Beirut, 19 May 2005


The future of federalism





Not a day passes without the stories and images of the common carnages in Iraq. Unidentified bodies are placed in containers ready to be buried in mass graves, and matching the missing with the dead is a troubling experience: “A small window in the city morgue is the last hope for people looking for their dead. Holding photographs of the missing, they peer through it to a computer screen, where a worker flashes pictures of the bodies no one has claimed. In Baghdad these days, it can be a lengthy process.” (Sabrina Tavernise reporting from Baghdad for the International Herald Tribune, 19 May 2005) In the meantime, the al-Qa‘ida leader in Iraq has purportedly defended such killings in a tape that circulated over the Internet: “The killing of infidels by any method including martyrdom” has been “sanctified by many scholars even if it means killing innocent Muslims,” the speaker, said to be Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, said on the tape posted on an Islamist Web site. “This legality has been agreed upon,” he added, “so as not to disrupt jihad.” (IHT, 19 May 2005) The issue of jihadic “legality” notwithstanding, Zarqawi must have been too busy to figure out how to put names over dead bodies. It surely must not have been a major preoccupation of his: between the planners of such massacres, and their “political” and “legal” preoccupations, and the common people who lost their beloved ones, there must be an unbridgeable gap, one of those terror gaps upon which non-representative authoritarian political systems hinge. Besides declaring himself as the impromptu “prince” (amir) of jihadic Iraq, Zarqawi thinks that killing both “guilty infidels” and, mutatis mutandis, “innocent Muslims” must be his true life mission, and in the same way that “this legality [of killing] has been agreed upon [presumably by an alleged “consensus” of the scholars, or ulama],” it has been agreed upon that Zarqawi must be given free hand in his crusade against Americans and Iraqis—and probably the world at large. In short, Zarqawi self-appoints himself for the daily execution of ordinary individuals, in the name of a long-standing “legal” jihadic tradition.


The large numbers of bodies has brought memories of mass graves of victimized Shiis and Kurds that were discovered since April 2003 in the wake of the American occupation of Iraq. But even though the agents of those killings have changed hands between the defunct ancien régime and the various governments that have served under American occupation, the modus operandi is still grosso modo the same. In effect, under the Baathist régime of Saddam Hussein, paramilitary and intelligence groups under the state’s payroll routinely intimidated and murdered Shii and Kurdish Iraqi citizens, using at times—as in the Kurdish city of Halbja massacre in 1992—intoxicating chemical weapons. Mass graves containing an estimated 150,000 bodies have already been unearthed, and some of their victims identified by their relatives thanks to bodily marks or objects that victims carried at the moment of their execution. With the dissolution of the apparatuses of the ancien régime in April 2003, some of the paramilitary and intelligence élite units have been acting on their own, performing the good old job of random intimidation and murder at their own expense. Some of them may have joined ranks with jihadic and Qa‘ida groups infiltrating across Iraq’s many porous borders. But whereas under the Baathist régime crimes against humanity were routinely organized by the state bureaucracy and its affiliates, they’re now organized by Iraqi and a combination of Arab and Muslim jihadic groups acting randomly, and choosing their mostly Shii and Kurdish targets as best as they could with suicide bombers and trapped cars. Thus, even though the techniques and the groups behind them have changed, there’s little else that is new in the mentalities of the killing fields which have trapped the eastern Mediterranean since the late Ottoman period.


The Armenians have just commemorated the 90th anniversary of the alleged slaughtering of a million to a million-and-a-half Armenians in 1915. With the Turkish nationalist Committee of Union and Progress (C.U.P.) taking hold of political power in Istanbul, nationalistic tendencies have erupted all over the empire, with various degrees, and naturally among Armenians. In 1915-16 scores of Armenian villagers and city dwellers, accused of “conspiracy,” were massacred and their villages and neighborhoods emptied. In the Caucasus the empty villages of murdered or deported Armenians were soon to be occupied by Kurdish peasants. The Armenians that were not massacred in their homes and villages were deported to northern Syria, which at the time was under Ottoman rule. Along the Aleppo and Dayr al-Zor axis, and after suffering from starvation, cold, and desease, they received further humiliation from the Turkish soldiers stationed there and from the Arab tribes who dispossessed them from the little belongings that they had left. Since then further evidence has accumulated from survivors and mass graves that carnages against Armenians had been perpetrated in the Dayr al-Zor area in 1915-16. The deported Armenians, and other Christians that followed suit in the 1920s (Syriacs, Greek Orthodox and Catholics), have enriched mandate Syria with great agricultural skills, giving life to vast agrarian domains in the Syrian north-east which were abandoned to tribal formations under the Ottomans.


