Beirut, Wednesday, December 18, 2002



Various Iraqi opposition groups met for four days and nights in a luxurious downtown London hotel to draft plans on the future of a post-Saddam Iraq. Sponsored by the United States—and with a personal emissary from president Bush—the conference hosted 300-plus delegates representing about 50 Iraqi factions, many in exile, including 150 independent personalities. That half of the delegates were “independent” only points to a category of exiled liberal businessmen, lawyers, journalists and intellectuals, all of which unable to fit in the traditional confessional and ethnic makeup of Iraq.


The conference concluded with two documents outlining the future of a two-year post-Saddam transitional period, and elected a committee composed of 65 members whose religious and ethnic affiliations followed an identical pattern to a 1992 conference (codenamed Saladdin): 66% for the Shi‘i and Sunni Arabs, 25% Kurds, 6% Turkomans, and 3% Assyrians. The participants also drafted a prime document that outlines questions for a referendum to be completed during a two-year transitional period: Should the state be a constitutional monarchy or a republic? It also posits an infrastructure for a two-year transitional government headed by a committee of three “with a clean and honorable past.”


The conference itself and the two drafted documents parallel those that the Afghani warlords and factions completed a year ago in Bonn. But if in the Afghani case the existence of a loya jirga (assembly of notables) eased the drafting of the “constitutional document,” the Iraqis, by contrast, do not have such a formal assembly, even though the existence of an Iraqi loya jirga will have to be assumed. The problem, however, is to see how those groups will redefine themselves in an Iraq under American military rule. In effect, the second document stumbles on the very norms of Arabism and Islam in that it avoids at all costs—in the context of a so-called “federal” solution—to separate among Shi‘i and Sunni Arabs, while naming other “minorities” each one individually, as if the Sunni Arabs are not themselves a “minority” among others. Iraqi “federalism” is thus portrayed as a device for the protection of non-Arab “minorities” rather than a political constitution that fosters the autonomy of all groups and their relations to one another.


The second document is composed of a short introduction and 25 articles outlining a vision of the Iraq to come, and presumably of what it already is. The introduction is mostly devoted to the March 1991 uprising (intifada) “of millions of Iraqis whether civilians or military, Arabs, Kurds, Turkomans, Assyrians, Sunnis and Shi‘is, which almost took away the state (nizam) to the historical place that it deserves.” The document then adduces the “failure” of the uprising in uprooting the “fascist” regime to “circumstances outside the will of our people.” For that reason, the introduction concludes, a change is necessary, one that would benefit the Iraqi people itself, the Arab and Islamic world, and the international community at large.


The above introductory statements already stumble on major problems, all of which will remain either unformulated or vague at best. The 1991 uprising came in the wake of the 1989-90 Gulf War and the covert CIA operations that supported the Kurds in the North and the Shi‘is in the South. Having stopped short of taking Baghdad and the rest of Iraq, the U.S. Administration of Bush Sr. opted for covert operations that would ultimately overthrow the regime “from the inside,” while letting the Iraqis decide their own fate. But the 1991 uprising only led to a general massacre and a political debacle that were more caused by the internal dynamics of those groups that participated and less by “outside circumstances,” as the document labels them. In effect, internal divisions among Kurds as well as strives among Shi‘is loyal to Iran with other pro-“nationalist” figures, led to great confusions and the withdrawal of CIA financing and intelligence. To be sure, outside elements such as Turkish fears of a Kurdish state and Saudi reservations of a pro-Iranian regime in Baghdad did play a role, but it should be clear by now that the problems of Iraq are mostly internal.


The “political project” (al-bayan al-siyasi) of the Iraqi exiles stumbles from its very beginnings on three major shortcomings. First, the nature of Iraqi society itself. “The Arabs, Kurds, Turkomans, Assyrians, Sunnis and Shi‘is” as enumerated in the introductory statement will be reduced to two de facto “nationalities” (qawmiyya-tan), one Arab and the other Kurdish, throughout the 25 articles of the “project.” Anthropologically, the Arabs, Kurds, Turkomans and Assyrians are all ethnic groups identified to their ethnicities and languages, while the broad division between Sunnis and Shi‘is is a religious one. However, all such groups might anthropologically manifest similar, if not identical, structures in terms of kinship, exchange, and legal and political institutions. But the desire to differ is probably not without good reasons in spite of all the infrastructural affiliations that might be detected. Such differences are the outcome of “cultural” differences of various “imagined communities.”


Logically then, if one were to identify Iraq in terms of its linguistic cultures it should give weight to more than the two predominant ones, the Arabs and Kurds, so as to include Turkomans, Assyrians, and many others, which, as we shall see, the document does recognize but only in a tortured manner. But then the Shi‘is, who are mostly Arabs and mixed with a Persian brand, and who form 60% out of the 22 million Iraqis, would be confused with the other Sunni Arabs, a calculation that might hinder possible “federalist” projects (more on this later). Wouldn’t it be more logical to identify for the purposes of “federalism” three components of Iraqi society—the Kurds, the Sunni Arabs, and the Shi‘i Arabs—while opening the possibility for more groups to come forth and claim a desire for “autonomy”?


