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    Middle East
     Mar 2, 2006
Civil war all but declared
By Michael A Weinstein

With the bombing of the Golden Mosque - one of the holiest sites of Shi'ite Islam - on February 22 and the nearly immediate retaliatory attacks on Sunni mosques throughout Iraq, the military phase of the struggle over the country's political future overwhelmed and derailed its political dynamics.

The Sunni Arab bloc in Iraq's new parliament - the National Accord Front (NAC) - broke off its participation in negotiations

over the composition of a government to replace the outgoing transitional administration. Although a cycle of sectarian violence, marked by killings on both sides, had been building and intensifying for months, the bombing precipitated the first open admission by Iraq's fragmented political class that the country was entering the condition of full-scale civil war. An Associated Press report on Tuesday, citing a top unidentified Sunni figure, said that Sunni politicians would end their boycott.

The deep conflicts of interest among the three major ethnic-religious groups - Shi'ite Arabs, Sunni Arabs and Sunni Kurds - had been expected to reach a critical point when the time came for the country's political forces to negotiate a permanent settlement of their differences or to move toward separation.

That moment arrived with the December 15 elections for a four-year parliament, which forced the political class to confront its stark divisions in the context of having to form a government. As negotiations for a government proceeded from late December into February, it became clear that an agreement on its composition would prove to be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.

Each player in the process was compelled to clarify its demands, revealing profound and - according to the players - irreconcilable conflicts. Rather than signifying an interruption of the political process, the mosque bombing and its aftermath vividly symbolize the failure of that process.

Behind the violence, which justifiably occupies the attention of the media and decision-makers in the short term, are the persistent interests that surfaced in the negotiations as a series of non-negotiable demands by each side against the others. The phrase that dominated public discussion of the bargaining process in Iraq was "red line", meaning a limit beyond which a player would not go in making concessions to its adversaries. Rather than seeking compromise, the players engaged in drawing a crazy quilt of red lines, resulting in deadlock.

A sign as telling as the bombing that the political process had broken down was the decision on February 20 by US Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad to go public with a threat to cut off aid to Iraq's security forces if the Iraqi political class did not agree to form a "national-unity government" in which each sectarian and ethnic bloc had a share in power and subsumed its militia under a national army and police force.

Asserting that the United States was "not going to invest the resources of the American people and build forces that are run by people who are sectarian", Khalilzad abandoned the behind-the-scenes diplomacy that had been his trademark in favor of blunt external pressure that had little credibility - an admission of frustration. As the players proceeded on a collision course, Washington's influence over the negotiations steadily diminished to the point at which it has become a bystander reduced to issuing warnings from the sidelines.

Red lines proliferate
The stage was set for deadlock on February 11, when the Shi'ite bloc - the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) - which has the largest number of seats in the new parliament, voted 64-63 to name Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the transitional prime minister, as its choice for premier in the permanent government. The largest bloc in the new parliament, holding 130 of its 275 seats against the Sunni NAF's 55, the Kurdish Alliance's (KA) 53 and the secular Iraqi National List's (INL) 25, the UIA has been beset by internal conflicts among its component factions that are reflected in Jaafari's razor-thin margin of victory.

Jaafari, who represents the Da'wa Party, achieved his win with the support of anti-occupation cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose faction controls 30 of the UIA's seats. Muqtada's backing of Jaafari was based on his opposition to Adel Abdul Mehdi, the candidate of the UIA's largest faction, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution of Iraq (SCIRI).

Although the preponderance of the components of the UIA are based in Shi'ite clerical families, those families and their followers are divided by long-standing rivalries. The winning coalition of Da'wa and the Sadrists came at the price of honoring the SCIRI's red line that it be awarded control of the Interior Ministry, which is in charge of internal security and - under the transitional government - has been in the SCIRI's hands and has been held responsible by Sunnis for sectarian attacks on their community.

In response to the prospect of continued SCIRI control over the power ministries - Interior and Defense - NAF leader Adnan al-Dulaimi drew his own red line, insisting that those portfolios be given to figures who were not identified with the Shi'ite clerical establishment. Dulaimi's demand was met by the leader of the SCIRI's militia, the Badr Organization, with the assertion that the SCIRI "will not relinquish the security portfolios".