The Ottoman political millet system is often described as having “protected” minorities by allowing them their own religious and cultural symbols. The Ottoman system did not, however, “protect” anyone—not even the empire’s Sunni majority—for the simple reason that it was not a representative political system. But as soon as the modern colonial state introduced the notion of political representation, problems erupted as to how represent individuals in societies with strong kinship, religious, ethnic and linguistic ties. The majority of the postcolonial states turned out to be nothing but a modernized version of the Ottoman millet system: ruled for the most part by authoritarian minority régimes, they failed to provide adequate political representation even for their own minorities. If, for instance, Syria has been ruled for the last 40 years by a minority Alawi clan, this does not imply that Alawis are the only ones represented in the political arena. In consequence, the absence of proper political representation has led to scores of internal feuds and civil wars in the second half of the twentieth century, such as Lebanon (150,000 died between 1975 and 1990), Syria (10,000 were killed in the Hama uprising in February 1982), Sudan (over a million died in the southern civil war, and 200,000 in Darfur thus far), and Algeria (300,000 reported casualties in the civil wars of the 1990s).


Iraq therefore falls within a similar pattern of post-Ottoman and postcolonial violence. The fact that for four centuries it was poorly controlled by the central Ottoman administration makes it even more vulnerable. In effect, and compared to the other societies of Greater Syria and Egypt, the Iraqi provinces, having served as borderlines with the Persian Safavid and Qajar dynasties, were left on their own with their internal agencies. The difficulty of creating adequate political representation was already felt by the British once they set foot in Iraq. The temporary solution was to create a Hashemite dynasty with no roots in Iraq, subverting Ottomanism with Arabism in a crude way, while using the same principles of a distant dynastic power. The end of British colonial rule, in conjunction with the 1958 coup, have only aggravated the central problem of political representation even further, while the coming of the Baath unearthed a modus operandi that was soon to become familiar: not only eliminate individual opponents, but also perpetrate against non-subservient “groups” all kinds of atrocities.


The American occupation of Iraq brought back the issue of political representation to the forefront: How to create a modern state, based on individual values and the rule of law, out of a multitude of incompatible religious and ethnic groups, and which in themselves are poorly structured entities with inadequate systems of representation? The sudden surge of mass violence since the end of 2003, and which since then has not reprieved a bit, has led many laymen and pundits alike to describe the concomitant violence as an “uprising” against the American presence, forgetting that the mass murders were already there, and that a latent civil war was on its way since the 1960s. Moving “sovereignty” back in the hands of Iraqis in June 2004, in conjunction with the January 2005 national elections, gave false expectations to all those who hoped that violence would be tempered once Iraqis would democratically vote for their representatives. Yet in spite of the nominal success of the election, and the courageous participation of 60 percent of the electorate, it must be acknowledged that the voting process led more to a rough census of the current Iraqi populations than to a viable solution to the lingering problem of representation. In effect, the proportional system of voting (a mirror image to the Israeli Knesset system) along large “lists” of candidates, which were patched together more for convenience than common political platforms, and the inexistence of parties per se, led voters to blindly fall for their religious, ethnic, and kin affiliations, which was particularly visible among the Kurds (the Shii majority turned out much more fractured than hitherto thought). The “Sistani list,” which also comprised the secular Ahmad Chalabi, thus received close to 48 percent, leaving the coalition of the two main Kurdish parties behind with 25 percent, and the transitional prime minister Allawi’s list with 13 percent. Which means that no one has an absolute majority to decide upon the issues of the day: federalism; the sharing of political power among Shiis, Kurds, and Sunnis; the status of underrepresented minorities (Assyrians, Turkomans, and Christians in general) and women; sharia law and the future Iraqi constitution; the sharing and allocation of oil resources; and finally, if federalism were to be adopted, the status of the 18 provinces vis-à-vis the federal center.


As it took over three months for the appointed Shii prime minister Ibrahim Jaafari to form his government, the killings have accelerated at a rapid pace: unclaimed bodies collect at a rate of about 70 a month in Baghdad, and last month, about 50 unidentified bodies were found floating in the Tigris south of Baghdad. Jaafari’s undisclosed agenda of purging the government and its security services from ex-Baathists, a step that could lead to the purge of a 100,000 state employees, not to mention his “openness” towards his Iranian neighbors, is surely undermining the credibility of the newly formed government. A product of the United Iraqi Alliance, the Shii “list” that brought him to power, Jaafari is unable to create a strategy beyond the concerns of his own religious group. Yet Iraq cannot be divided into three parts—not even into its 18 provinces. In order to survive as a sovereign entity, Iraqis must think their future state in terms of a plausible liberal and democratic federalism, one that would certainly not be achieved solely by piling up “lists” and counting votes. What is mostly needed is a bit of good will, common sense, and imagination, perhaps like the one of the authors of The Federalist Papers.




copyright © 2005 by zouhair ghazzal