Second, all outside forces—Turkish, Iranian, and Saudi—are never identified in any of the articles of the “political project” as if Iraq is set in a political and regional vacuum. More importantly, the American role—considering that Iraq might be subject to a massive American military operation—is not mentioned—not even once. It is only in the last section (#25) that the conference “looked favorably at the political and practical roles of both the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran to foster change in Iraq.” That the U.S. and Iran are placed on an identical plane only shows the widely diverse and incompatible views of the participants, and the need to compromise. Indeed, even “federalism” looks less a political constitution than a big compromise to accommodate incongruent views and ideologies.


Finally, third, the so-called “federalist” project seems like a miraculous solution that will come to terms with Iraq’s “two identities (or nationalities?),” the Arab and Kurdish. But, beyond that, we are not informed anything as to what that “federalism” implies and to its links with other original models, such as the Swiss, German, and American forms of federalism. After all, considering that federalism per se, as conceived in its western and north American connotations, will be, if implemented in Iraq, new to the historic heritage of the Fertile Crescent and the Arab world as a whole, it would definitely be worth pondering on its nature and modalities, in particular that it will be interpreted as one of those imperialist schemes of division and partition of the region into weak ethnic groups. Will each region have its own parliament, judiciary, and system of representation? Will the federal state in Baghdad only play the role of coordinator?


The Iraqi federalism, as projected in the document, will thus operate in a state of vacuum: the implicitly welcomed but explicitly denied U.S. military occupation, the assumed role left to the Sunni and Shi‘i Arabs (both of which are never named), and, above all, to the economic regime that will hold Iraq together: it is as if the document assumes that it must be “liberal” of some sort but fails to identify it as such.


Those three shortcomings, to name only the most striking in the “political project,” undeniably led to the political disaster that Iraq is into today, and adumbrate the problems that structured Arab politics as we’ve become accustomed to since the end of the Ottomans and colonialism. That they’ve been completely left out and only alluded to in the political project of the Iraqi exiles is surely not an encouraging sign. We’re already witnessing a disintegration of Afghanistan, which even a redeployment of 10,000-plus American troops might not be enough to stop, and which will eventually raise the spectrum of the uselessness of military actions whose mission is to civilize, or to build nation-states.


Article one of the “political project” identifies the current crisis as an outcome of a “dictatorial regime” that abused all human rights in the last three decades, and which led to ethnic and genocidal cleansing among Iraqis and their neighbors, and the development of weapons of mass destruction. The end of such brutalities is therefore both a national and humanistic endeavors.


The second article explicitly rejects in the context of a “liberated” Iraq any possible military occupation or political guardianship (wisaya) from a foreign power. Besides the fact that the U.S. is not even mentioned by name, one wonders how is it possible for the Americans to “liberate” Iraq without a de facto occupation for at least a year or two—at least until all weapons of mass destruction are clearly identified and located. Some have even postulated that two decades of American rule is not that far fetched, and as the Afghani precedent clearly shows, tribal and ethnic divisions will resurface almost immediately. Will the Americans therefore only “liberate” and then run away? The document of the Iraqi exiles gives the impression that Iraq is to be liberated by some kind of an “international” “neutral” force whose presence on the ground will not even be of any need. That’s strange considering that even the conference itself would not have been possible without a massive U.S. sponsoring: many of those 300-plus delegates and individuals would not have been present and talk to one another, were it not for the fact that the final list had to be carefully assembled and studied in the State Department and Pentagon. Moreover, the U.S. is probably to date the only superpower in world history to conduct wars thousands of miles outside its borders without much internal mobilization and a zero-casualty policy. It is therefore emerging as some kind of “neutral” force that only cleans up a political mess without, however, much support at home, while to the “liberated” the process would be of a “technical” nature.


More important for our purposes, however, is that inherent difficulty that Iraqi exiles in a convention fully made possible by the U.S., to even recognize the American role. It is hard, after all, to see any benefits to colonialism or imperialism, and hence a U.S. military presence will have to be made invisible—at least on paper.


Article three discusses the period of transition (al-fitra al-intiqaliyya). However, beyond the fact that such a transition is “temporary” and should be helpful in structuring the future of Iraq, we know next to nothing about the modus operandi of the postulated transition. The first document promises a referendum and a three-person committee.


It is in the fourth article that “federalism” is mentioned for the first time and perceived as the political solution to accommodate Iraq’s diversity. Because of the inexistence of such political traditions in the Arab and Islamic cultures, both democracy and federalism are kept in their Latin origins. Their meanings and implications, however, are only implied but left obscured by the fact that “they will provide for a peaceful transition in political power.” The text reiterates the well known and scholastic separation of powers between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government. In short, federalism, in conjunction with democracy, will provide for a just judiciary, a respect for human rights irrespective of religion, ethnicity and language. Strange as it may seem, federalism is supposed to operate irrespective of religion, ethnicity and language, even though, as will become evident later, the federal units will have to take into account all such factors to determine jurisdictions and rights, and above all, the regional divisions in a liberated and free Iraq.


