and just solution to the Kurdish question that secures their right to self-determination within an appropriate framework, whether federal or otherwise. However, the Arabs are accorded a different treatment. Rather than regarding them as an ethnic whole bound by linguistic and cultural bonds and inspired by common national and pan-Arab aspirations they are dissected on the basis of religious creed and denomination. The categorisations are inherently fallacious, as Shia and Sunni affiliations extend across all ethnic boundaries.

A more realistic and internally consistent breakdown of the national-ethnic composition of Iraq is in order. Iraq is made up of Arabs, who form about 80 per cent of the population and who have given Iraq its primary historic and contemporary identity, and secondly of Kurds whose distinct national identity is recognised in Iraqi constitutions since 1958. If the 1958 Constitution referred to Kurds as "partners in the Iraqi nation", and the 1970 Constitution acknowledged that Iraq consisted of two major national identities -- Arabs and Kurds -- the Kurds today are pressing for greater guarantees for their national rights through a federal system instead of the autonomy that had been granted to them prior to 1974.

Iraq also consists of smaller national-ethnic groups, such as the Turkomans and the Chaldeans. Without guarantees for the national rights of Kurds and the cultural and administrative rights of Turkomans, Chaldeans and others we will not be able to realise a spirit of brotherhood as members of the same nation, especially given the cumulative resentment that accrued from the infringements and human rights abuses perpetrated against these minorities by previous regimes. It should be stressed, however, that the Bremer formula only works to enhance secessionist tendencies.

The third post-occupation phase, which was conducted nominally under joint US-international auspices with Iraqi participation, brought the interim law for the administration of Iraq (8 March 2004), the handover of "power" to the Iraqis on 30 June, and UN Security Council resolution 1546 defining the role and powers of the "multinational force" under US command. These measures paved the way for the elections that were held on 30 January 2005.

This phase was marked by considerable anxiety and mounting turmoil. The parties that had obtained certain privileges as ethnic or sectarian groups fought to secure their advantages by appealing to the "street" through the electoral process. If legitimate in the sense that they were held in accordance with Security Council Resolution 1546 and the national administration law, the elections cannot be said to have been comprehensive or fully legitimate as they were boycotted by some governorates and by several sectors of the population. If the criticisms that were levelled at the electoral law, the partiality of the process and the conduct of the elections themselves had considerable validity, there is no denying, too, an element of cynicism on the part of some of the boycotters. It was dismaying to have observed the extent to which such objections and the demand to link the elections with a timeframe for the withdrawal of occupation forces were, for them, no more than means for enhancing their status and leverage. In all, it was clear too, that the need for national dialogue and reconciliation to facilitate an end to the occupation was not high on the priorities of most parties.

The third phase of the US occupation was also characterised by the growing momentum of the resistance movement and by the increasing scale and brutality of acts of violence and terrorism, as epitomised by car bombs and televised beheadings. The US and multinational forces have so far been unable to halt the mounting material and moral attrition on their forces and to restore even a semblance of security. As a result, the elections were held under an extremely fraught climate and over a month and a half later the shape of the forthcoming government has still to resolve itself.

The ethnic-sectarian equations have been the primary obstacle to the election of the speaker and vice-speakers of the National Assembly and, hence, the formation of a new government. However, once that government is finally declared, it is likely to come under harsh criticism, not only from opposition forces but from within its diverse camps of supporters, for not being representative of their interests. A government thus plagued by the wranglings between demographic groupings will be debilitated from the outset and although there is nothing as yet written in stone, the precedent for a quota system has been set and will therefore be difficult to overcome.

Perhaps the Lebanese multi-confessional system offers the most telling indication of what lays in store for Iraq: mounting inter-sectarian and ethnic tensions, growing fragmentation and a declining spirit of citizenship with the increasing preeminence of local, sectarian, tribal and ethnic allegiances. I believe the occupation is primarily responsible for this phenomenon, having given it reign through the abolishment of the state apparatus and its military and security services.

Discrimination, sectarian partisanship and negation of national identities are all impediments to the sense of a higher national allegiance and thus must be solved in a manner that will safeguard the rights and identities of the constituent bodies while promoting their constructive interaction within the framework of a diverse but unified whole. A thriving nation needs free citizens and a vibrant civil society whose allegiances transcend the clan, the sect or the ethnic or regional group. This cannot be achieved through a democracy that is founded upon ethnic-sectarian ratios, quota systems and other such formula that only work to sharpen the divisions. What is needed is a democracy that absorbs the entire populace in all its diversity into an overriding bond of shared citizenship within the framework of a modern state, a sovereign law and a comprehensive constitution. While such a system will not magically solve age-old problems overnight, it offers a more hopeful and rational mode for overcoming them.

* The writer is an Iraqi human rights activist.

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