Building on their deadlock over the power ministries, the UIA and the NAF drew red lines on an array of other issues. The UIA insisted that the NAF condemn "terrorism" and actively oppose the Sunni-led insurgency, to which the NAF replied that the UIA must distinguish between terrorism against civilians and legitimate resistance against what they consider the US-led occupation.

The NAF demanded an end to the purge of ex-Ba'ath Party members from public life, which the UIA rejected. Most important, the NAF demanded that Iraq's current constitution be modified to restrict regional self-rule and the UIA insisted that the Shi'ite-dominated south, with its vast oil resources, move to regularize its substantial autonomy, leaving Sunni Arabs in fear that the resource-poor center and west of Iraq, where they are concentrated, would be impoverished.

Reinforcing the Sunni-Shi'ite deadlock at the level of the political class is Sunni public opinion. A survey conducted by the Program on International Policy Attitudes and reported in the Washington Times on February 1 found that only 5% of Sunni Arabs approved of the December 15 elections, 92% thought the new government was illegitimate, and 88% approved of attacks on US forces (see Biting the hand of friendship, February 1). Sunni Arab participation in the political process, which Washington believed would integrate the Sunni community into a nation-building project, has not had the desired effect, but has only worked to reveal the latent political confrontation.

A little-noticed study conducted by the Iraqi Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs and released in late January shows some of the reasons for persisting Sunni Arab disaffection. The study reported that the poverty level in Iraq has increased by 30% since April 2003, reaching 20% of the population. Two million Iraqis are having difficulty finding sufficient food and shelter, and live with an income of less than US$2 per day. The report attributed rising poverty to the "shutdown of the public sector", lack of access to education, and violence, all of which differentially affect the Sunni Arab population.

Under the pressure of deteriorating living conditions and the resultant disaffection of public opinion from a Shi'ite-Kurd dominated political process, the Sunni leadership is constrained to take a hard line, as its opponents mobilize to maintain their present advantages and accelerate their drive toward regional autonomy. As the Sunnis press their demands, the Shi'ites and the Kurds dig in and resist making any concessions.

Although the seemingly intractable conflict between Sunni and Shi'ite Arabs gained the greatest attention during the negotiations, the third player in the struggle over Iraq's future - the Kurds - began to assert their own demands more forcefully and drew their own red lines.

Already running the oil-rich northern provinces as a mini-state, the Kurdish Alliance, composed of the Democratic Party of Kurdistan (PDK) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), had allied with the UIA forces in the transitional government, but had become dissatisfied with the treatment it had received and was ready to act more independently in furthering its interests.

The central interests of the Kurds are to maintain their effective independence and to gain control of Kirkuk and its surrounding region, which has large energy reserves and had been split off from the Kurdish provinces under Saddam Hussein's Ba'athist regime. The Kurds complain that the transitional government, in which the Shi'ites had the preponderant influence, did not facilitate the resettlement of Kurds who had been displaced from Kirkuk under Ba'athist rule, and that it failed to put into effect provisions of the Iraqi constitution and its subsidiary Law of Administration that require a census in and a referendum on the status of Kirkuk.

Already in late January the governor of Kirkuk, Abd al-Rahman Mustafa, had threatened to suspend oil exports to the rest of Iraq if the central government did not allocate funds for taking the census and holding the referendum.

The status of Kirkuk became an explicit "red-line issue" when the president of the "Kurdistan region", Masoud Barzani, declared in February that the situation would have to be resolved constitutionally by the end of 2007. Accession of Kirkuk to the Kurdish mini-state is as threatening to the Sunnis economically as the normalization of a Shi'ite autonomous region would be, and has the added problem that the city is multiethnic, with Arab, Turkoman and Christian minorities that are resistant to Kurdish hegemony.

Barzani also drew a red line, as would be expected, around preservation of constitutional provisions guaranteeing regional autonomy. In a break with the Kurdish-Shi'ite alliance, Barzani reported that in his negotiations with the UIA he had insisted that the secular bloc led by former provisional prime minister Iyad Allawi be included in a national-unity government along with the UIA, the NAF and the KA, which was a deal-breaker for the UIA. This was because of Muqtada's rejection of any collaboration with Allawi, who ordered the suppression of Muqtada's rebellion against the occupation in 2004.