Even though article five is fully devoted to federalism (al-fidiraliyyah), it fails to point to the implications of such a terminology in a region without such a cultural and political heritage. Instead, and surprisingly, the article digresses on the present status of the Kurds as if they’re the only ones implicated. More precisely, it sounds as if the participants have learned federalism from the “successful” Kurdish experience in the north, proposing it to the rest of Iraq. Even though in article two the participants claim to have benefited from various post-World War II experiences (probably implying the replacement of fascist and neo-fascist regimes in Italy, Germany, and Japan with full-fledged democracies), the singling out of the “success” of the Kurds can only be explained by the presence of their various factions at the convention, and the fact that as the major non-Arab element among Iraqis, they’re the ones pushing for federalism. But such an approach only confuses the issue on the true nature of federalism. It would have been more convenient to simply accept federalism as a solution to a multi-ethnic society like Iraq. In effect, and even though the Shi‘is are Arabs and constitute the only absolute majority (60%), they will benefit from federalism in a similar vein and hence need to “protect” the autonomy of their culture like all others.


Article six is an unnecessary addendum to the previous one, and all what it does is to reiterate on the success of the Kurdish “federal” experience. We are told that through federalism the Kurdish parliament has opted for a viable solution to absorb all kinds of factionalisms. And, in spite of some negative aspects (which are not detailed), the Kurdish experience is thought of as a political laboratory that could encompass the entire Iraqi territory.


That faith in the Kurdish experience is indeed strange, considering its novelty and the fact that no cohesive picture has yet been provided of Iraqi society as a totality. It is only in article seven that other “minorities” are explicitly named: “the rights of Turkomans, Assyrians, and other religious minorities.” The body of the text further identifies such religious minorities: the Jews, Sabi’at (Minda’is), and Zayidis (known as the “lovers of the devil” and whose beliefs are Zoroastrian), all three with a national, administrative, and cultural rights that ought to be protected. The text thus falls short of naming the two most important minorities, namely the Arab Christians (Assyrians are Christians but whose language is Assyrian) and the Arab Sunnis. To wit, since only the Shi‘is do form a comfortable majority of around 60%, all the others must fall within the category of a religious and/or ethnic (linguistic) minority. In a strange way, the document names the perceived “threatened” minorities in installments. We were first introduced to the “successful” Kurds who opted for a self-imposed federalism and thus witnessed an economic boom in the last couple of years as a result of their political stability. Then came other minorities such as the Turkomans, Assyrians, and Jews. And if the Arab Sunnis and Christians have not been named as other minorities in need of cultural and political protection, it’s probably because the Arab Sunnis (in conjunction with Arab Christians serving as “conseillers du prince”) have been holding central political power ever since the British mandate in the 1920s, hence presumably they need no “protection.”


Gradually, that “federalism” left undefined in article five, receives an implicit meaning. In effect, Iraqi “federalism” aims at protecting all kinds of “minorities.” But, considering that even the overwhelming Shi‘i majority was left at the margins of political power since the Ottomans, from whom should the “minorities” be protected? Everyone looks and feels as a minority in that society. It would have been much simpler to declare federalism as a universal phenomenon whose aim in a multi-ethnic society is to guarantee the rights of various groups irrespective of their size, region, belief, or origin. But if what we get instead is a federalism-in-installments it’s because the document as a whole constitutes an invisible balance-of-power between the three most predominant groups, the Kurds, Arab Sunnis, and Shi‘is, which respectively map the geographical division of Iraq between north, center, and south. Only the Kurds, however, are explicitly named, while the two others are assumed but unnamed. The problem will precisely emerge with those unnamed elements.


That’s particularly evident in article eight which all of a sudden declares Islam as the religion of the state and one of the main sources of legislation. Such statements have become commonplace ever since Egyptian president Sadat compromised with the Muslims Brothers a year prior to his assassination and accepted a revision in the constitution that made the sharî‘a as a main source of legislation. But what sense does that make in a federal Iraq? To be sure, that would be the only federal state in the world with a religious coloring. If under the banner of Islam, Sunnis and Shi‘is combined become the dominant majority, even though it remains uncertain which of the two will have more political power, will “federalism” protect the other non-Muslim minorities from religious abuse? Why should such minorities opt for a brand of “federalism” only to realize that the “federal” state itself comes under a religious coloring? Thus, paradoxically, the Iraqi congress in exile preaches “federalism” for the protection of various minority rights while at the same time arguing that Islam is the religion of the state and the source of all legislation. It is difficult to see how “civil peace” (article 14) and “the state of law” (article 15) would materialize under such conditions.




copyright © 2002 zouhair ghazzal