Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Can there be a 'historic compromise' in Arab Iraq?

[Guest-posted on the weblog of Norman Geras - Normblog]

Can there be a 'historic compromise' in Arab Iraq?
(by Jeff Weintraub)

As usual, Trudy Rubin, the Philadelphia Inquirer's invaluable Middle East columnist, zeroes in on some key realities.
To understand what's needed, compare post-Hussein Iraq with South Africa immediately after apartheid. South Africa's whites had to adjust to a new role commensurate with their minority status; majority blacks had to reassure whites that they still had a role in the country.

Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari compares Sunnis to South African whites and complains that they lack a leader like F.W. de Klerk, who persuaded his people to accept their new situation. Jaafari compares Shiite religious leader Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to Nelson Mandela, who famously reassured South African whites.

Sistani has played a conciliatory role, but his clerical position precludes the political outreach that Mandela did so well. Nor can Sistani always control Shiite politicians. Despite his opposition, key Shiite leaders demanded the right to form a regional confederation in southern Iraq that would control much of Iraq's future oil flow and enshrined that right in the constitution. That convinced many Sunnis that Shiites want to splinter Iraq.

As for Iraqi Sunnis, they definitely lack a de Klerk. Saddam Hussein eliminated or drove out any talented Sunni political leaders. Sunni Muslims have no religious hierarchy that produces a paramount leader. So Sunni political, tribal and religious figures quarrel over whether to join the new system or support the insurgents.
Sunnis have stood by as outside Islamic radicals led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi have blown up Shiite mosques and markets. Iraqi insurgents, primarily Sunnis, are supposedly seeking to drive out the Americans. Yet they have permitted their movement to be hijacked by terrorists who label Shiite Muslims apostates and want to kill them en masse.

Some individual Sunni clerics denounce such attacks. But Sunni politicians tell me they can't condemn Zarqawi, because doing so would make them look like supporters of American occupation. Such moral blindness hastens the collapse of Iraq into full-scale civil war.

So far, Ayatollah Sistani has blocked full-scale revenge against Sunnis by Shiite tribal and village leaders. But his leverage is weakening.

Shiite militias have been absorbed into local Iraqi police forces. Many reports are emerging of men in police uniforms who kidnap and murder Sunni civilians.
What to watch? Will Sunni leaders condemn Zarqawi and drive his men out of their villages and towns? Will Shiite leaders rein in their militias? Will they also reassure courageous Sunnis that they have no intention of splitting the country and will share its oil?

These are the moves that can save Iraq. Before a constitution can have any meaning, Sunnis and Shiite leaders must reach a consensus that will prevent full-scale civil war from exploding. They have little time to lose.

I might quarrel with some of the details and emphases in this analysis (for one thing, I think in some ways it's a little too generous to the Sunni Arab leadership in Iraq) - but its central thrust is definitely on target.

=> Rubin's analysis can usefully be compared with a piece in Monday's Washington Post that addresses some of the same issues. The Washington Post piece appears to reflect the main consensus of foreign-policy analysts in the US, which is oriented more one-sidedly toward the concerns of the Sunni Arab community in Iraq.

This bias clearly stems from so-called 'realist' considerations, many of which are definitely quite valid, up to a point. If the Sunni Arab minority is not brought into some kind of national accord, they have the capacity to derail any viable political solution in Iraq. Although Sunni Arabs amount to 20% of the Iraqi population at most, as the long-time dominant minority they have disproportionate military capacities and expertise, especially since many of the Ba'athist organizational and secret-police networks remain active. They also have support from the rest of the Arab world, where Sunni Arabs are the dominant majority (and are mostly appalled at the idea of Iraq being run by a bunch of Shiites and Kurds). As my friend Ben Braude has argued, the fact that Sunni Arabs are a small minority within Iraq but a heavy majority in the region (unlike South African whites - or, one might add, Lebanon's Maronite Christians) is undoubtedly a crucial factor in shaping their perception of the situation. And, of course, they constitute the base of support for the 'insurgency', which can never grow beyond a minority movement but which could certainly be maintained indefinitely, with catastrophic effects for Iraq (and probably, in the long run, even more catastrophic effects for the Sunni Arab minority itself - but self-destructive political strategies are not rare in the real world). It's also true that, objectively speaking, the Sunni Arab minority in Iraq has some valid and legitimate concerns that deserve to be addressed (as well as various unrealistic goals, demands, and attitudes that stem from an unwillingness to accept that they are no longer in control of the country, and that the other 80-85% of Iraqis are no longer willing to accept their dominating role).

Having said all that, an excessively one-sided pseudo-'realist' approach that ignores or slights the concerns of the other 80-85% of Iraqis (who are overwhelmingly Shiite Arabs and Kurds) does not strike me as very realistic. Or very fair, but let's not get into that. (Jeff Weintraub)