Finally, Barzani demanded that the arrangement in the transitional government whereby a Kurd receives the presidency be maintained and insisted that the constitution be changed to grant the president greater powers at the expense of the prime minister.

In his most revealing comment in a February 10 interview with Al-Arabiya television, Barzani said Kurdistan would secede from Iraq if a Sunni-Shi'ite civil war broke out and forthrightly declared that the Kurds had a right to their own independent state, although "we are aware of the international and internal circumstances" standing in the way of one.

It was in the face of the collapsing Iraqi political process that Khalilzad delivered his threat of an aid cutoff. He had preceded his public announcement by publishing an opinion column - "Blueprint for a national government" - in which he laid out Washington's own red line, a national-unity government. Recognizing that marginalization and isolation of the Sunni Arabs is at the core of the deadlock, Khalilzad made a scarcely veiled demand that the Kurds and the Shi'ites concede to Sunni demands.

Using hard rhetoric, Khalilzad wrote that Iraqi leaders "must" give "political minorities confidence that the majority will share power and take their legitimate concerns into account". Specifically, Khalilzad went on, the government "must" disband factional militias and the Defense and Interior ministries have to be staffed "on the basis of competence, not ethnic or sectarian background".

He warned that the Sunni-led insurgency would only be curbed if regional powers were not "allowed to dominate Iraq" and de-Ba'athification was limited to "high-ranking officials, integrating all those who did not commit crimes into mainstream society". On the root issue of regional autonomy, Khalilzad was direct: "Iraqi leaders must strike agreements that will win greater Sunni Arab support and create a near-consensus in favor of the constitution."

Having incorporated the entire Sunni position into his list of demands, Khalilzad's blueprint met with a predictable rejectionist response from the Shi'ites and Kurds, who accused him of violating Iraqi sovereignty and going back on US policy by attempting to dictate a resolution of the conflict.

In a telling and scathing paragraph-by-paragraph critique of Khalilzad's essay, Kurdish analyst Dr Rebwar Fatah concluded, "Khalilzad's blueprint for Iraqi national unity will be as successful as the British Iraq. The difference is that in the early 20th century, imposing superficial nation-states over ethnic and religious groups was possible by bloodshed, but in the 21st century, the mission of Iraqi national unity shall remain a myth."

The moment of reckoning has arrived in post-Ba'athist Iraq and none of the major players shows a trace of the will to compromise that would be necessary to construct a genuine nation-state, in which diverse social groups have an overriding commitment to live together.

Even if civil war is averted in the short term and a government is formed, that government will not be a genuine national-unity administration, but an arena of conflict between contending power groups. In one of the most astute observations on the situation by an Iraqi politician, Mehdi shrugged off his loss at not becoming premier, saying that any new government would not be popular and would not be likely to serve out a four-year term.

A weak central government, which seems to be inevitable, will be starved for funds and will have trouble enforcing security given the preponderant slide toward confederal regionalism. Ministerial portfolios will be allocated according to ethnic-religious groups, and ministries will tend to coalesce into self-enclosed fiefdoms - as they already have in the transitional government - that effectively resist coordinated direction from high political officials.

With each major bloc demanding positions with real power, there will not be enough to go around and dissatisfaction will build among those who feel they have been slighted.

Most important, the red lines that the contending players have drawn are not preliminary negotiating positions, but reflect deeply embedded perceptions of vital interests that are resistant to reconciliation.

Washington has neither the trust nor the credibility nor the resources to impose its blueprint and will have to watch its efforts unravel. Fatah, the Kurdish analyst, perceptively observed that "the frustration that Khalilzad demonstrates in his article could be interpreted as some degree of a resignation". Increasingly resigned to the collapse of all its plans for Iraq, Washington has been placed in a no-win situation. It has no prospect of a graceful exit and seems fated to preside helplessly over Iraq's disintegration.

Published with permission of the Power and Interest News Report, an analysis-based publication that seeks to provide insight into various conflicts, regions and points of interest around the globe. All comments should be directed to content@pinr.com .

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